Consequences and Causes of Metamorphism

What Is a Metamorphic Rock? 

If someone were to put a rock on a table in front of you, how would you know that it is metamorphic? First, metamorphic rocks can possess metamorphic minerals, new minerals that grow in place within the solid rock only under metamorphic temperatures and pressures. In fact, metamorphism can produce a group of minerals that together make up what geologists call a “metamorphic mineral assemblage.” And second, metamorphic rocks can have metamorphic texture defined by distinctive arrangements of mineral grains not found in other rock types. Commonly, the texture results in metamorphic foliation, due to the parallel alignment of platy minerals (such as mica) and/ or the presence of alternating light-coloured and dark-coloured layers. When metamorphic minerals and/or textures develop, a metamorphic rock becomes as different from its protolith as a butterfly is from a caterpillar. For example, metamorphism of red shale can yield a metamorphic rock consisting of aligned mica flakes and brilliant garnet crystals (a in figure above), and metamorphism of a limestone composed of cemented-together fossil fragments can yield a metamorphic rock consisting of large interlocking crystals of calcite (b in figure above). The process of forming metamorphic minerals and textures takes place very slowly it may take thousands to millions of years and it involves several processes, which sometimes occur alone and sometimes together. The most common processes are: 
  • Recrystallization, which changes the shape and size of grains without changing the identity of the mineral making up the grains (a in figure above). 
  • Phase change, which transforms one mineral into another mineral with the same composition but a different crystal structure. On an atomic scale, phase change involves the rearrangement of atoms. 
  • Metamorphic reaction, or neocrystallization (from the Greek neos, for new), which results in growth of new mineral crystals that differ from those of the protolith (b in figure above). During neocrystallization, chemical reactions digest minerals of the protolith to produce new minerals of the metamorphic rock. 
  • Pressure solution, which happens when a wet rock is squeezed more strongly in one direction than in others. Mineral grains dissolve where their surfaces are pressed against other grains, producing ions that migrate through the water to precipitate elsewhere (c in figure above). 
  • Plastic deformation, which happens when a rock is squeezed or sheared at elevated temperatures and pressures. Under these conditions, grains behave like soft plastic and change shape without breaking (d in figure above). 

Caterpillars undergo metamorphosis because of hormonal changes in their bodies. Rocks undergo metamorphism when they are subjected to heat, pressure, compression and shear, and/or very hot water. Let’s now consider the details of how these agents of metamorphism operate.

Metamorphism Due to Heating 

When you heat cake batter, the batter transforms into a new material cake. Similarly, when you heat a rock, its ingredients transform into a new material metamorphic rock. Why? Think about what happens to atoms in a mineral grain as the grain warms. Heat causes the atoms to vibrate rapidly, stretching and bending chemical bonds that lock atoms to their neighbours. If bonds stretch too far and break, atoms detach from their original neighbours, move slightly, and form new bonds with other atoms. Repetition of this process leads to rearrangement of atoms within grains, or to migration of atoms into and out of grains, a process called solid-state diffusion. As a consequence, recrystallization and/or neo-crystallization take place, enabling a metamorphic mineral  assemblage to grow in solid rock. Metamorphism takes place at temperatures between those at which diagenesis occurs and those that cause melting. Roughly speaking, this means that most metamorphic rocks you find in outcrops on continents formed at temperatures of between 250C and 850C.

Metamorphism Due to Pressure 

As you swim underwater in a swimming pool, water squeezes against you equally from all sides in other words, your body feels pressure. Pressure can cause a material to collapse inward. For example, if you pull an air-filled balloon down to a depth of 10 m in a lake, the balloon becomes significantly smaller. Pressure can have the same effect on minerals. Near the Earth’s surface, minerals with relatively open crystal structures can be stable. However, if you subject these minerals to extreme pressure, the atoms pack more closely together and denser minerals tend to form. Such transformations involve phase changes and/or neo-crystallization.

Changing Both Pressure and Temperature 

So far, we've considered changes in pressure and temperature as separate phenomena. But in the Earth, pressure and temperature change together with increasing depth. For example, at a depth of 8 km, temperature in the crust reaches about 200C and pressure reaches about 2.3 kbar. If a rock slowly becomes buried to a depth of 20 km, as can happen during mountain building, temperature in the rock increases to more than 500C, and pressure to 5.5 kbar. Experiments and calculations show that the “stability” of certain minerals (the ability of a mineral to form and survive) depends on both pressure and temperature. When pressure and temperature increase, the original mineral assemblage in a rock becomes unstable, and a new assemblage forms out of minerals that are stable. Thus, a metamorphic rock formed at 8 km does not contain the same minerals as one formed at 20 km.

Compression, Shear, and Development  of Preferred Orientation 

Imagine that you have just built a house of cards and, being in a destructive mood, you step on it. The structure collapses because the downward push you apply with your foot exceeds the push provided by air in other directions. We can say that we have subjected the cards to compression (a in figure above). Compression flattens a material (b in figure above). Shear, in contrast, moves one part of a material sideways, relative to another. If, for example, you place a deck of cards on a table, then set your hand on top of the deck and move your hand parallel to the table, you shear the deck (c in figure above). When rocks are subjected to compression and shear at elevated temperatures and pressures, they can change shape without breaking. As it changes shape, the internal texture of a rock also changes. For example, platy (pancake-shaped) grains become parallel to one another, and elongate (cigar shaped) grains align in the same direction. Both platy and elongate grains are inequant grains, meaning that the dimension of a grain is not the same in all directions; in contrast, equant grains have roughly the same dimensions in all directions (d in figure above). The alignment of inequant minerals in a rock results in a preferred orientation (e in figure above).

The Role of Hydrothermal Fluids 

Metamorphic reactions commonly take place in the presence of hydrothermal fluids (very hot-water solutions). Where does the water in hydrothermal fluids come from? Some of it was originally bonded to minerals in the protolith, for metamorphic reactions can release such water into its surroundings. Some of it may seep up into the protolith from a nearby igneous intrusion, or down from overlying groundwater reservoirs. Notably, under extremely high pressures and temperatures, the water of hydrothermal fluids is in neither gas nor liquid state, but rather is in a “supercritical” state, meaning that it has characteristics of both gas and liquid. Such hydrothermal fluids chemically react with rock; they accelerate metamorphic reactions, because atoms involved in the reactions can migrate faster through a fluid than they can through a solid, and hydrothermal fluids provide water that can be absorbed by minerals during metamorphic reactions. Finally, fluids passing through a rock may pick up some dissolved ions and drop off others, as a bus picks up and drops off passengers, and thus can change the overall chemical composition of a rock during metamorphism. The process of changing a rock’s chemical composition by reactions with hydrothermal fluids is called metasomatism.


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