Earth science

Earth science or geoscience is a widely embraced term for the fields of science related to the planet Earth. Earth science can be considered to be a branch of planetary science, but with a much older history. There are both reductionist and holistic approaches to Earth sciences. The Earth sciences can include the study of geology, the lithosphere, and the large-scale structure of the Earth's interior, as well as the atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere. Typically, Earth scientists use tools from geography, chronology, physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics to build a quantitative understanding of how the Earth works and evolves.

Fields of study

The following fields of science are generally categorized within the Earth sciences:

Earth's interior

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A volcanic eruption is the release of stored energy from below the surface of Earth.

Plate tectonics, mountain ranges, volcanoes, and earthquakes are geological phenomena that can be explained in terms of physical and chemical processes in the Earth's crust.

Beneath the Earth's crust lies the mantle which is heated by the radioactive decay of heavy elements. The mantle is not quite solid and consists of magma which is in a state of semi-perpetual convection. This convection process causes the lithospheric plates to move, albeit slowly. The resulting process is known as plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics might be thought of as the process by which the Earth is resurfaced. As the result of seafloor spreading, new crust and lithosphere is created by the flow of magma from the mantle to the near surface, through fissures, where it cools and solidifies. Through subduction, oceanic crust and lithosphere returns to the convecting mantle.

Areas of the crust where new crust is created are called divergent boundaries, those where it is brought back into the Earth are convergent boundaries and those where plates slide past each other, but no new lithospheric material is created or destroyed, are referred to as transform (or conservative) boundaries Earthquakes result from the movement of the lithospheric plates, and they often occur near convergent boundaries where parts of the crust are forced into the Earth as part of subduction.

Volcanoes result primarily from the melting of subducted crust material. Crust material that is forced into the asthenosphere melts, and some portion of the melted material becomes light enough to rise to the surface—giving birth to volcanoes.

Earth's atmosphere

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The magnetosphere shields the surface of Earth from the charged particles of the solar wind.
(image not to scale.)

The troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, thermosphere, and exosphere are the five layers which make up Earth's atmosphere. In all, the atmosphere is made up of about 78.0% nitrogen, 20.9% oxygen, and 0.92% argon. 75% of the gases in the atmosphere are located within the troposphere, the bottom-most layer. The remaining one percent of the atmosphere (all but the nitrogen, oxygen, and argon) contains small amounts of other gases including CO2 and water vapors. Water vapors and CO2 allow the Earth's atmosphere to catch and hold the Sun's energy through a phenomenon called the greenhouse effect. This allows Earth's surface to be warm enough to have liquid water and support life. In addition to storing heat, the atmosphere also protects living organisms by shielding some of the Earth's surface from cosmic rays—of which are often incorrectly thought to be deflected by the magnetic field. The magnetic field—created by the internal motions of the core—produces the magnetosphere which protects the Earth's atmosphere from the solar wind. As the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, it would have lost its atmosphere by now if there were no protective magnetosphere.

Earth's magnetic field

An electromagnet is a magnet that is created by an electric current. The Earth has a solid iron inner core surrounded by fluid outer core that convects; therefore, the Earth is an electromagnet. The motion of fluid convection sustains the Earth's magnetic field.

Methodology

Methodologies vary depending on the nature of the subjects being studied. Studies typically fall into one of three categories: observational, experimental, or theoretical. Earth scientists often conduct sophisticated computer analysis or go to many of the world's most exotic locations to study Earth phenomena (e.g. Antarctica or hot spot island chains).

A foundational idea within the study Earth science is the notion of uniformitarianism. Uniformitarianism dictates that "ancient geologic features are interpreted by understanding active processes that are readily observed." In other words, any geologic processes at work in the present have operated in the same ways throughout geologic time. This enables those who study Earth's history to apply knowledge of how Earth processes operate in the present to gain insight into how the planet has evolved and changed throughout deep history.

Earth's spheres

Earth science generally recognizes four spheres, the lithosphere, the hydrosphere, the atmosphere, and the biosphere; these correspond to rocks, water, air and life. Also included by some are the cryosphere (corresponding to ice) as a distinct portion of the hydrosphere and the pedosphere (corresponding to soil) as an active and intermixed sphere.

Partial list of the major earth science topics

Atmosphere

Biosphere

Hydrosphere

Lithosphere (geosphere)

Pedosphere

Systems

Others

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