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Foreground rocks are the Jurassic Aztec Sandstone boulders at Redstone rest stop in Lake Mead National Recreation Area Rocks are all around us. They make up the backbones of hills and mountains and the foundations of plains and valleys. Beneath the soil you walk on and the deep layers of soft mud that cover the ocean basins is a basement of hard rock.

What are rocks made of?

Rocks are made up mostly of crystals of different kinds of minerals, or broken pieces of crystals, or broken pieces of rocks. Some rocks are made of the shells of once-living animals, or of compressed pieces of plants.

We can learn something about the way a rock formed from by looking carefully at the evidence preserved inside. What a rock is made of, the shapes of the grains or crystals within the rock, and how the grains or crystals fit together all provide valuable clues to help us unlock the rock's history hidden within.


Where do rocks come from?

Rocks are divided into three basic types, igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic , depending upon how they were formed. Plate tectonics provides an explanation for how rocks are recycled from igneous to sedimentary to metamorphic and back to igneous again.

Igneous rocks

Igneous rocks (from the Greek word for fire) form from when hot, molten rock (magma) crystallizes and solidifies. The melt originates deep within the Earth near active plate boundaries or hot spots, then rises toward the surface. Igneous rocks are divided into two groups, intrusive or extrusive, depending upon where the molten rock solidifies.

Sunset Crater National Monument

Extrusive igneous rock

Extrusive , or volcanic, igneous rock is produced when magma exits and cools outside of, or very near the Earth's surface. These are the rocks that form at erupting volcanoes and oozing fissures. The magma, called lava when molten rock erupts on the surface, cools and solidifies almost instantly when it is exposed to the relatively cool temperature of the atmosphere.

Basalt with vesicular texture Quick cooling means that mineral crystals don't have much time to grow, so these rocks have a very fine-grained or even glassy texture. Hot gas bubbles are often trapped in the quenched lava, forming a bubbly, vesicular texture. Pumice, obsidian, and basalt are all extrusive igneous rocks.

The cinder cone above and the close up at right are made of basalt.

Intrusive igneous rock

Granite with feldspar and quartz grains labeled. Intrusive, or plutonic igneous rock forms when magma is trapped deep inside the Earth. Great globs of molten rock rise toward the surface. Some of the magma may feed volcanoes on the Earth's surface, but most remains trapped below, where it cools very slowly over many thousands or millions of years until it solidifies. Slow cooling means the individual mineral grains have a very long time to grow, so they grow to a relatively large size. Intrusive rocks have a coarse grained texture. The image at right shows granite, an intrusive igneous rock.

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