Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

What Rocks Tell Us

How Classified What it Tells Us
Igneous Mineral Composition Tectonic Setting
Texture Cooling History
Sedimentary Grain Size Energy Level of Environment
Chemical Composition Surface Environment
Metamorphic Chemical Composition Original Rock Type
Mineral Composition Temperature, Pressure Conditions
Texture Degree of Change

What Rocks Mean

Sedimentary Rocks

Sedimentary Rocks preserve the record of the earth's ancient surface environments, and of life. Undisturbed sedimentary rocks tell us of long quiet conditions. Tilted and fractured sedimentary rocks are a record of crustal disturbance.

Igneous Rocks

Igneous Rocks form in a limited number of settings. Most are formed where plates converge. A few form where the crust splits apart. Almost all are a record of crustal disturbance. Most of the mantle is solid, so igneous rocks tell us there was unusual heat in the crust or mantle.

Metamorphic Rocks

Metamorphic Rocks formed kilometers below the surface. They tell us that the crust has undergone kilometers of erosion. The vast majority of metamorphic rocks formed during orogenic (mountain-building) events and are a record of crustal disturbance.

Igneous Rocks

Cool from the Molten State

Porphyritic Texture:
Large Crystals in Fine-grained Setting

Igneous Rock Classification

  1. How Much Silica?
    Account for Si
    • Excess - Rock Has Quartz
    • Just Enough to Form Other Silicates
    • Deficient - Silica - Poor Minerals (Like Olivine)
  2. What Feldspars?
    Account for Al, Ca, K, Na
    • Potash Feldspar KAlSi3O8
    • Plagioclase Series
  3. What Other Minerals Are Present?
    Account for Fe, Mg


K - Feldspar:

KAlSi3O8: Several Slightly Different Forms:

Plagioclase (Solid Solution)

Bowen's Reaction Series

The geologist N.L. Bowen found that minerals tend to form in specific sequences in igneous rocks, and these sequences could be assembled into a composite sequence. Bowen's series

No igneous rock ever displays the whole sequence. Igneous rocks display a slice across the sequence. Basalt, for example, typically has olivine and calcium plagioclase forming first, followed by pyroxene and more sodium-rich plagioclase. In granite, sodium plagioclase and biotite typically form first, followed by muscovite, potassium feldspar, and last of all quartz. The sketch below turns the series on its side. It's actually a more realistic view since successive minerals often form simultaneously.

Bowen's series

Bowen's Series and Igneous Rocks

Mineral Composition
Ca  Plagioclase Na  Plagioclase K - Feldspar Muscovite
Olivine Pyroxene Amphibole Biotite
Volcanic Rocks
(Rare)  Basalt  Andesite     


Plutonic Rocks
Dunite Gabbro  Diorite                 Granite
1200 C  Melting Point    700 C
Heavy  Density   Light
Mg, Fe  Rich In...   Si, Na, K 
Fluid  Lava Is... Viscous
Mild  Eruptions   Violent 
Type of Volcano
Shield Volcano Stratovolcano

Plug Dome

Rapid    Weathering Slow 
Usually Dark   Color Often Light 

Some Igneous Rocks Are Named on Textural Criteria:

What Igneous Rocks Mean

What you get if you melt average planetary material. Basalt is found on the moon and other planets and we can expect it to be a very abundant rock in the universe. On earth it forms by melting mantle material. The ocean floors are made of it. On land it often forms where the crust is splitting apart.
What you get when mantle material mixes with continental crust. Usually it marks the site of volcanoes on converging plate boundaries, like the present Andes. This means it is geologically very significant even though it can be hard to tell from basalt by eye.
Forms from melting continental crust. Forms in two settings: the final stage of evolution of converging plate boundaries, or places where the crust has been slowly extended. Either way it usually means a long period of crustal heating.
The main component of continental crust. There is nothing in the earth that can melt directly to yield granite. It forms by repeated melting of rocks and accumulation of certain elements, like potassium, in the melt. Granite is the result of of long continued crustal activity and re-working of rocks. If we ever find granite on another planet, we can be sure that planet has a complex crustal history.

Sedimentary Rocks

Deposited on or Near Surface of Earth by Mechanical or Chemical Processes

Clastic Rocks

Biohemical Sedimentary Rocks

Environmental Clues in Sedimentary Rocks

Bedding or Stratification

Clastic Rocks

Classified on

Sediment Sizes and Clastic Rock Types

Sedimentary rocks made of silt- and clay-sized particles are collectively called mudrocks, and are the most abundant sedimentary rocks.






Chemical Sediments

Evaporites -Water Soluble

Biogenic Sediments

Organic Remains

Fossil Fuels


Coal is a slam-dunk. It's carbonized wood. We know that because the actual wood fragments are easily visible in low-grade varieties of coal, fossilized wood is often found in adjacent rocks, the overall environment is typical of coastal swamp or delta settings, and ancient soils are sometimes found beneath the coal beds. Organic matter goes through a variety of changes as it becomes coal:

Compacted and partially decomposed organic matter. About 50% carbon.
Brown or gray brittle coal with lots of impurities, and often with easily visible plant fragments. About 80% carbon.
Black with banding. Some bands are dull, others shiny. These bands reflect different types of processed plant matter, which are still visible under the microscope. About 90% carbon.
Black or dark gray, metallic luster and conchoidal fracture. A true metamorphic rock, since it's heated beyond the temperatures found in normal sedimentary burial. About 95% carbon
Dark gray and metallic, 100% carbon but unburnable in normal flames.
Contrary to popular misconception, diamond is NOT the final stage in coal metamorphism! Coal is never buried deeply enough to reach the pressures needed to form diamond. Diamond form in the earth's mantle from carbon that was always in the earth's interior.


The problem with petroleum is that it's a fluid and moves, so it may migrate far from its source. A typical petroleum molecule looks like this:

Octane molecule

So if petroleum is the remains of living things, what sorts of organisms make these molecules? Answer: NONE. If it were that easy, we wouldn't have to look for oil, we'd just toss our garbage into a vat of the right microbes and skim off the petroleum. But lots of organisms make molecules that look like this:

Fatty acid molecule

This is called a fatty acid (octanoic acid to be exact). Most petroleum occurs in marine sedimentary rocks, so we want organisms rich in fatty acids that live in the sea, in huge quantities. And we have them. They're called plankton. Marine plankton, not dinosaurs, are the precursors of petroleum.

Being fluid, petroleum moves, and since it's lighter than water, it floats upward. Left unconfined, it will reach the surface and evaporate or be oxidized. So it has to be confined somehow. Contrary to the popular term "oil pool," oil does not collect in pockets in the rock. It floats upward on water until it either reaches the surface or is trapped from above. The most important economic application of an understanding of rocks in three dimensions is the search for petroleum traps.

Petroleum Traps In the diagram, light blue represents water-soaked porous rock, dark gray represents petroleum and light gray represents natural gas. Like water in an aquifer, the petroleum and natural gas fill pore spaces in the rocks. All other colors represent impervious rocks.

Structural Traps (top)
Traps that result from deformation of the rocks by outside forces.
Startigraphic traps (bottom)
Traps formed by variations within the sedimentary rocks themselves.

Since oil weighs a lot less than rock, the oil in a well weighs far less than the same volume of rock next to the well. Thus in many cases oil is still under pressure when it reaches the surface. In old-time movies, it was common to see the climax come when oil drillers on the verge of quitting hit oil, got a "gusher" and celebrated in the resulting rain of oil.

Fact: the absolute last thing anyone in the oil business ever wants is a gusher. They are incredibly dangerous to get under control. In fact, when PBS did a series on oil, they could not locate a sound recording of a gusher anywhere and had to interview a few surviving old-timers who could remember what one sounded like. It's been that long since one happened.

However, that pressure is extremely valuable because not only does it get the oil to the surface, but it helps move oil through the rocks to the well. Get greedy and drill too many wells, and you bleed off the pressure, and in the long run you get less oil, not more.

Landforms Associated with Sedimentary Rocks

Sedimentary landforms
Flat-topped hill capped with hard hock
Gently-tilted layer of hard rock: Door Peninsula. The gentle upper slope, on top of the layer is called the dip slope
A sharp ridge of hard rock, edge of a steeply-dipping layer

What Sedimentary Rocks Mean

Clastic Rocks
How powerful was the transport mechanism? Coarse material requires a powerful agency: floods, glaciers, landslides. Sand and silt mean fairly gentle transport.
Mineral Makeup of Clastic Rocks
Easily weathered minerals mean short transit time from source to destination, typically rugged terrain. Presence of only stable minerals means lengthy working and reworking in stable environments.
Carbonate Rocks
Virtually all limestones are biological in origin. Dolostone began as limestone but was altered by removal of calcium and addition of magnesium after deposition.
Indicate high evaporation settings, typically deserts or hot tidal flats (like the present day Persian Gulf)
Locale for Petroleum
Source Rocks: typically shallow marine sandstones
Reservoir Rocks: porous rocks like sandstone, fractured limestone or fossil reefs
Trap Rocks: mudrocks or massive carbonates.


Where Does the Heat Come from?

Where Does the Pressure Come from?

1000 Bars (2 Mi. or 3 km Of Rock) = 1 Kilobar (Kb.)

How Do Metamorphic Rocks Get to the Surface?

Types of Metamorphism



What Happens During Metamorphism

Minerals React to Form New Minerals

Minerals Change Form

New Materials Are Added (Metasomatism)


Why Don't Rocks "De-metamorphose"?

Grade - Degree to Which the Rock Has Changed Composition

Major Metamorphic Rock Types

Temp C Temp F Coal Limestone Sandstone Basalt Shale Index Minerals
500 Anthracite
300 600 Graphite Marble Slate Chlorite
700 Quartzite
800 Greenstone Phyllite Biotite
500 900 Schist Garnet
1000 Amphibolite Staurolite
600 1100 Gneiss Kyanite
1200 Sillimanite
700 Melting Begins


Metamorphic Facies

Not all changes in rocks are metamorphism:

The different rocks and minerals that form during metamorphism indicate different temperature and pressure conditions.

Depth\Temp 300 C 400 C 500 C 600 C 700 C 800 C
5 km Zeolite Contact Metamorphism - Andalusite forms
10 km - 3 kb Greenschist
Chlorite, Biotite form
  • Slate
  • Greenstone
  • Quartzite
  • Marble
Garnet, Staurolite, Kyanite form
  • Schist
  • Amphibolite
  • Quartzite
  • Marble
  • Gneiss
Sillimanite forms
Muscovite breaks down to K-feldspar
Partial Melting
  • Gneiss
15 km Blueschist
20 km - 6 kb
25 km
30 km - 9 kb
35 km
40 km - 12 kb Eclogite (Mantle)

What Metamorphic Rocks Mean

All metamorphic rocks were once far below the surface and got to the surface by uplift and erosion.

Greenschist Metamorphism
Mild metamorphism at moderate depths. Typical on the margins and upper levels of mountain belts
Amphibolite Metamorphism
Strong metamorphism at considerable depths. Typical of the cores of mountain belts
Granulite Metamorphism
Extreme metamorphism. Almost all water-bearing minerals have broken down. These are rocks of the lower crust and signify extreme uplift (30 km and more).
Blueschist Metamorphism
Moderate to great depth but unusually low temperature. Somehow these rocks got very deep and then back to the surface quickly. Typical of plate collision boundaries.

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Created February 26, 1997, Last Update