Basic Geology and Ecology (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

As humans, we experience the effects of chemistry, biology and physics every day, but not always knowingly. For this reason, geology and ecology are to me the most visual–even the most sensual–of the hard sciences, the ones that allows us to better understand our immediate environment.

Geology isn’t theory and microscopes; it’s what we see around us every day.

Sometimes, it’s hard to mentally separate geology and ecology. Here’s the short version: geology is the study of all the stuff on the earth, and ecology is the study of the way living things interact with it.

Basic Geology

Layers of the earth: Outer crust, mantle (viscous), outer core (liquid metal), inner core (solid metal)

Earth’s crust: The surface of the earth that is made of various rocks and minerals with soil on top. The five main elements found in the Earth’s crust are oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium.

Rock: Collections of minerals formed together into a stone. A compound.

Mineral: A single material of uniform color, texture, luster and structure. Usually made up of two or more elements.

Crystal: A piece of mineral that has a characteristic shape (box or cube). Ex: table salt. Each grain of salt is cube-shaped. Each molecule, too.

Dirt: They are made up of broken down minerals and organic substances through weathering.

Soil: Dirt that is fit to grow plants in

Ore: Any natural, earth material that is mined and processed to obtain a desired metal. Ex: iron ore is rock containing iron.

Metal: The chemical particles, often found in minerals, that are pure metallic elements such as iron, copper, gold and aluminum. They share these properties: 1. shiny; 2. conduct heat and electricity; 3. solid at room temp (except mercury); 4. some are magnetic (iron and nickel).

Alloy: A mixture of two or more metals

Steel: An alloy of iron, carbon and traces of other metals

Sediment: The dirt and sand that is carried away with water and wind and add layers to other places. The layers separate according to the size and density of the materials and eventually harden into rock under the sea and elsewhere.

Fossil: The structure that results when organisms are buried under layers of sediment and pressed on, then cemented into the soil

Clay: A kind of dirt with the smallest particles. Makes a very uniform, soft sdimentary rock, like shale … unlike sandstone. Clay soil holds water well.

The three types of rocks: Sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic

Sedimentary rock: Rock formed when other rocks break down into sediment, then gradually reform other rocks due to pressure and layering. The Grand canyon is an example of sedimentary rocks. Its layers are visible. It was once under the ocean.

Igneous rock: Rock formed from magma erupting from a volcano. It forms in an irregular, crystalline pattern combining two or more distinct materials, with less mixing. Come from cooling magma, so form quickly and doesn’t contain fossils.

Metamorphic rock: Igneous, sedimentary or other metamorphic rock that changes due to heat

Geological time: A division of the history of the earth into periods based on the types of fossils found in the layers of the earth’s crust

Radiometric/carbon dating: A way to determine the age of a rock by the amount of carbon it contains

Corrosion: The damaging chemical reaction that occurs when metal is in contact with oxygen. The damage happens because oxide forms on the metal.

Weathering/erosion: The process of the breakdown of minerals, rocks and organic materials through freezing, thawing, melting, abrasion, wind, acids, etc.

Water: A chemical compound that is the most common liquid on earth. It is a solvent that is formed when hydrogen burns in air (oxygen).

The water cycle: The process by which water is continuously recycled between the earth, the atmosphere and living things through heat and evaporation and clouds and rain

Dissolve: To mix something into a liquid

Solution: The result of dissolving something in a liquid

Soluble: Able to dissolve in liquid

Insoluble: Unable to dissolve in liquid

Tides: The rise and fall of sea levels caused by the gravity of the moon and the rotation of the earth

Ocean currents: The movement of the water of the world’s oceans due to wind, the rotation of the earth and more

Groundwater: Water under the Earth’s surface. Most groundwater is found in porous rocks.

The water table: The depth at which groundwater is found, which is affected by rainfall or lack thereof

Spring: A place where groundwater emerges from a hillside

Air: The gas that we breathe. Air is oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. It helps people breathe oxygen, which they need in their blood. It helps plants make food. It protects people from sun’s UV rays. Nitrogen: 78%, Oxygen – 21%, Other – 1%. Molecules/particles in air are constantly moving and there’s lots of empty space between them. Like water always flows downhill, air always flows toward lower pressure. To separate out the gases in air, just cool and compress it. Each gas liquifies at a different temperature.

Earth’s atmosphere: All of the air that surrounds the Earth. It is held near the earth due to gravity. There is no distinct starting point, but instead a gradual decline; the further up into the atmosphere you get, the less air is held down. Also, the higher air is thinner, with less oxygen, and unbreathable. (Side note: the moon’s gravitational pull isn’t strong enough to hold air down, so there is no air on the moon.)

Air compression: What happens when air particles are pushed closer together (as in a small space). Compressed air is more highly pressurized.

Air pressure: The condition created when air is pushed. When you push more air into a small space, air particles move closer together but try to escape by pushing on the inside walls (of the tire or balloon or whatever). The place on the body we notice air pressure changes is the ear since the eardrum must have equal air pressure on both sides, but air has to go through a bottleneck, and can move unevenly, resulting in popping.

Vacuum: When we suck or otherwise remove air from a container, we create a vacuum. By removing air, air pressure decreases. And since air always flows toward lower pressure, sucking occurs and air and materials from the outside get pulled in. (It’s not the motion of pulling out the air that causes sucking. It’s the higher pressure on the outside wanting to get in!) Outer space has no air, so it is a vaccum. If you went to space without a spacesuit you’d explode because all the air in your body would push outward toward the vaccum at once. Spacesuits provide air pressure.

The magnetic field of the earth: The field of magnetism in the earth with poles near the North Pole and the South Pole that are tilted at a slight angle. The field may be caused by moving metal in the Earth’s outer core. From time to time, these reverse, with north becoming south.

Magnetosphere: The area that stretches into space in which the Earth’s magnetic field can be felt.

Basic Ecology

Ecology: The study of the way living things interact with their environments

Ecosystem: A group of plants and animals that interact with each other and their surroundings

Biome: A unique climate and soil type

The eleven biomes of Earth: Tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, mountains, coniferous forests, scrub lands, temperate grasslands/prairies, tundra, tropical grasslands, deserts, polar areas, oceans

Habitat: The natural environment in which a species lives

Biodiversity: The huge variety of living things in a particular area. Biodiversity is lost with selective breeding.

Pollution: The unneeded junk (particularly the human-made chemical particles) that gets into the air and water. Water pollution happens both due to poisons in water killing life and to the oxygen in the water being used up by the bacteria (or even plant) overgrowth as they feed on waste materials. When there is inadequate oxygen for fish and animals, the water becomes lifeless.

The Ozone Layer: The layer of ozone (O3) that exists in the upper atomosphere of earth. It is poisonous to humans but protects us from UV rays.

The Greenhouse Effect: The result of an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat and causes a greenhouse-like effect on earth which then results in major climate change

Global warming: The result of the Greenhouse Effect

Sewage treatment: The process by which a city’s waste water is filtered for large particles, then left in tanks where the organic solids sink to the bottom and are broken down by bacteria

Carbon cycle: The process by which carbon cycles in an through plants, animals, minerals and the atmosphere. This happens mostly due to the respiration of carbon dioxide by animals, the incorporation of carbon dioxide by plants during photosynthesis, decomposition and the burning of fossil fuels.

Nitrogen cycle: When the nitrogen cycle is not in balance, global warming and ozone depletion can occur.

Intensive farming: Farming with use of chemicals, machinery, etc.

Fossil fuels: Coal, oil, and gas, which are called fossil fuels because they were formed from the remains of animals and plants that were buried by layers of sediment millions of years ago. They are non-renewable.

Biodegradable: A substance that can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms

Sea level change: The change in sea levels caused by temperature changes. During ice ages, sea levels are low due to the great amount of frozen water. Today, sea levels have risen due to global warming.

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