Mechanical weathering (also called physical weathering) breaks rock into smaller pieces. These smaller pieces are just like the bigger rock, just smaller. That means the rock has changed physically without changing its composition. The smaller pieces have the same minerals, in just the same proportions as the original rock.
There are many ways that rocks can be broken apart into smaller pieces. Ice wedging is the main form of mechanical weathering in any climate that regularly cycles above and below the freezing point (figure 2). Ice wedging works quickly, breaking apart rocks in areas with temperatures that cycle above and below freezing in the day and night, and also that cycle above and below freezing with the seasons.
Ice wedging breaks apart so much rock that large piles of broken rock are seen at the base of a hillside, as rock fragments separate and tumble down. Ice wedging is common in Earth’s polar regions and mid latitudes, and also at higher elevations, such as in the mountains. Abrasion is another form of mechanical weathering. In abrasion, one rock bumps against another rock.
- Gravity causes abrasion as a rock tumbles down a mountainside or cliff.
- Moving water causes abrasion as particles in the water collide and bump against one another.
- Strong winds carrying pieces of sand can sandblast surfaces.
- Ice in glaciers carries many bits and pieces of rock. Rocks embedded at the bottom of the glacier scrape against the rocks below.
Abrasion makes rocks with sharp or jagged edges smooth and round. If you have ever collected beach glass or cobbles from a stream, you have witnessed the work of abrasion (figure 3).
Now that you know what mechanical weathering is, can you think of other ways it could happen? Plants and animals can do the work of mechanical weathering (figure 4). This could happen slowly as a plant’s roots grow into a crack or fracture in rock and gradually grow larger, wedging open the crack. Burrowing animals can also break apart rock as they dig for food or to make living spaces for themselves.
Mechanical weathering increases the rate of chemical weathering. As rock breaks into smaller pieces, the surface area of the pieces increases figure 5. With more surfaces exposed, there are more surfaces on which chemical weathering can occur.