why do rocks crack in the desert

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Leslie D. McFadden Karl W. Wegmann Louis A. Scuderi Department of Geography Earth Sciences, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, 9201 University City Blvd. , Charlotte, NC, 28223, United States Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, NM 87131, United States Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, NC 27695, United States The formation of cracks is a fundamental first step in the physical weathering of rocks in desert environments. In this study we combine new field data from the Mojave (U. S. ), Gobi (Mongolia) and Strzelecki (Australia) deserts that collectively support the hypothesis that meridional cracks (cracks with orientations not readily attributable to rock anisotropies or shape) in boulders or cobbles form due to tensile stresses caused by directional heating and cooling during the sun's daily transit.


The new studies indicate that rock size, surface age, and latitude play important roles with respect to their influence on rock fracture. Rock size and pavement surface age exert an influence on the development of rock cracks as the average clast size of mature desert pavements may be at or below the threshold-clast size for thermal cracking of rocks.


Latitude-controlled seasonal temperature variations play a key role, as demonstrated by: 1) tightly clustered mean resultant orientations that differ by latitude, as predicted in McFadden et al. (2005), and 2) very cold wintertime temperatures and strong diurnal gradients that may favor crack development in wintertime, given the likelihood for strong clast heating during early morning hours. The consistent evidence for meridional cracks in surfaces of diverse age and desert environments, climate, vegetation, and distance of clast transport indicate that directional insolation may play the key role in initially generating and propagating rock fractures, rather than a secondary role as implied in recent field and modeling studies of physical weathering in deserts.


Rocks gradually wear away. This is called weathering. There are three types of weathering: Remember, when you answer questions about weathering, mention what is causing the weathering and what it does to the rock. Physical weathering is caused by physical changes such as changes in temperature, freezing and thawing, and the effects of wind, rain and waves.


When a rock gets hot it expands a little, and when a rock gets cold it contracts a little. If a rock is heated and cooled many times, cracks form and pieces of rock fall away. This type of physical weathering happens a lot in deserts, because it is very hot during the day but very cold at night. Wind, rain and waves Wind, rain and waves can all cause weathering. The wind can blow tiny grains of sand against a rock. These wear the rock away and weather it. Rain and waves can also wear away rock over long periods of time. Water expands slightly when it freezes into ice.


This is why water pipes sometimes burst in the winter. You might have seen a demonstration of this sort of thing at school - a jar filled to the brim with water eventually shatters after it is put into a freezer. The formation of ice can also break rocks. If water gets into a crack in a rock and then freezes, it expands and pushes the crack further apart. When the ice melts later, water can get further into the crack. When the rock freezes again, it expands and makes the crack even bigger. This process of freezing and thawing can continue until the crack becomes so big that a piece of rock falls off.