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The lithology of a rock unit is a description of its physical characteristics visible at outcrop, in hand or core samples, or with low magnification microscopy. Physical characteristics include colour, texture, grain size, and composition. Lithology may refer to either a detailed description of these characteristics, or a summary of the gross physical character of a rock. Lithology is the basis of subdividing rock sequences into individual lithostratigraphic units for the purposes of mapping and correlation between areas. In certain applications, such as site investigations, lithology is described using a standard terminology such as in the European geotechnical standard Eurocode 7.
Sedimentary rocks are further classified by whether they are siliciclastic or carbonate. Siliciclastic sedimentary rocks are then subcategorized based on their grain size distribution and the relative proportions of quartz, feldspar, and lithic (rock) fragments. Carbonate rocks are classified with the Dunham or Folk classification schemes according to the constituents of the carbonate rock.
The name of an igneous rock requires information on crystal size and mineralogy. This classification can often be performed with a QAPF diagram.
Metamorphic rock naming can be based on texture, protolith, metamorphic facies, and/or the locations in which they are found. Naming based on texture and a pelite (e.g., shale, mudrock) protolith can be used to define slate and phyllite. Texture-based names are schist and gneiss. These textures, from slate to gneiss, define a continually-increasing extent of metamorphism. Metamorphic facies are defined by the pressure-temperature fields in which particular minerals form. Additional metamorphic rock names exist: greenstone (metamorphosed basalt and other extrusive igneous rock) is a classification based on composition and being located Precambrian terranes, while quartzite is based only on composition, as quartz is too stable and homogeneous to change phase at typical metamorphic temperatures and pressures.
In igneous and metamorphic rocks, grain size is a measure of the sizes of the crystals in the rock. In igneous rock, this is used to determine the rate at which the material cooled: large crystals typically indicate intrusive igneous rock, while small crystals indicate that the rock was extrusive. As metamorphic reactions progress, the grains in metamorphic rocks can often be broken down into smaller grains.
In clastic sedimentary rocks, grain size is the diameter of the grains and/or clasts that constitute the rock. These are used to determine which rock naming system to use (e.g., a conglomerate, sandstone, or mudstone one). In the case of sandstones and conglomerates, which cover a wide range of grain sizes, a word describing the grain size range is added to the rock name. Examples are "pebble conglomerate" and "fine quartz arenite".
In rocks in which mineral grains are large enough to be identified using a hand lens, the visible mineralogy is included as part of the description. In the case of sequences possibly including carbonates, calcite-cemented rocks or those with possible calcite veins, it is normal to test for the presence of calcite (or other forms of calcium carbonate) using dilute hydrochloric acid and looking for effervescence.
The mineralogical composition of a rock is one of the major ways in which it is classified. In general, igneous rocks can be categorized by increasing silica content as ultramafic, mafic, intermediate, or felsic, though more mineral-specific classifications also exist. Likewise, metamorphic facies, which show the degree to which a rock has been exposed to heat and pressure and are therefore important in classifying metamorphic rocks, are determined by observing the mineral phases that are present in a sample.
The colour of a rock or its component parts is a distinctive characteristic of some rocks and is always recorded, sometimes against standard colour charts, such as that produced by the Rock-Color Chart Committee of the Geological Society of America based on the Munsell color system.
The fabric of a rock describes the spatial and geometric configuration of all the elements that make it up. In sedimentary rocks the main visible fabric is normally bedding and the scale and degree of development of the bedding is normally recorded as part of the description. Metamorphic rocks (apart from those created by contact metamorphism), are characterised by well-developed planar and linear fabrics. Igneous rocks may also have fabrics due either to flow or to the settling out of particular mineral phases during crystallisation, forming cumulates.
The texture of a rock describes the relationship between the individual grains or clasts that make up the rock. Sedimentary textures include the degree of sorting, grading, shape and roundness of the clasts. Metamorphic textures include those referring to the timing of growth of large metamorphic minerals relative to a phase of deformation – before deformation porphyroclast – after deformation porphyroblast. Igneous textures include those that refer to the size of the mineral grains; vitreous – glassy, without crystals, aphanitic – grains not visible, phaneritic – grains clearly visible, and porphyritic – large grains in a finer matrix.
Rocks often contain small-scale structures (smaller than the scale of an individual outcrop). In sedimentary rocks this may include sole markings, ripple marks, mudcracks and cross-bedding. These are recorded as they are generally characteristic of a particular depositional environment and may provide information on paleocurrent directions. In metamorphic rocks associated with the deeper levels of fault zones, small scale structures such as asymmetric boudins and microfolds are used to determine the sense of displacement across the zone. In igneous rocks, small-scale structures are mostly observed in lavas such as pahoehoe versus ʻAʻā basaltic flows, and pillows showing eruption within a body of water or beneath ice.
Unconsolidated surficial materials may also be given a lithology. This is defined by grain size and composition, and is often attached to an interpretation of how the unit formed. Surficial lithologies can be given to lacustrine, coastal, fluvial, aeolian, glacial, and recent volcanic deposits, among others. Examples of surficial lithology classifications used by the US Geological Survey are, "Glacial Till, Loamy", "Saline Lake Sediment", and "Eolian Sediment, Coarse-Textured (Sand Dunes)".
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