the rock cycle explained

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Diagram of the Rock Cycle Explained

the rock cycle explained

A diagram of the rock cycle is a way to explain the formation, or deformation, of the three types of rocks we find on our earth; sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous.  The rock cycle picture diagram shows an upper level view of the process in which these types of rocks will be created or transformed.

The rock cycle process flow is not necessarily an ordered set of steps.  The flow of the rock cycle can be bi-directional. It can flow in some other direction and may not only move in one way like many rock cycle diagrams may depict. For simplicity reasons, the rock cycle diagram was created for a general look at the rock cycle.

In this article we want to present a rock cycle explanation and diagram. In particular, we want to explain the rock cycle process with two diagrams to show (above, and in the article below).  This is to help go into some finer detail of understanding of how the rock cycle works.  A little more explanation on the rock cycle can go a long way for both adults and for kids alike.

Sedimentary Rocks in the Rock Cycle

The sedimentary rock cycle is where much of the overall rock cycle action happens.  This part in the diagram of the rock cycle involves much of what’s on the surface of the earth, including the living creatures on it.  The sedimentary rock cycle in the overall rock cycle goes as follows:

At this point, the sedimentary rock has been formed.  That sedimentary rock can be pushed further into the earth or be brought right back up to the surface to often expose a lot of rocks like sandstone and limestone. 

I have written a great post that goes into further information on sedimentary rocks. “ What Are Sedimentary Rocks – Clastic, Biogenic, Chemical “.

The Creation of Metamorphic Rocks

Metamorphic rocks have a little more simple of a process within the diagram of the rock cycle.  When sedimentary rocks receive heat and pressure, and at times the right chemical reactions, they can turn into metamorphic rocks.  This heat and pressure found deep in the earth is necessary for this transformation.

the rock cycle explained

Too much heat, which can create magma, will make the metamorphic rock no longer metamorphic rock.  All materials will be melted down to create the very hot magma that sits within the earth. 

Being melted to magma or mixed with other elements and rocks are not the only fate of metamorphic rock.  Much like sedimentary and igneous rock, it can also be pushed up to the surface of the earth.  Once on the surface of the earth, it can be broken back down into sediment and be subject to the sedimentary part of the rock cycle.

I have written a great post that goes into further information on metamorphic rocks. Metamorphic rocks come in two types… “ What are Metamorphic Rocks – Foliated and Non-foliated “.

The Creation of Igneous Rocks

Igneous rocks in the rock cycle diagram carry a uniqueness in that when magma is cooled, the rock is considered an igneous rock.  Even when the contents of the magma were originally metamorphic or sedimentary rocks, when cooled it become igneous rock. 

Igneous rocks can become metamorphic rocks.  This is done by, once again, heat and pressure.  Igneous rocks will mix and meld together under this great heat and pressure.  Not too much heat as was mentioned, we may get magma and only igneous rocks are produced from the magma when cooled.

Igneous rocks while formed under the ground are considered intrusive.  Intrusive igneous rocks are created through a slower cooling process.  This slower cooling allows for beautiful wonders with minerals such as, beryl, topaz, amethyst, and pyrite.

I have written articles on these wonderful examples of minerals where I go into a little more detail about the mineral.

 “ All About Red Beryl ” (This is one of the rarest, and most expensive, minerals on earth.)

“ All About Topaz ” (One of the hardest minerals often used for jewelry.)

“ All About Amethyst ” (This mineral is part of the quartz family.)

“ All About Pyrite ” (“Fools gold”, could you tell the difference between this mineral and gold?)

Extrusive igneous rocks are created when magma flows up a volcano and lava explodes out onto the surface of the earth.  While this lava is on the surface of the earth it cools quickly forming igneous rock.  A great example of this is with igneous rock obsidian.

I also have a great article on obsidian that might be worth a read. “ All About Obsidian ” (This rock is very unique as it is often called natures glass.)

With igneous rocks on the surface of the earth, the weather can create sediment from them as they break down, or erode, over time.  This again, will start the sedimentary cycle of the rock cycle.

For more great information on igneous rocks visit my post. “ What are Igneous Rocks – Intrusive and Extrusive “.

Rock Cycle Process Summary

The diagram of the rock cycle is a great way to get a quick view of what the rock cycle is. The rock cycle process consists of sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous rock cycles within. The diagram is helpful but does not go into great detail of all possible directional steps that can happen due to the effects of our earth.

The basic rock cycle steps will include:

The rock cycle is continuous on our earth.  Mountains become flat, sediment pushes along and deeper into the ground, rocks form underground, and magma pushes everything upward again and creates new mountains. 

This seemingly simple cycle is the foundation of what many geologists would explain as an important reason life existing on our earth.

Importance of the Rock Cycle

The importance of the rock cycle is significant to us in our daily lives.  With the mixture of plant life and the elements of the earth, we have been able to use those rocks in many ways.  They have been an integral part of our economic and industrial development.

Without even some of those rocks, it could be said that our very society, achievements, and advancement would not be where it is today.

The constant renewal of the elements on our earth over long periods of time may seem chaotic and even destructive.  But it must needs be to support and sustain most life on our earth.

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The Rock Cycle Explained – Activities & Worksheets

Rocks are everywhere! We use them to construct highways, homes, churches, statues, and more. Before rocks end up as part of concrete or before rocks find their way into the pocket of a curious child, those rocks have undergone many natural processes as part of the rock cycle. Below the rock cycle is explained.

The Rock Cycle Explained

Rock is the most abundant thing on Earth. Rock is right under our feet! Let’s look at what rock is, how it’s different from a mineral, the 3 types of rock, and the rock cycle. Understanding the 3 types of rock helps us understand the natural process as the rock cycle is explained.

In this post we also have a free printable. The sign-up box for the free worksheets is located near the bottom of this post.

If you’re studying earth science, you may want to check out our post on earthquakes and tsunamis .

the rock cycle explained

The Rock Cycle Explained – Let’s Start with Rocks vs. Minerals

Rocks can be sharp, smooth, round, jagged, colorful, and some can be plain-looking. As different as they may appear, all rocks have something in common, they are all made up of minerals .

Rocks are formed by a combination of different minerals.

There are over 4,000 known minerals on the Earth today. Only one-hundred minerals are considered common. Less than twenty of these will form rocks.

A rock is a naturally occurring solid substance made up of one or more minerals, mineraloids, or organic materials.

Minerals are chemical compounds or sometimes are a single element. A mineral is naturally occurring and is inorganic. Inorganic means the substance is not formed from living organisms or their remains. Minerals have a crystalline structure and a specific chemical composition.

Pictured here are minerals from the Grandview Mine. These samples contain azurite (dark blue), gypsum (colorless, rhombohedral crystals), malachite (green), and smithsonite (yellow).

rock cycle explained - minerals found in the grandview mine

Samples of Minerals

micanps 1

Quartz with gold

Depositphotos 96231006 S 1 2

Minerals can be identified based on their physical and chemical properties, such as color, hardness, luster, cleavage, and specific gravity. Minerals are important for a wide range of purposes, including building materials, electronics, and the production of metals and other industrial products.

Minerals are used in a variety of household and office products that we use everyday. Others are cut, polished and valued for their beauty. We call these special minerals, gems . Diamonds, sapphires, amethyst and rubies are all called gems.

The Rock Cycle Explained – 3 Types of Rock

As the rock cycle is explained (below), it’s important to understand the 3 main classifications or types of rocks we will learn about during this adventure: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic . Each group of rocks has unique characteristics that help us identify them.

What are Igneous Rocks?

Igneous rocks are rocks that are formed from the cooling and of magma or lava. Magma is molten rock that is found beneath the Earth’s surface. Once magma erupts, it is called lava.

When magma or lava cools and solidifies, its minerals crystallize and form solid rock. Igneous rocks can be classified into two categories: intrusive or extrusive. Intrusive rocks form beneath the Earth’s surface when magma cools slowly and solidifies, resulting in coarse-grained rocks like granite. On the other hand, extrusive rocks are formed when lava cools quickly on the surface, resulting in fine-grained rocks such as basalt.

Igneous rocks are the most abundant rocks on the Earth’s surface. There are two types of igneous rock extrusive and intrusive. Extrusive igneous rocks are formed when volcanoes erupt, spilling lava unto the earth’s surface. This extremely hot melted rock quickly cools and hardens once it reaches the surface. Because it cools quickly, crystals or holes formed within the rock will be extremely small. Examples include obsidian, basalt, and rhyolite.

Intrusive igneous rocks form when melted rock, called magma , becomes trapped under the Earth’s surface, forming a magma pool . As the trapped magma cools, large crystals, or holes, form within the rock. Examples of intrusive igneous rocks include granite, pumice , and diorite .

Some key characteristics of igneous rocks:

What are Sedimentary Rocks?

Sedimentary rocks are formed when sediments like sand, silt, gravel, and other very small pieces build up and then are compressed. Over time, the sediment is compacted, and the layers are cemented together to form a sedimentary rock.

Sedimentary rocks are found in many different environments, including river beds, ocean floors, and deserts. Sediment comes in different forms. It can be small grains of rock or small pieces of clay. These different types of sediment are what give a sedimentary rock its characteristics and appearance.

For example, sandstone is a type of sedimentary rock that is composed mainly of sand-sized grains of minerals or rocks, while shale is a type of sedimentary rock that is composed mainly of clay and silt-sized particles.

Sedimentary rocks are important because they often contain fossilized remains of plants and animals. They are also important resources for our everyday lives, as many sedimentary rocks are used as building materials, such as sandstone and limestone, or as a source of energy, such as coal.

Characteristics of sedimentary rocks:

What are Metamorphic Rocks?

Metamorphic rocks are formed from the alteration of existing rocks through heat, pressure, and chemical processes. For example, when a sedimentary rock is subjected to intense heat and pressure, it can become a metamorphic rock.

There are two kinds of metamorphism – contact and regional. Contact metamorphism is when the rock surrounding molten igneous rock is baked.

Regional metamorphism is the change that rock undergoes when rocks are buried deep beneath the Earth’s surface and subjected to high temperatures and pressures, which cause them to change in composition and texture.

Regional metamorphism is often associated with mountain-building processes. As the rocks are buried deeper, they are subjected to increasing temperature and pressure, which causes them to undergo metamorphic changes.

Examples of rocks that can undergo regional metamorphism include shale, sandstone, and limestone. Shale can be transformed into slate, while sandstone can be transformed into quartzite. Limestone can be transformed into marble.

Some key characteristics of metamorphic rocks:

The Rock Cycle Explained and Diagram

Now that we know about the 3 types of rock, it’s time to explain the rock cycle! Whenever I teach the rock cycle, I always grapple with whether to teach about the types of rock first or present the life cycle first.

The rock cycle is a natural process that explains how different types of rocks are formed, changed, and transformed over time. The rock cycle is a never-ending cycle, with rocks constantly changing from one type to another through different geological processes.

The rock cycle is explained as a diagram to show best the different conditions that cause rocks to change and how new rocks are formed. Many of these conditions occur beneath the Earth’s surface where we cannot see them, such as melting, increasing pressure, and intense heat. Other conditions occur on the Earth’s surface, such as erosion, deposition, and weathering.

So, erosion, deposition, and weathering are 3 of the 7 parts of the rock cycle. All seven are listed below the rock cycle diagram.

Looking at the chart below, let’s start with magma. When magma or lava cools and solidifies, igneous rock is formed.

Over time, as the igneous rock is exposed to wind, rain, hail, and other weathering, the rock begins to break down into various size pieces. These pieces are called sediment. The sediment can get carried away by water (rain, rivers, streams) and deposited. Layers of sediment build up and get compacted. They get cemented together. (Think of cement sidewalks, parking lots, and roads that you see. Look closely at the cement. What do you see?)

As sedimentary rocks is buried deeper into the Earth’s crust, it is exposed to pressure and heat. These two intense forces (pressure and heat), cause the rock to become metamorphic rock. As the metamorphic rock is exposed to more heat for longer periods of time, it begins to melt. When the rock melts it becomes magma.

You can also see in the chart that igneous rock can also be exposed to heat and pressure, without becoming sediment and become metamorphic rock.

What other relationships do you see between the three different types of rock and the forces of heat and pressure? The arrows in the rock cycle chart show how these forces interact and create the geologic formations we see.


Processes in the Rock Cycle

Rock Cycle Explained – Make a Metamorphic “Rock Slab”

We’ve spent a lot of time explaining the rock cycle and the 3 types of rocks, now, we’re going to demonstrate how metamorphic rock forms from sedimentary rock. We’ll be using a few slices of bread and heavy objects.

Make a Slab of Metamorphic Rock


rock cycle explained

rock cycle explained stack the bread to represent sedimentary rock

rock cycle explained - measure after presure 1

rock cycle explained put in microwave to apply heat

rock cycle explained - put extra weight on the stack

Explanation of the Rock Cycle Activity

Each layer of bread represented a layer of sediment. When we stacked the bread, we simulated the layers in sedimentary rock. When the books were placed on top of the sedimentary rock, we were simulating the natural force of pressure that rock undergoes below the Earth’s surface.

When the bread was placed into the microwave, we were simulating the forces of heat that impact rock that is beneath the Earth’s surface and undergoing intense pressure.

The result is that our slab of “sedimentary rock” turned into “metamorphic rock.” 😊

Questions to ask:

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Request the Rock Cycle Printables

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Other Earth Science Resources

If you’re looking for some additional resources to go with a rock cycle or geology study, check these out:

rock cycle explained with printable lesson

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