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14.2: Forces that Shape the Surface of the Earth

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    In Chapter 2 you were introduced to sources of energy that drive earth system processes. The lithosphere is constantly being altered by these forces originating from within and outside the Earth system. Great forces from within causes the surface to heave and buckle, sometimes with disastrous consequences to humans. Energy received from the sun drives processes like those that create majestic sand dunes and carve magnificent stream valleys.

    Endogenic Processes and the Lithosphere

    Recall that endogenic forces or processes are those that are are driven by the Earth's vast heat engine. The movement of tectonic plates is thought to be a product of convection currents in the mantle. Deep within the Earth's core, heat is generated by the radioactive decay of elements like uranium, thorium, and potassium. The heat is transferred upward to warm the mantle causing it to slowly circulate and tug on the plates above. (For more see Some Unanswered Questions, The Dynamic Earth, USGS). As the crustal plates are moved about, they interact by colliding, sliding by, or diverging from one another. The result of such movement produces faults and earthquakes, volcanoes, the creation of mountain systems, or deep valleys and trenches. The great mountain systems of Earth like the Himalayas are a product of the collision of lithospheric plates. Similarly, the huge trenches found on the ocean floor, like the Marianas Trench, are caused by plate interaction.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{1a}\): Mt. Shishaldin, Alaska is a composite volcano (Image courtesy USGS)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1b}\): Teton Mountains were created by faulting (Image courtesy USGS)

    Exogenic Processes and the Lithosphere

    Those processes acting at the surface of the earth and primarily driven by solar energy are called exogenic processes. For instance, wind is created by the variation in pressure over distance (pressure gradient force). Pressure variations are, in part, created by the variation of surface heating due to the unequal distribution of solar energy receipt. As wind blows it exerts an erosive force on the surface to detach and transport soil particles. Wind erosion is therefore an exogenic process. Erosion by rain is likewise driven by the initial evaporation due to absorption of energy and subsequent conversion into precipitation by condensation processes. The geologic work of glaciers is considered an exogenic process. Glaciers form when summer temperatures decrease to the point where the previous winter's snowfall does not melt and accumulates over time eventually compacting and metamorphosing into ice. The accumulating ice spreads out as a great sheet sculpting the surface beneath it.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{2a}\): Water Erosion. Severe sheet erosion on farm land (Image courtesy NRCS)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2b}\): Wind Erosion. Massive dust storm during the Dust Bowl era (Image courtesy USGS DDS21)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2c}\): Glacial Erosion. Alpine glaciers are found on all continents today at high altitudes (Image courtesy USGS DDS21)

    This page titled 14.2: Forces that Shape the Surface of the Earth is shared under a CC BY-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Michael E. Ritter (The Physical Environment) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.

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