What is Weathering?
Weathering causes the disintegration of rock near the surface of the earth. Plant and animal life, atmosphere and water are the major causes of weathering. Weathering breaks down and loosens the surface minerals of rock so they can be transported away by agents of erosion such as water, wind and ice. There are two types of weathering: mechanical and chemical.
Mechanical weathering is the disintegration of rock into smaller and smaller fragments. Frost action is an effective form of mechanical weathering. When water trickles down into fractures and pores of rock, then freezes, its volume increases by almost 10 percent. This causes outward pressure of about 30,000 pounds per square inch at -7.6 Fahrenheit. Frost action causes rocks to be broken apart into angular fragments. Idaho's extreme temperature range in the high country causes frost action to be a very important form of weathering.
Exfoliation is a form of mechanical weathering in which curved plates of rock are stripped from rock below. This results in exfoliation domes or dome-like hills and rounded boulders. Exfoliation domes occur along planes of parting called joints, which are curved more or less parallel to the surface. These joints are several inches apart near the surface but increase in distance to several feet apart with depth. One after another these layers are spalled off resulting in rounded or dome-shaped rock forms. Most people believe exfoliation is caused by instability as a result of drastically reduced pressure at the earth's surface allowing the rock to expand.
Exfoliation domes are best developed in granitic rock. Yosemite National Park has exceptional examples of exfoliation domes. Idaho has good examples in the Quiet City of Rocks near Oakley as well as in many parts of the granitic Idaho Batholith. In fact, these characteristic rounded forms make rock exposure of the granitic Idaho Batholith easy to identify.
Another type of exfoliation occurs where boulders are spheroidally weathered. These boulders are rounded by concentric shells of rock spalling off, similar to the way shells may be removed from an onion. The outer shells are formed by chemical weathering of certain minerals to a product with a greater volume than the original material. For example, feldspar in granite is converted to clay which occupies a larger volume. Igneous rocks are very susceptible to mechanical weathering.
Chemical weathering transforms the original material into a substance with a different composition and different physical characteristics. The new substance is typically much softer and more susceptible to agents of erosion than the original material. The rate of chemical weathering is greatly accelerated by the presence of warm temperatures and moisture. Also, some minerals are more vulnerable to chemical weathering than others. For example, feldspar is far more reactive than quartz.