WHY STUDY GEOSCIENCE ?
One of the questions students almost always ask themselves or their teachers is “How will I use this?” or “What does all this have to do with everyday life?”It is easy enough to understand the application of classes involved in learning a trade or practical skill—for example, wood shop or a personal finance course. But the question of applicability sometimes becomes more challenging when it comes to many mathematical and scientific disciplines. Such is the case, for instance, with the earth sciences and particularly geoscience. Yet if we think about these concerns for just a moment, it should become readily apparent just why they are applicable to our daily lives.
After all, geoscience is the study of Earth, and therefore it relates to something of obvious and immediate practical value. We may think of a hundred things more important and pressing than studying Earth—romantic involvements, perhaps, or sports, or entertainment, or work (both inside and outside school)—yet without Earth, we would not even have those concerns. Without the solid ground beneath our feet, which provides a stage or platform on which these and other activities take place, life as we know it would be simply impossible. Our lives are bounded by the solid materials of Earth—rocks, minerals, and soil—while our language reflects the primacy of Earth in our consciousness. As we discuss later, everyday language is filled with geologic metaphors.
The geologic sciences—geology, geophysics, geo-chemistry, and related disciplines—are sometimes referred to together as geoscience. They are united in their focus on the solid earth and the mostly nonorganic components that compose it. In this realm of earth science, geology is the leading discipline, and it has given birth to many off-shoots, including geophysics and geochemistry, which represent the union of geology with physics and chemistry, respectively.
Geology is the study of the solid earth, especially its rocks, minerals, fossils, and land formations. It is divided into historical geology, which is concerned with the processes whereby Earth was formed, and physical geology, or the study of the materials that make up the planet. Geophysics addresses Earth’s physical processes as well as its gravitational, magnetic, and electric properties and the means by which energy is transmitted through its interior. Geochemistry is concerned with the chemical properties and processes of Earth—in particular, the abundance and interaction of chemical elements.
These subjects are of principal importance in this book. Though geology takes the lion’s share of attention, geophysics and geochemistry each encompass areas of study essential to understanding our life on Earth: hence we look in separate essays at such geophysical subjects as Gravity and Geodesy or Geomagnetism as well as such geochemical topics as Biogeochemical Cycles, Carbon Cycle, and Nitrogen Cycle.
OTHER AREAS OF GEOSCIENCE.
In addition to these principal areas of interest in geoscience, this book treats certain subdisciplines of geology as areas of interest in their own right. These include geomorphology and the studies of sediment and soil. Geomorphology is an area of physical geology concerned with the study of landforms, with the forces and processes that have shaped them, and with the description and classification of various physical features on Earth.
In contrast to geology, which normally is associated with rocks and minerals, geomorphology is concerned more with larger configurations, such as mountains, or with the erosive and weathering forces that shape such landforms. (See, for instance, essays on Mountains, Erosion, and Mass Wasting.) Erosion and weathering also play a major role in creating sediment and soil, areas that are of interest in the subdisciplines of sedimentology and soil science.
CONTRAST WITH OTHER DISCIPLINES AND SUBDISCIPLINES.
Geoscience is distinguished sharply from the other branches of the earth sciences, namely, hydrologic sciences and atmospheric sciences. The first of these sciences, which is concerned with water, receives attention in essays on Hydrology and Hydrologic Cycle. The second, which includes meteorology (weather forecasting) and climatology, is the subject of the essays Weather and Climate.
In addition to the hydrologic and atmospheric sciences, there are areas of earth sciences study that touch on biology. Essays in this book that treat biosphere-related topics include Ecosystems and Ecology and Ecological Stress. There is one area or set of areas, however, in which geoscience and biology more or less overlap: sedimentology and soil science, since soil is a combination of rock fragments and organic material (see Soil).
THE TERRITORY OF GEOSCIENCE
The organic material in soil—dead plants and animals and parts thereof—has ceased to be part of the biosphere and is part of the geosphere. The geosphere encompasses the upper part of Earth’s continental crust, or that portion of the solid earth on which human beings live and which provides them with most of their food and natural resources. (For more about the “spheres,” see Earth Systems.)
Later in this essay, we discuss several areas of geoscientific study that take place close to the surface of Earth. Yet the territory of geoscience extends far deeper, going well below the geosphere into the interior of the planet. (For more on this subject, see Earth’s Interior.) Geoscience even involves the study of “earths” other than our own; as discussed in such essays as Planetary Science and Sun, Moon, and Earth, there is considerable overlap between geoscience and astronomy.