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General Science.

The Earth’s Spheres Plates and the Earth’s Crust

Our planet formed 4.5 billion years ago. Since then, it has The Earth’s crust is composed of the continental crust (30–100
developed and modified four main physical environments that km thick; forms the continents) and the oceanic crust (about 10
interact strongly with one another. km thick; denser than continental crust; mostly covered by
1. Atmosphere: The layer of gases that surrounds the
Earth. The atmosphere protects us from the sun’s
intense heat and radiation, provides the air we
breathe, and produces weather.
2. Hydrosphere: The Earth’s water. The hydrosphere
includes all the liquid and frozen water of the Earth’s
oceans and land (groundwater), as well as water vapor
in the atmosphere.
3. Biosphere: All organisms living on and inside the
Earth’s surface.
4. Lithosphere: The rigid, relatively cool rocky zone
immediately under the Earth’s surface. The lithosphere
includes the Earth’s crust and part of the upper mantle.
The asthenosphere is the region in the upper mantle
(beneath the lithosphere) where rocks melt to form
magma (molten rock). The asthenosphere is less rigid Plate Tectonic Theory
than the lithosphere and is able to flow. Movement of
the lithosphere is directly connected to flow within the Geologists developed plate tectonic theory as a model of
asthenosphere. movement on Earth’s crust on the surface of our planet.
Observations and measurements of the processes that lead to
The Earth’s Interior and result from this movement support the plate tectonic model.

The Earth’s interior is divided as follows: Continental drift: In the early 1900s, scientists noticed
that, based on the continents’ shapes, it looked like the
continents could fit snugly together. Geologists
1. Crust (5–40 km thick): The thin outer skin of the planet. proposed that the continents gradually float around on
2. Mantle (2,885 km thick): The origin of most magma. the surface of the planet, bumping into each other and
3. Core (3,486 km thick): A dense, metal-rich ball inside pulling apart.
the Earth. The core is composed of the liquid outer
core and solid inner core. Wilson cycle: In the 1960s, J. Tuzo Wilson proposed
that landmasses, over time, repeatedly join to form a
supercontinent—an amalgamation of all the continents
into one big mass—and subsequently split apart.

Isostasy: The concept that the crust ―floats‖ on the heavier

mantle in gravitational balance, like a block of ice in water.

Mountains have ―roots‖ that enable them to stay in

balance; bigger mountains have bigger roots.
When a great load is removed from Earth’s surface
(like when a glacier melts), the crust rebounds, or
gently rises, to maintain isostatic equilibrium.

Plate Boundaries

The plates meet at plate boundaries, which are the sites of most
earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountain formation. There are three
types of plate boundaries:
Plate Tectonics

1. Convergent boundary: The margin between two

Plates are the slabs of the Earth’s crust that make up the
plates that are moving toward each other. Plate
lithosphere. convergence leads to ocean-ocean, ocean-continent,
or continent-continent collision.
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1. Subduction: Dense oceanic crust sinks

beneath less dense continental crust at a
convergent boundary. In this setting, a deep
oceanic trench forms along the coast above
the subduction zone, and volcanoes arise
on the continental plate. An example of
ocean continent convergence is seen today
in the Aleutian Arc of Alaska.
2. This convergence eventually leads to
continent-continent collision and mountain
formation as two landmasses crumple into
each other. A classic example of this
mountain formation is the convergence
between India and Asia, which continues to
build the Himalayan chain and the tallest
mountain in the world, Mt. Everest.
3. “Ring of Fire”: The circumference of the Earthquakes and Seismology
Pacific Ocean, bounded by subduction
zones at the edges of the Pacific plate, that
is the site of many volcanoes. Faults
2. Divergent boundary (spreading center): The margin
between two plates, usually both oceanic, that are Fault: A fracture in the Earth’s crust caused by stress. There are
moving away from each other. Plates grow at several different types of faults:
spreading centers, which are often coincident with mid-
ocean ridges like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. At a mid- 1. Normal fault: A fault in which the hanging wall (the
ocean ridge, magma rises from the asthenosphere, block of crust above the fault) moves down relative to
pushing the plates apart and accreting, or sticking the footwall (the block of crust below the fault) as a
onto, the sides of the plates. The plates widen in result of extension.
parallel strips as they diverge from each other. This is 2. Reverse fault: A fault in which the hanging wall moves
also the source of magnetic striping on the sea floor up relative to the footwall as a result of compression.
(see Magnetic polarity reversals). 3. Strike-slip fault: A fault in which two blocks of crust
3. Transform boundary: The margin between two plates slide past each other on the same plane. The San
that are sliding past each other. Transform boundaries Andreas Fault is a strike-slip fault.
are prominent features on sea floors, where they
connect offset mid ocean ridge segments. The most
famous transform boundary is along the San Andreas
Fault in California, where the Pacific and North
American plates slide past each other.


Rock layers crumple when the Earth’s crust is subject to stresses.

These stresses may result in folds (warping or bending of rock
layers, such as in the diagram below) or faults (fractures in the
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1. Primary waves (P waves): Body waves that

compress and expand rock in the direction
the waves travel (like a slinky).
2. Secondary waves (S waves): Body waves
that shake material at right angles to the
direction the waves travel (like shaking a
rope). Solid rock transmits S waves, but
gases and liquids do not.

Measuring Earthquakes

Geologists use the Richter scale to assign magnitude to

earthquakes by assessing the amplitude (height) of the largest
seismic wave each earthquake creates. Each additional unit of
magnitude denotes a tenfold increase in the power of the
earthquake (e.g., a magnitude 7.0 earthquake is ten times more
powerful than a magnitude 6.0).

Locating Earthquakes

The exact location of an earthquake’s epicenter is determined

through triangulation, which requires several seismometers
(instruments that record seismic waves) stationed around the

1. Seismometers record P wave arrival first, followed by

S wave arrival.
1. The time difference in arrival is used to
calculate the distance from the
seismometer to the earthquake epicenter.
2. However, this measurement tells only the
distance to the earthquake, not the direction
in which it lies.
2. To determine location, each of three stations draws a
circle around their station location with the radius of
the distance it calculated. The epicenter is at the
intersection of the three circles.
Earthquake: A vibration of the Earth caused by slippage along a

1. Hypocenter (focus): The exact location of an

earthquake (often far below the surface).
2. Epicenter: The point on the Earth’s surface directly
above the hypocenter.
3. Foreshocks: Small earthquakes that commonly
precede a major earthquake.
4. Aftershocks: Small earthquakes that commonly occur
after a major earthquake.

Seismic Waves

Energy travels away from an earthquake’s focus in waves, both

through the Earth and along its surface. Different types of seismic
waves include:

1. Surface waves: Seismic waves that travel along the Earthquake Aftermath
Earth’s surface.
2. Body waves: Seismic waves that travel through the
Earth’s interior. There are two types:
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In addition to causing great destruction at the epicenter, an The Mohs hardness scale
earthquake sometimes triggers other natural disasters.

1. Tsunami: A massive wave created when an Hardness Mineral

earthquake shakes coastal or undersea land.
Tsunamis have a short height but a long length (see 10 diamond
Shorelines), causing amplification of tides.
1. Tsunamis are especially dangerous 9 corundum
because they cause low tides to be very
low. While people are walking the freshly 8 topaz
exposed beach, the high tide comes in
quickly and much higher than normal. 7 quartz
2. A tsunami can move thousands of miles
across the ocean at hundreds of miles per 6 feldspar
hour. An earthquake in Japan, for instance,
can send a tsunami all the way to Hawaii. 5 apatite
2. Landslide: A fast-moving wall of dirt and mud that an
earthquake shakes loose. Landslides are primarily a 4 fluorite
problem in hilly, populated regions like Southern
California. 3 calcite

Seismic Imaging 2 gypsum

1 talc
The study of seismic waves has revealed much about the
structure and composition of the Earth’s interior.
5. Streak: The color a mineral leaves when rubbed
across a piece of unglazed porcelain.
1. Seismic waves travel at different speeds through o A mineral’s visible color is not a reliable
different materials. As seismic waves travel through diagnostic property. A single mineral may
Earth, their velocity increases abruptly below the crust vary in color from sample to sample, but its
(at a compositional break called the Moho), decreases streak color does not. For example, quartz
beneath the lithosphere, and changes abruptly again may be clear, gray, purple, or pink, but its
at the mantle/core boundary. streak is always colorless.
2. Geologists have thus been able to ―see‖ Earth’s 6. Luster: The way light reflects off a mineral’s surface.
interior. The only other evidence we have of its Luster may be described as vitreous (glassy), metallic,
makeup is from volcanic material. pearly, silky, or dull.
7. Specific gravity: The comparison of a mineral’s
Minerals weight to the weight of an equal volume of water
(water’s specific gravity is 1). The greater a mineral’s
Minerals are earth materials that have four main characteristics: specific gravity, the greater its density.
they are solid, inorganic, naturally occurring, and have a definite 8. Other diagnostic properties: Some minerals are
chemical structure. magnetic, some taste salty, and some fizz when
hydrochloric acid is dropped on them.

Mineral Properties
Mineral Groups

Minerals are identifiable based on a number of specific properties:

1. Silicates: The most common mineral group. Silicates
have a framework of silicon (Si) and oxygen (O), the
1. Crystal form: The outward expression of a mineral’s two most common elements in the Earth’s crust.
chemical structure. For example, quartz has a 1. Silicon-oxygen tetrahedron: The basic
hexagonal, or 6-sided, crystal form. silicate structure, which consists of four
2. Cleavage: Planes of weakness in the mineral’s crystal oxygen atoms around a central silicon
lattice along which the mineral tends to break. atom.
Cleavage faces are usually flat surfaces. 2. Silicate minerals can form from:
3. Fracture: If a mineral lacks cleavage, it fractures in an 1. A single tetrahedron (e.g.,
irregular, jagged manner. olivine)
4. Hardness: The resistance of a mineral to being 2. Single chains (pyroxenes, e.g.,
scratched. Geologists use the Mohs scale to assign augite)
each mineral a hardness between 1 (softest) and 10 3. Double chains (amphiboles, e.g.
(hardest). hornblende)
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4. Sheets (micas, e.g., muscovite, their cleavage planes, which meet at 60°
biotite) and 120°. The most common is hornblende.
5. Three-dimensional networks
(e.g., feldspar, quartz)
2. Nonsilicates: Less common but also important rock-
forming minerals.
1. Carbonates: Contain carbon and oxygen in Rocks and Their Environments
a carbonate group (CO3). Calcite (CaCO3),
which forms limestone and marble, is a Rocks are aggregates of minerals.
common carbonate.
2. Oxides: Usually consist of oxygen and
another element. Common oxides include
ice (H2O) and magnetite (Fe3O4).
3. Sulfides: Contain sulfur ions. Pyrite, or Igneous Rocks
―fool’s gold,‖ is a common sulfide.
4. Sulfates: Contain sulfur and oxygen in a 1. As magma (molten material) cools, ions arrange
sulfate group (SO4). Gypsum, a material themselves into orderly patterns during crystallization.
used in buildings, is a common sulfate. There are two types of crystallization:
5. Halides: Contain a ―salt‖ ion such as Na, Cl, 1. Volcanic (extrusive): Magma crystallizes
or F. Halite, or common table salt (NaCl), is quickly at spreading centers and from
a halide. volcanic eruptions.
6. Native elements: Minerals that exist in pure 2. Plutonic (intrusive): Magma crystallizes
elemental form. Native elements include slowly deep below the Earth’s surface.
gold (Au), silver (Ag), and copper (Cu). 2. Magma’s rate of cooling affects crystal size and
mineral composition. Fast cooling results in smaller
Common Rock-Forming Materials crystals, more mafic; slow cooling results in larger
crystals, more felsic.
1. Glass: No crystals. Forms when magma
1. Felsic minerals: Comprise over 50% of the Earth’s cools too rapidly to form crystals.
crust. Felsic minerals are silicates that are light in 2. Fine-grained (aphanitic): Crystals too small
color, contain little iron and magnesium, and have to distinguish individual minerals with the
abundant silica. unaided eye. Gas bubbles leave openings
1. Quartz (SiO2): Has vitreous luster; lacks or vesicles. Aphanitic rocks form quickly at
cleavage but has conchoidal fracture Earth’s surface or in the upper crust
(smooth, curved fracture like that of glass); (volcanic).
lacks streak; and is usually gray in color but 3. Coarse-grained (phaneritic): Crystals large
can be pink, purple, or black.
enough to distinguish minerals with the
2. Feldspars:Potassium feldspar (KAlSi3O8) naked eye. Phaneritic rocks form in a slowly
and plagioclase ((Ca,Na)AlSi3O8) both have cooling magma chamber deep in the crust
distinct cleavage planes that meet at about
a 90° angle. Potassium feldspar usually is 4. Porphyritic: Large crystals in a matrix of
cream or pink in color, whereas plagioclase smaller crystals. Porphyritic rocks form
usually is in a range between white and when magma crystallizes rapidly, forming a
light gray. fine-grained matrix, but then moves to a
3. Mica: A family of sheet silicates, including slower-cooling environment before all the
silvery muscovite and black biotite. Micas melt has crystallized. The remaining melt
are important minerals and often give rocks forms large crystals.
a sparkly appearance. 3. Bowen’s reaction series: The geologist N. L. Bowen
2. Mafic minerals: Contain iron and/or magnesium, (1887–1956) created a chart showing the series in
making them dark. which different minerals crystallize from cooling
1. Olivine ((Fe, Mg)2SiO4): Has glassy luster, magma:
conchoidal fracture, and is usually dark o On the left side: Mafic minerals begin to
green. Olivine is a major component of the
crystallize. After each mineral crystallizes, it
upper mantle. reacts with the remaining magma to form
2. Pyroxenes: Usually dark green to black, the next mineral in the series.
with distinctive cleavage planes that meet
o On the right side: Felsic, calcium-rich
at right angles. Pyroxenes form a group of minerals crystallize to form early feldspars,
chemically complex minerals, the most which then react with sodium in the
common of which is augite, which are remaining magma to form more sodium-rich
common in oceanic crust. feldspars.
3. Amphiboles: A complex group, o At the bottom of the series: When magma
distinguished from pyroxenes on sight by crystallization is nearly complete, the
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remaining magma is mostly SiO2, and 2. Volcano morphology

quartz forms. 1. Crater: The pit inside a volcano. A crater
more than 1 km wide is called a caldera.
2. Vent: A pipelike structure connecting the
underground magma chamber to the crater.

3. Types of volcanoes
1. Volcanoes form where magma burns through the 1. Shield volcano: A broad, slightly domed
crust, at subduction zones, at spreading centers, or at structure typically built of liquid basalt. The
―hot spots‖ like Hawaii. Hawaiian volcanoes are shield volcanoes.
1. Successive eruptions build a cone of 2. Composite cone (stratovolcano): A large,
hardened lava. Eruptions are explosive nearly symmetrical cone made of
(pyroclastic) if the magma is gas-rich and alternating lava flows and pyroclastic
felsic, slow if the magma is gas-poor and volcanic debris.
mafic. 3. Cinder cone: A generally small volcano
2. Although volcanoes typically form at with steep sides, built from ejected lava
subduction zones or spreading centers, fragments and often in groups near larger
they also may form within a plate, as in the volcanoes.
Yellowstone region of Wyoming. 4. Volcanic rocks
1. Basalt: Dark green to black, fine-grained,
mostly pyroxene and plagioclase feldspar,
with some olivine. The ocean floor is mostly
2. Tuff: Hardened ash from an explosive
5. Plutons are the site of plutonic rock formation. Most
magma in the Earth is deep underground, in chambers
that cool slowly or rise slowly to intrude into preexisting
1. Plutonic rocks
1. Gabbro: Has a basaltic
composition (mafic) but large
grain size.
2. Granite: A phaneritic igneous
rock with 25–35% quartz and
more than 50% feldspar, with
hornblende, muscovite and
2. Pluton forms
1. Batholith: A large expanse of
granitic rock (more than 100
km2). Batholiths frequently form
the cores of mountains, exposed
only after much of the ground
surface erodes.
2. Sill: A lateral layer of igneous
rock formed when fluid basaltic
magma rises from a magma
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chamber and squeezes into Marble is composed of

horizontal strata. interlocking calcite grains.
3. Dike: A vertical or angled layer 2. Quartzite: Metamorphosed
of igneous rock that cuts across quartz sandstone. Quartzite is
other rock layers, usually by very hard and is composed of
injection into fractures. interlocking quartz grains.
3. Hornfels: Fine-grained rock
altered in contact zones around
igneous intrusions.

Metamorphic Rocks Sedimentary Rocks

1. High temperature, high pressure, or variable chemical 1. When weather and other forces of erosion wear away
conditions can change country (preexisting) rocks rocks, sediments form. Those sediments can be
through the process of metamorphism. Rocks remain compacted, through lithification, to form sedimentary
solid during the process. rocks.
1. Regional metamorphism: An extensive 1. Erosion: The transport of material around
volume of the crust is metamorphosed, Earth’s surface by a mobile agent like water
usually by intensive compression at or wind. Erosion and weathering form
convergent boundaries. sediments and soil.
2. Contact metamorphism: Intruding magma 1. Mechanical (physical)
heats cold country rock nearby and causes weathering: Rocks break into
it to recrystallize. smaller pieces, with each piece
3. Metasomatism: Hot fluids dissolve original retaining the original mineral
minerals, and then chemical reactions composition.
cause new minerals to grow.  Frost wedging:
2. Rocks undergo both mineral and textural changes Water freezes and
during metamorphism. expands in a rock,
1. Mineral changes: During metamorphism, breaking off
two minerals can react, and their ions can fragments.
diffuse across grain boundaries, resulting in  Unloading: Erosion
a new mineral. Alternatively, complex removes material
minerals may break down into simpler ones. from above buried
2. Textural changes: Rocks gain foliation rock. Pieces pop off
(alignment) as minerals align into bands. in response to the
With increasing temperature and pressure, lowered pressure.
grain size increases and texture coarsens.  Biological activity:
3. Classification: Metamorphic rocks are classified by Roots wedge into and
strength of metamorphism. The following are listed in widen rock fractures,
order from weak to strong metamorphism: or animals burrow
1. Foliated rocks: into soil and expose
1. Slate: A fine-grained rock, rock to the surface.
usually made of metamorphosed 2. Chemical weathering: Rocks
fine sediments. break down chemically, and their
2. Phyllite: Similar to slate but constituent minerals alter during
slightly coarser-grained, and the process.
shiny due to high mica content.  Oxidation: Water
3. Schist: A coarse-textured (H2O) is the strongest
metamorphic rock, with minerals chemical weathering
aligned in parallel bands, agent. It causes iron-
containing more than 50% platy rich rocks to oxidize,
minerals (minerals with a planar, or rust.
layered structure) like mica.  Ionization: CO2 + H2O
4. Gneiss: Bands of abundant → carbonic acid,
coarse grains, mostly feldspar which breaks granite
and quartz, alternated with down into clay
bands of flaky minerals. minerals.
2. Nonfoliated rocks: 2. Lithification: After erosion and weathering,
1. Marble: Metamorphosed sediments cement to form sedimentary
limestone with a sugary texture. rocks.
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2. Sedimentary settings: Sedimentary rocks can form  Well sorted: One

anywhere on or just below the Earth’s surface, in dry grain size and type
or wet environments. dominates the rock’s
3. Classification: Sedimentary rocks may be classified composition.
in several different ways:  Poorly sorted: The
1. Based on origin: rock is composed of
1. Detrital sediments: Sediments grains of many sizes
that are fragments of broken- and compositions.
down rock. They are listed here 3. Based on sedimentary structure:
in order of decreasing grain size: 1. The method of sediment
 Breccia: Lithified deposition often imparts a
angular blocks of distinctive pattern on a package
rock. of sedimentary rocks.
 Conglomerate: 2. Bedding planes: The planes
Lithified round rock that separate strata (layers) of
fragments, pebble- sedimentary rock. Often, these
sized and larger. planes are the planes along
 Sandstone: which the rock breaks.
Cemented sand.  Cross-bedding: Wind
 Shale: Compacted or waves deposit
clay, mud, or silt. sediments in an
2. Chemical and biochemical upsweeping pattern.
sediments: Sediments that form  Graded bedding:
from minerals that precipitate Grain size becomes
from water, either physically or coarser or finer from
biologically (as organisms pull the bottom to the top
elements out of water to make of a layer.
their skeletons):
 Limestone (CaCO3):
Formed from
cemented fragments
of any size of shell.
 Chert: Cemented
shells made of silica.
3. Evaporites: Sediments that
form as water evaporates from a
closed basin and the solution
becomes supersaturated with
certain elements, which then
precipitate out as minerals like
4. Coal: An organic material that
nonetheless is considered a
sedimentary rock because it
consists of compacted plant
2. Based on grain size and sorting: The Rock Cycle
1. Grain size: The physical size of
individual grains that make up 1. Heat, pressure, erosion, and other forces are always at
sedimentary rock. work on the Earth, changing the composition of rocks:
 Gravel (>2 mm) forms from igneous to sedimentary, sedimentary to
conglomerate, metamorphic, igneous to metamorphic, and so on.
 Sand (1/16–2 mm)
forms sandstone,
 Mud (<1/16 mm)
forms shale,
2. Sorting: The degree of variety
of grain size and composition
within a sedimentary rock.
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1. Submarine canyons: Deep, steep-sided

underwater valleys, possibly former river
2. Turbidity currents: Sediment-laden water
at the continental slope. Turbidity currents
often flow downward, eroding the slope and
entraining (drawing along and transporting)
more sediment.
3. Turbidites (deep-sea fans): Sediments
deposited by turbidity currents on the
continental rise. Turbidites typically are
composed of sequences of sediments that
are coarse grained at the bottom and fine-
grained at the top.

2. These continual conversions from one type of rock to

another are collectively termed the rock cycle.
1. All rocks exposed at Earth’s surface are
subject to weathering, which leads to the
formation of sediments. Shorelines
2. All sediments are subject to burial, after
which they are undergo lithification
(cementation and compaction) to form 1. Tides: Daily changes in ocean surface height caused
sedimentary rocks. by the gravitational attraction between the Earth and
3. All rocks can be exposed to heat and the moon. This gravitational attraction leads to
pressure, which often leads to formation of rhythmic rising and falling of the waterline.
metamorphic rock. 2. Currents: Continuous flows of water in one direction.
4. When metamorphic rocks melt into magma, 3. Waves: Water surface ripples generated by wind.
the magma sometimes cools and 1. Wave crest: The top peak of a wave, vs.
crystallizes into igneous rock. trough, the lowest point between waves.
2. Wave height: The vertical distance from
trough to peak.
Continental Edges and the Ocean Floor 3. Wavelength: The horizontal distance from
one wave peak to the next.
The edge of each continent gradually slopes downward 4. Waves begin to slow when water depth is
underwater for a number of miles offshore. After this gradual 1/2 the wavelength. When wave height is
sloping, there is a sudden drop onto the deep sea floor. 1/7 of the wavelength, the wave breaks, or
collapses. Breaking waves carve the
1. Continental margin: The stretch of crust from the shoreline.
4. Beach: The sloping shoreline made of sediments
shoreline to the deep sea. The continental margin
moved by waves, tides, and currents.
includes the:
1. Continental shelf: The zone of gently 1. Offshore: The region below the low tide
sloping underwater ground where the water
2. Foreshore: The region between the low
gradually deepens.
2. Shelf break: The sudden drop at end of the tide line and above the flat beach.
3. Backshore: The region landward of the
continental shelf.
beach face.
3. Continental slope: The steep underwater
4. Berm: A small hill of sediments just above
cliff after the shelf break.
the flat beach area. Gentle waves build the
4. Continental rise: The gentle slope at the
berm up in summer, and storms carve the
base of the break. The continental rise is at
berm away in winter.
the end of the continental margin and leads
to the abyssal plain.
5. Abyssal plain: The very flat, deep-ocean
2. Undersea features: Water and sediment eroding from
the continents leave imprints on the continental
margin. The continental slope can be unstable.
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Deserts and Wind

1. Deserts form in land areas with low precipitation

(typically less than 25 cm of rain per year).
2. Wind: The movement of air on the Earth’s surface
stems from the uneven distribution of solar heat. Hot
air rises over the equator, drops out moisture, and
descends as cool, dry air over latitudes 30 N and 30 S.
Glaciers and Glaciation
Deserts are found at these latitudes.

Glacier: A large mass of ice, formed on land by compaction of

snow, that flows downhill from snow accumulated at the head.
Glaciers survive by accumulating more snow each year than they
Wind-Created Features lose to snowmelt.

Wind is a strong sculpting agent. It carves away rocks and 1. Alpine glacier (valley glacier): A glacier in mountains
sediments and deposits sediments elsewhere. that flows down channels previously eroded by
1. Bed load: The sand grains and other particles that 2. Piedmont glacier: A glacier that forms when several
wind (or water) carries on or just above the ground. valley glaciers flow out onto land at the front of a
2. Suspended load: The fine particles that wind (or water) mountain range and merge with one another.
keeps aloft. 3. Ice sheet (continental glacier): A large expanse of
3. Saltation: The ―jumping‖ of sand grains due to strong ice that flows in all directions.
wind. Wind blowing perpendicular to a surface
decreases the pressure on that surface. When the Locations
inertia of a sand grain is overcome, it begins to roll.
When it hits other grains, they bounce into the air,
Most expanses of ice on Earth are at the extreme latitudes, where
where they are carried forward until gravity pulls them
the weather remains consistently cold. Greenland, in the north,
back down.
houses one huge ice sheet, and Antarctica, in the south, is the
4. Deflation: A process by which wind carries fine
site of the other. Together, these ice sheets cover 10% of the
particles away and leaves a compact surface of larger
Earth’s land surface. Smaller ice sheets are found at high
altitudes, in places like Alaska, Canada, and the Alps.
5. Dunes: Sand mounds or ridges that the wind creates.
Dunes have a steep side called a slip face. Types of
dunes include: Formation and Morphology
1. Barchan dune: A solitary dune shaped like
a horseshoe, with its tips pointing away 1. Snow line: The line above which more snow falls than
from the wind. Barchan dunes form on flat melts in a year, creating permanent snow cover.
surfaces where sand supply is low. 2. Firn: Packed snow that turns into ice over time. Under
2. Transverse dune: A long ridge of sand pressure, the boundaries of ice grains melt, and the
oriented perpendicular to the direction of grains refreeze together, forming the interlocking ice
the wind. Transverse dunes form where crystals that comprise a glacier.
wind is steady and sand is plentiful. 3. Glacial terminus: The front toe of a glacier.
3. Longitudinal dune: A dune that forms 4. Ablation: The direct conversion of ice into vapor.
parallel to wind direction, in places where Glaciers lose mass by this process.
sand supply is limited. 5. Zone of fracture: The upper 35 meters of glacial ice,
4. Parabolic dune: A dune shaped like a where ice responds rigidly to stress by cracking.
barchan dune but with its tips pointing into 6. Zone of plastic flow: The area of glacial ice 35
the wind. Parabolic dunes form on beaches meters below the surface and deeper. In this zone,
with abundant sand and are partly covered glaciers deform under their own weight. Squeezing
by vegetation. and flow therefore are greatest where the glacial ice is
General Science. 

Erosion and Landforms

Glaciers carve the landscape as they flow and leave deposits in

their wakes.

1. Glaciers cause erosion in several ways:

1. Plucking: Glacial melt water runs into rock
crevices, freezes, expands, and causes
fragments to break off.
2. Abrasion: Rocks entrained in the bottom of
a glacier grind against the surface over
which the glacier flows. Abrasion causes
glacial striations, parallel grooves worn into
2. Glacial movements can create many different
1. Cirque: An amphitheater-shaped scoop out
of bedrock, caused by plucking.
2. Arête: A knife-edged rock ridge between Ice Ages
adjoining cirques.
3. Glacial trough: A valley with a U-shaped
bottom, carved by a glacier. Over geologic time, the Earth has undergone periods of extreme
4. Fjord: A glacial trough that extends into the cold during which ice sheets expanded, and periods during which
sea. glacial ice melted (see Climate Change).
5. Till: Unlayered sediments deposited by a
glacier. Till often includes boulders, gravel, Other Erosive Forces
sand, and clay together.
6. Moraine: A ridge of till left behind by a Mass Wasting
retreating (melting) glacier. Types of
moraines include:
1. Terminal moraine: The ridge Mass wasting is movement of rocks and soil caused by the
left behind at the farthest point a loosening effects of water and the downward force of gravity.
glacier reaches (the line of There are several types of mass wasting.
maximum advance).
2. Lateral moraine: A long, narrow 1. Creep: Slow earth movement that has effects seen
mound of till that forms parallel only after some time. Creep usually occurs where soil
to the glacier’s direction of freezes, expands, thaws, and settles. Evidence of
motion (as a line within the creep is seen in tilted telephone poles and cemetery
glacier). headstones.
7. Glacial erratic: A large boulder that a 2. Fall: The unrestrained fall of rock fragments off a cliff.
glacier carries from its place of origin and A rock fall creates talus—fields of rock fragments that
drops in a different place. collect at the bottom of a cliff.
8. Drumlin: A low, rounded hill of till, with a 3. Slide: The breaking off of rocks or soil from a plane of
tapered end pointed in the direction the weakness and their subsequent slide down the face of
glacier flowed. The other end has a steep, a steep slope.
squared face. 4. Slump: A type of slide that involves intact blocks of
9. Outwash plain: A large sheet of stratified rock sliding down a concave surface.
sediment deposited by melt water 5. Flow: The quick movement of water-soaked
streaming out of the toe of a glacier. sediments down a slope in one large mass. Flow
10. Esker: A winding ridge of sediment left occurs when these water-soaked sediments are
behind when a glacier melts. shaken.
11. Kettle: A scoured depression in an outwash 6. Solifluction: The flow of watery soil due to repeated
plain, formed when a block of glacial ice is thawing and freezing, as happens to a dirt road after
left behind, buried, and melts. winter.

The Water Cycle

Hydrologic Cycle
General Science. 

4. Discharge: The volume of water that flows past a

certain point in a stream over a measured time
interval. Discharge is calculated by multiplying the
cross section of the stream by the velocity of the

Stream Flow and Transport

1. Water can flow within a stream in two ways:

1. Laminar flow: In slow-moving streams,
water flows in parallel paths.
2. Turbulent flow: In fast-moving streams
and in rough stream channels, water swirls
around as it moves down a gradient.
2. Capacity: The amount of sediment a stream can carry
The Earth’s water supply is always in motion, going through an past a certain point in a given time.
unending cycle of water running from the land to the sea, 3. Competence: A measure of how strong a stream is,
precipitating, evaporating, and reprecipitating. Water is always based on the biggest size of an object the stream can
recycled or moved from place to place—never completely move.
destroyed or created anew. 4. Saltation: Skipping and bouncing of particles on the
bottom of a stream caused by water flow pushing the
1. Runoff: Water that flows off the land surface into particles.
rivers, lakes, streams, and oceans. 5. Load: The material a stream carries. There are
2. Transpiration: The process by which plants release several types:
the water they absorb into the atmosphere. 1. Bed load: Heavy objects dragged along a
3. Water budget: Most of the Earth’s water is contained stream bottom.
in the oceans, but other reservoirs hold significant 2. Suspended load: Fine particles carried
water as well. Geologists measure the Earth’s water suspended in a stream’s moving water.
supply in terms of volume (measured in km3): 3. Dissolved load: Material (salt, carbonate,
1. Oceans: 1,350,000,000 or other ions) dissolved in the stream water.
2. Glaciers: 27,500,000 6. Graded stream: A stream with a slope and channel
3. Groundwater: 8,200,000 that have adjusted enough over time so that the
4. Lakes: 205,000 stream has just enough energy to carry its load, but no
5. Atmosphere: 13,000 excess energy so that it erodes its banks.
6. Streams: 1,700
Stream Settings
1. Alluvial fan: A gently sloping blanket of alluvium, or
Streams are channeled flows of any amount of water. Although sediment deposited by a stream, where it exits a gully
streams hold only a small percentage of the Earth’s water at any onto a flatter surface
given time, the energy of streams has done much to sculpt the 2. Flood plain: A plain surrounding a stream. Streams
landscape. Stream energy is controlled by channel size and periodically overflow their banks or move laterally
slope. across surrounding flood plains, leaving layers of
sediments in their wake.
3. Delta: The mouth of a stream, where the stream slows
1. Gradient: The steepness of land over which a stream due to a gentler gradient and deposits much of its
flows. As a stream flows down a slope, its potential sediments as it moves to base level.
energy converts to kinetic energy. The steeper the 4. Tributary: A small stream that flows into a larger
gradient, the faster the stream flows. stream.
2. Base level: The lowest level to which a stream can 5. Drainage system: All the land area that contributes to
erode its channel. Oceans are considered the ultimate a stream system. A continental divide is a ridge that
base level because they are the final destination of separates streams flowing in opposite directions on
streams. More often, local base levels like lakes, either side. For example, the Great Divide in the
dams, or stream junctions control stream flow. United States follows the Rocky Mountains: all
3. Cross section: The area of water in a cross-sectional streams east of the divide flow east to the Atlantic,
slice of a stream. For a flat stream, cross section is whereas all streams west of the divide flow west to the
calculated by multiplying depth by width. For a semi- Pacific.
circular stream, it is calculated using stream radius:
General Science. 

Stream Shapes and Patterns

There are several types of streams and drainage patterns, which

are dictated by landforms and also shape those landforms.
Whereas glaciers carve flat-bottomed, U-shaped valleys, streams
carve sharp canyons, or V-shaped valleys.
1. Braided stream: A stream that divides into smaller
streams. When a stream gradient decreases, its flow Groundwater is surface water that seeps into the ground. It
slows, causing the stream to branch into smaller constitutes 95% of the Earth’s supply of fresh water (outside of
subchannels. Braided streams are common on alluvial glaciers) and feeds not only humans and crops but also streams
fans and glacial outwash plains. and lakes.
2. Meandering stream: A stream that carves a path
sideways and forms wide loops, called meanders, as it
flows downstream. Often, when water in a stream
flows over a bump, ripples are created that deflect
water toward one side of the stream and carve into the Groundwater Distribution and Movement
side. This sideways flow creates a bend in the
channel, and water flowing out of this bend then 1. The ground under the surface of the Earth’s
deflects toward the opposite side of the stream, landmasses is divided into two zones based on the
carving a bend there. presence or absence of groundwater:
1. Point bar: Sediment deposited in the inner 1. Zone of aeration: The area just below
curves of a meandering stream. The stream ground in which spaces between rocks and
moves slowest in these inner curves, so the soil are filled with air.
stream drops sediment here. 2. Zone of saturation: The area below the
2. Oxbow lake: A lake that splits off from a zone of aeration in which the spaces
meandering stream when erosion carves a between particles are filled with water. The
straight channel that cuts off the flow into top level of the zone of saturation is called
one of the stream’s meanders. the water table. The water in the zone of
saturation is groundwater.
2. The porosity and permeability of soil and rock dictate
the accumulation and movement of groundwater.
1. Porosity: The ratio of open spaces to
volume of material. Porosity is quantified in
2. Permeability: A measure of the ease with
which sediments transport water.
Permeability is calculated as the volume of
water that can move through a cross-
section of sediments in a given time.
3. Streams can follow several different drainage patterns: Permeability is classified on a scale from
1. Dendritic drainage: Several substreams very low to excellent.
branch out from a main stream in a treelike  Sand typically has 20% porosity
pattern. and excellent permeability.
2. Radial drainage: Streams run in all  Clay has a 50% porosity but
directions from a central high point. poor permeability.
3. Rectangular drainage: Streams make 3. The water table roughly follows topography, rising
right-angled turns, following rectangular slightly beneath hills and depressed beneath stream
fracture patterns in the bedrock over which channels. Where the land surface cuts low, the water
they flow. table intersects the land, typically at stream channels.
4. Trellis drainage: Tributaries flow 1. Effluent stream: A stream that gains water
perpendicular to the main channel, from the zone of saturation, typically in wet
following parallel beds of weak strata. environments.
Trellis drainage often occurs in tilted or 2. Influent stream: A stream that loses water
folded rocks. to the water table, typically in dry
3. Hydraulic gradient: The slope of the water
table. The hydraulic gradient, along with the
General Science. 

permeability of material through which Groundwater can move in confined channels underground,
water flows, influences the speed of carving out spaces like caves.
groundwater flow.
4. Recharge area: An area (usually higher 1. Cave: A crevice in a rock large enough for a person to
elevation) that receives precipitation that enter. Caves usually form when acidic water flows
soaks into the zone of saturation. through limestone formations and dissolves the
5. Discharge area: An area (usually near a calcium carbonate. As this carbonate-rich water drips
stream) that receives groundwater from the off a cave ceiling, it forms:
zone of saturation and carries it away. 1. Stalactites: Calcite deposits that hang from
6. When recharge and discharge are in a cave ceiling.
balance, the water table remains steady. 2. Stalagmites: Calcite spears that point up
4. Groundwater availability is affected by the types of from a cave floor.
rock underground and the flux of water on the Earth’s 2. When groundwater dissolves underground limestone,
surface. strange topographical features may result:
1. Aquifer: An underground body of 1. Sinkhole: A depression that forms on the
permeable rock or sediment that conducts surface when the roof of an underground
water. Aquifers typically are composed of cavern collapses.
sand or gravel. 2. Karst topography: Irregular topography on
2. Confining bed: A laterally continuous the surface that results when groundwater
sheet of rock that is impermeable to water below flows through an extensive area of
and prevents the escape of water from limestone, carving underground channels
aquifers. Typically, a confining bed is and caverns until surface water flows only
composed of shale (see Sedimentary underground. The land above these areas
Rocks). takes on irregular patterns as it sinks into
1. Confined aquifer: An aquifer various holes and grooves.
between two confining beds. 3. Geysers and hot springs: Features that form when
2. Unconfined aquifer: An aquifer magma exists near the surface of the Earth (e.g., near
above a confining bed. volcanoes) and heats the groundwater. Some water
Artesian well: A well drilled into a confined aquifer. turns to steam, expands, and erupts out of holes in the
0. Confined aquifers cannot receive ground in geysers. In other places, hot water trickles
precipitation from directly above; out of springs.
instead, water seeps in from far
away on the sides, where the top
confining bed thins to nothing. Climate Change

The Earth’s climate has changed considerably over the planet’s

history. Scientists have determined that these changes occur in
cycles driven by a number of factors.

Climate Cycles

Evidence suggests that the Earth has experienced climate

cycles—alternating periods of extreme warmth and cold—
throughout geologic time.

1. Periods of glacial climate, which have fostered the

growth of glaciers, have alternated with interglacial
1. As a result, a confined aquifer periods, during which temperatures are so warm that
often has high water pressure. glaciers melt.
When a well is drilled into the top 2. During the Ice Age around 2–3 million years ago, ice
confining bed, water gushes sheets spread over much of the Earth’s land surface.
upward out of the confined About 55 million years ago, however, air and sea
aquifer. temperatures were so warm that geologists think
Perched water table: A pocket of groundwater glaciers melted away completely.
stranded above the main water table by a confining bed beneath it
Driven by the Earth’s Orbit

Most geologists believe that these dramatic temperature changes

Geology and Groundwater result from variations in the Earth’s orbit
General Science. 

1. In the 1920s, Serbian astrophysicist Milutin Driven by Humans

Milankovitch formulated a model of climate cycles
based on three properties of the Earth’s orbit: Today, as we burn fossil fuels that release CO 2 into the
1. Eccentricity: Changes in the shape of the atmosphere, we are experiencing human-induced climate change.
ellipse that the Earth traces as it orbits the
sun. The ellipse is at its longest once every
100,000 years.
2. Obliquity: The tilt of the Earth toward the
sun on its axis of rotation. The Earth’s
obliquity shifts between 21.5 and 24.5 every
40,000 years. When the tilt is greatest,
polar regions receive more summer sunlight
and less winter sunlight.
3. Precession: The wobble of the Earth on its
axis. Precession completes a full cycle
every 26,000 years and affects the intensity
of sunlight that reaches the Earth’s polar

2. These three cycles regularly reinforce each other. At

certain times, they combine to maximize the input of
solar radiation to the Earth, which leads to warming of
the Northern Hemisphere and glacial retreat. At other
times, they combine to minimize the heat that the
Northern Hemisphere receives, leading to glacial

Driven by Tectonics

1. When the Earth’s tectonic plates form a

supercontinent at high latitudes (see Plate
Tectonics), ice growth is encouraged. This
convergence of the continents is a rare event in Earth
history, however.
2. More frequently, extensive volcanism leads to
outpouring of CO2 into the atmosphere, which traps
heat and leads to a greenhouse effect.
3. Glaciers record climate change. Geologists are able
to drill cores out of glacial ice to measure the CO 2
content of the atmosphere at different times in the
past. They have determined that the CO2 content of
the Earth’s atmosphere has fluctuated over time and
that these fluctuations correspond to rising and falling