Earth processes

A schematic highlighting some of the most relevant Earth processes. Illustrated are an early Earth (without a fully developed solid inner core, left) that evolves into a dynamic, present-day-style Earth (right), which generates and erases geologic records of its transforming states and is now experiencing unprecedented environmental change. The arcuate lines surrounding globe illustrate the protective geomagnetic field that arises from the fluid dynamics within the outer core (light grey, illustrated with curled lines). The solid inner core is shown to scale as a darker grey. The mantle and crust (continental rocks are light brown, ocean floor basalts are dark brown; thicknesses greatly exaggerated, with mantle thickness to scale) is a single system driven by convection within the mantle that arises from radioactive decay of heat-producing elements and the loss of the deeply buried planet’s formational energy through cooling of the core. The lithosphere (crust and coldest mantle) is broken into separating and colliding plates whose distribution influence critical element distribution, earthquakes, volcanism, topography, critical zone, climate, water cycle, biogeochemistry, and biodiversity. The Earth is blanketed in a thin atmosphere (light blue). The profile of a landscape highlights Earth surface processes, the sedimentary record of Earth’s history, human influence, and geohazards to people. Displacement on faults may produce sudden strong earthquakes (creating significant hazards) or develop slowly with virtually imperceptible earthquakes. Landslides and coastal retreat, sea level rise, and tsunamis also present hazards to the coastal community. Uplifted hills will experience weathering (light brown) such that dense bedrock develops porosity and holds moisture and groundwater (light blue) that is exploited by vegetation. Deep groundwater aquifers (blue) are key water resources. Precipitation (blue lines) is returned to the atmosphere by evaporation and transpiration (blue dots) with excess water recharging groundwater or running off. Biologically-mediated gas exchange with the atmosphere occurs across the planet. Older sedimentary rocks (stippled brown) and young to contemporary sediments provide records of Earth’s evolving climate, biogeochemistry, and biodiversity. Humans are acting as geologic agents and affecting Earth processes in many ways, including through climate change (via urbanization, release of greenhouse gases, and vegetation change); nutrient input to terrestrial aquatic systems and the oceans (from agriculture and urban wastewater); changes in erosion and sedimentation (from land use change, dams, and other influences on river flow and sediment load); modification of the geographic distribution of biodiversity (from climate and land use change); and exacerbation of hazards (through rising sea level, more intense storms, land use change, and drought-induced wildland fires).

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