What are sedimentary rocks?

Sedimentary rocks are formed from pre-existing rocks or pieces of once-living organisms. They form from deposits that accumulate on the Earth's surface. Sedimentary rocks often have distinctive layering or bedding. Many of the picturesque views of the desert southwest show mesas and arches made of layered sedimentary rock.

Common Sedimentary Rocks:
Common sedimentary rocks include sandstone, limestone, and shale. These rocks often start as sediments carried in rivers and deposited in lakes and oceans. When buried, the sediments lose water and become cemented to form rock. Tuffaceous sandstones contain volcanic ash.

Clastic Sedimentary Rocks:
Clastic sedimentary rocks are the group of rocks most people think of when they think of sedimentary rocks. Clastic sedimentary rocks are made up of pieces (clasts) of pre-existing rocks. Pieces of rock are loosened by weathering, then transported to some basin or depression where sediment is trapped. If the sediment is buried deeply, it becomes compacted and cemented, forming sedimentary rock. Clastic sedimentary rocks may have particles ranging in size from microscopic clay to huge boulders. Their names are based on their clast or grain size. The smallest grains are called clay, then silt, then sand. Grains larger than 2 millimeters are called pebbles. Shale is a rock made mostly of clay, siltstone is made up of silt-sized grains, sandstone is made of sand-sized clasts, and conglomerate is made of pebbles surrounded by a matrix of sand or mud.

Biologic Sedimentary Rocks:
Biologic sedimentary rocks form when large numbers of living things die. Chert is a example for this type of rock, and this is one of the ways limestone can form. Limestone can also form by precipitating out of the water.

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Limestone in Miami with indication of sea level during the last interglacial period
November 30, 2000

Limestone in Miami with indication of sea level during the last interg

Paleo-sea level = 7.5 meters (top of shoal) + 1.0 meter (depth for ooids) = 8.5 meters above present

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Image: Red Seneca Sandstone

Red Seneca Sandstone

This is red Seneca sandstone, the building block of the Smithsonian Castle. It originated in a quarry on the shores of the Potomac River in Maryland, and is more than 200 million years old.

Image: Aquia Creek Sandstone

Aquia Creek Sandstone

This Aquia Creek Sandstone originated from a quarry about 40 miles south of Washington, D.C., in Stafford County, Va. This type of stone was used in the construction of many of D.C.'s most famous landmarks, including the White House and the U.S. Capitol building.