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Understanding Earth: An

Introduction to Physical
Geology (Chapter 1)
Introduction to Earth Systems

A system is a combination of related parts that interact in

organized fashion. Changes in components of the system can
affect the entire system as well as any connected systems.

Earth, a complex, dynamic system, consists of atmosphere,

biosphere, lithosphere, hydrosphere, mantle, and core
subsystems. Energy and matter are exchanged and recycled
these subsystems.

What is Geology?

Geology is the study of Earth and has traditionally been divided

into two broad areas of interest:
1) physical geology which concerns rocks and minerals and the
processes as well as internal and external Earth-processes, and
2) historical geology which examines the origin and evolution of
Earths continents, oceans, atmosphere, and life.

Geology is a very broad and diverse discipline with many

different specialties that draw on knowledge from related
sciences such as astronomy, biology, physics, and chemistry.

How Does






The arts, music, literature, and even the comics contain

numerous references to geology.

The struggle for control of natural resources such as oil, gas,

gold, diamonds, etc., is a recurring theme in human history.

Throughout history empires have risen and fallen on the

distribution and exploitation of natural resources.

Natural features shaped by geologic processes serve as political

boundaries and have shaped the tactics of military campaigns

How Does Geology Affect Our Everyday Lives?

Nearly every aspect of geology has some economic or

environmental relevance. From these we can trace many
connections between geology and various aspects of our lives.

The uneven distribution of energy and mineral resources

and dependence on them shapes international politics and

Fulfilling our diverse roles as decision makers (members of

community planning boards, property owners with mineral
rights, homeowners concerned with stream flooding, and
parents concerned about the safety of water supply to
legislators enacting environmental regulations) requires a
basic understanding of geologic processes.

Geologic hazards (earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides)

affect many lives. More geologic knowledge is required to lessen
the severity of their impact.

The standard of living is dependent on the use of geologic

materials, requiring consumer awareness
overuse of geologic resources adversely
affects the balance
of nature,
our culture, and environment.

To insure a future with sufficient natural resources to maintain

the standard of living for a larger population, we must achieve
sustainable development.

Global Geologic & Environmental Issues Facing


Global warming via the greenhouse effect is another important

environmental issue. Increased CO2 in the
appears to correlate to warmer global

Factors contributing to increased atmospheric CO 2 are industrial

and automobile emissions and destruction of rain forests.

Origin of the Solar System and Differentiation of

the Early Earth
a) cloud of interstellar debris left over from Big Bang condenses via
gravitational collapse.
b) begins to flatten and rotate and matter concentrates at center of
cloud (solar nebula) to form embryonic Sun.
c) turbulence in solar nebula forms eddies that concentrate matter to
form planetesimals .
d) embryonic Sun condenses, heats to several million degrees, and
resulting solar radiation blows debris from solar system.
e) Sun is born and begins to burn
continues to

hydrogen; planetary


Origin of the Solar System and Differentiation of

the Early Earth
a) early Earth (4.6 b.y.) had uniform composition and density.
b) heat generated by gravitational contraction, collisions with debris in
its orbital path and decay of radioactive elements results in (partial)
melting; during molten phase dense elements sink to collect in core
and lighter silicate minerals flow upward to form mantle and crust.
c) differentiation results in layered planet, and emission of gases
supplies material for early atmosphere and oceans.

Why is Earth a Dynamic Planet?

Earth has continuously changed during its 4.6 billion year

existence. Examples include:

1) changes in size, shape, and location of continents and

ocean basins
2) changes in composition of the atmosphere
3) changes in life-forms from past to present

4) formation and destruction of mountains and landscapes.

Volcanoes and earthquakes are evidence of active interior

Folded and fractured rocks record the power of Earths internal


Earths dynamic nature, illustrated by the specific changes and

features listed above, results from interaction among the many
subsystems and cycles of the complex Earth system.

Plate Tectonic Theory

Milestone in geologic thought equivalent in significance to

theory of evolution in biology.

Framework for understanding Earth processes and features on a

global scale.

Helps understand processes by which Earths subsystems

interact as well as features and phenomena produced by these

Led to realization that continents and ocean basins (components

of the lithosphere), atmosphere, and hydrosphere evolved in
concert with mantle and core subsystems of Earths interior.

The lithosphere is divided into a series of plates that fit like

jigsaw puzzle pieces across the Earths surface.

Plates float on the asthenosphere, a partially molten part of the

mantle, as they move across Earths surface and interact along
their boundaries.

Zones of volcanic and/or earthquake activity mark most plate


Plate movements are responsible for:

1) formation of major landscape features,
2) formation and distribution of geologic resources,
3) influencing the distribution and evolution of the

There general types of plate boundaries are recognized:

convergent, divergent, and transform.

The Rock Cycle - Igneous Rocks

Geologists recognize three major rock groups, each of which has

a characteristic mode of formation. Each major rock group can
be subdivided based on composition and texture.

Igneous rocks form by cooling and crystallization of molten

Slow cooling within Earth produces intrusive igneous rock such
as granite.
Faster cooling at Earths surface yields extrusive igneous rocks
such as basalt.

The Rock Cycle - Sedimentary Rocks

Sedimentary rocks form by:

1) consolidation of rock


2) precipitation of minerals from solution

3) compaction of plant or animal remains

Sedimentary rocks are very useful for interpreting Earth history

The Rock Cycle - Metamorphic Rocks

Metamorphic rocks form beneath Earths surface when other

rocks are transformed by heat, pressure, and/or chemically
active fluids.

Foliated metamorphic rocks, gneiss for example, contain layers

or bands formed by the parallel alignment of minerals due to

Nonfoliated metamorphic rocks, such as quartzite, lack pressureinduced layering and commonly form due to heat.

The Rock Cycle Interrelationships

The rock cycle illustrates the relationships between Earths

internal and external processes and relates the formation of the
major rock groups to external (weathering, transportation,
deposition) and internal processes (melting, metamorphism).

The Rock Cycle - A Plate Tectonic Perspective

Plate movement drives the rock cycle and is responsible for the
recycling of rocks from one major group to another.

For example, heat and pressure generated along convergent

boundaries may lead to melting of and metamorphism of rocks
in the descending ocean plate and thereby lead to formation of
new igneous
and metamorphic rocks.

Geologic Time & Uniformitarianism

An appreciation for the immensity of geologic time is central to

understanding the evolution of Earth and life on Earth.

The vastness of geologic time sets geology apart from all other
sciences except astronomy.

The geologic time scale was assembled in the 19th century by

geologists who arranged information from a multitude of rock
outcrops into a sequential chronology based on changes in
Earths biota through time.

Development of radiometric dating in the 20th century

permitted assignment of absolute age dates to subdivisions of
the time scale.
Uniformitarianism is a cornerstone in the interpretation of
Earths geologic history. It holds that present-day processes have
operated throughout geologic time. Understanding present-day
geologic processes and the features they form is the key to
interpreting features preserved in rocks and Earths geologic
history. For example, bird tracks preserved in this 50 millionyear-old sedimentary rock were formed the same way bird tracks
are formed in soft mud today.
Unformitarianism leads us to interpret the features in the rock to
the right as ancient mud cracks formed by desiccation
sediment just as is shown in the present-day setting below.