School in a Book: Geology, Ecology and Meteorology

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.

Add: The elements of the earth’s crust (oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, magnesium). The parts of the earth (crust—oceanic and continental; mantle—litho-sphere and asthenosphere; outer core; inner core). Types of clouds.

Basic Geology

Layers of the earth: The four distinct parts of the earth, which include: the outer crust (oceans and tectonic plates), the mantle (rock), the outer core (extremely hot liquid metal), and the inner core (solid metal).

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

Rock: A collection of various minerals formed together into a hard mass. Common rocks include: limestone, shale, sandstone, granite, marble, basalt, obsidian, coal, quartz, conglomerate and chalk. Rocks are not made of single minerals or elements, but are compounds of several different minerals.

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

Crystal: A mineral whose molecules are arranged in a highly regular pattern, which results in a characteristic shape. Some example of crystals are: table salt, graphite, ice and quartz.

Dirt: A mixture of minerals and organic substances that have been broken down through weathering, animal digestion and more

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: An element or an alloy that is shiny in appearance; conducts heat and electricity; and remains solid at room temperature (except mercury). Some, like iron and nickel, are also magnetic. Note that the definition of the term “metal” is not exact, and changes as its application changes. Some non-metal elements become metals at very high temperatures.

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 deposited in other places in layers. These layers separate according to the size and density of the materials and eventually harden into rock under the sea and elsewhere.

Fossil: The remains of organisms after those organisms are buried under layers of sediment and pressed upon for many years. Some fossils are rocks that show imprints of organic material that has eroded away. Other fossils are the actual remains of the organism, such as bone, or remains that have slowly become petrified (mineralized and turned into rock).

Clay: A kind of dirt that contains very small particles, which result in a soft, uniform, well-mixed substance. Clay soil (soil with a higher-than-average amount of clay in it) holds water well and is good for farming.

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 rock. Its layers are visible.

Igneous rock: Rock formed from magma that erupted from a volcano, then cooled into layers and chunks

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

Geological time: A perspective of the history of the earth that divides it into periods based on the types of fossils found in the various layers of the earth’s crust

Radiometric/carbon dating: A scientific, though inexact, method for determining the age of a rock by the amount of carbon it contains

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

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

Water: The most common liquid on earth, whose chemical formula is H2O. 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 thoroughly mix something into a liquid

Solution: The liquid that results after dissolving something into it

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 mixture that we breathe and that makes up the earth’s atmosphere. Air is made up of oxygen (21 percent), nitrogen (78 percent) and other gases, including carbon dioxide (1 percent). It helps plants make food; protects people from UV rays; and helps people obtain oxygen, which is an important component of human blood. The gases in air can be separated out by cooling and compressing the air. Each gas liquifies at a different temperature, allowing for separation.

Earth’s atmosphere: All of the air that surrounds the earth. It is held near the earth due to gravity. There is no distinct endpoint of this region, but instead a gradual decline into airlessness. This is because the gravitational pull on the higher air particles is gradually reduced. Higher air is thinner, with less oxygen, and unbreathable. (Side note: The moon’s gravitational pull isn’t strong enough to hold air down, which is why there is no air or similar gaseous atmosphere on the moon.)

Air pressure: A measurement of the closeness of the particles of air in a particular space. High-pressure air naturally expands into low-pressure air spaces due to its energy and momentum. (Side note: The eardrum in the human ear must have equal pressure on both sides; however, air has to move through a bottleneck and, during quick changes in atmospheric pressure, can move unevenly, resulting in what is known as “ear popping.”)

Air compression: The condition created when air particles are pushed closer together (as in a small space such as a tire or a balloon). When this happens, the particles try to escape and expand by pushing on the inside walls, causing visible inflation. Compressed air is an especially highly pressurized type of air.

Vacuum: An area of decreased air pressure that causes areas of higher air pressure to be drawn in towards it. When we suck or otherwise remove air from a container, we create a vacuum in that container. That vacuum, in turn, sucks air into it. Note that it isn’t the motion of pulling out air that causes a vacuum cleaner to suck, but the natural physical reaction of higher-pressure air to rush to fill (and thus balance out) lower-pressure air that causes this behavior.

Outer space has no air, so it is considered a vacuum. If a person went to space without a spacesuit, they would explode immediately as all of the air in their body pushed outward toward the vacuum at once. Spacesuits provide air pressure to prevent this.

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 climate and soil type that is unique to a particular region of the earth

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

Habitat: The natural environment in which a species lives and thrives

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

Pollution: The mixing of unneeded, destructive, usually human-made substances with Earth’s air and water. Air pollution results in an erosion of the Earth’s protective atmosphere and harm to land plants and animals. Water pollution results bacterial overgrowth and harm to water plants and animals. In both cases, the ecosystem becomes unbalanced. For example, bacteria overgrowth in the ocean causes oxygen depletion, which further reduces plant and animal life there.

The Ozone Layer: The layer of ozone (O3) that exists in the upper atmosphere of earth. It is poisonous to humans when inhaled but, at a distance, 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 and, in turn, causes major climate change

Global warming: A slow warming of the earth resulting from 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 through plants, animals, the soil 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: The process by which nitrogen cycles through plants, animals, the soil and the atmosphere. When the nitrogen cycle is not in balance, global warming and ozone depletion can occur.

Intensive farming: Farming with the help of chemicals, technology, high-output machinery and the like

Fossil fuels: Fuels that form deep under the earth from the remains of decomposed animals and plants. Examples are coal, petroleum and natural gas. Fossil fuels are considered non-renewable because it takes millions of years for them to complete one cycle of formation.

Biodegradable: The ability of a substance to be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms in its environment

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.

Basic Meteorology

Weather: The atmospheric conditions caused by changing air pressure and heat from the sun

Climate: The long-term weather conditions of a particular area

The four basic climate types: Tropical (hot all year); polar (cold all year); temperate (moderate, seasonal change); deserts (dry all year).

Wind: The movement of air that happens when higher pressure air is moving toward lower pressure air. If there is no pressure difference, there is no wind.

Storm: Any disruption in the atmosphere producing severe weather, including strong wind, tornadoes, hail, rain, snow (blizzard), lightning (thunderstorm), clouds of dust or sand carried by wind (a dust or sand storm)

Lightning: The visible and audible flow of electricity that occurs during a thunderstorm. It can occur inside a single cloud, between clouds, or between a cloud and the ground. It produces an audible booming sound called thunder. Since the speed of light is greater than the speed of sound, we hear thunder after we see lightning.

Tornado: A funnel-shaped column of wind, evaporated water, dust and debris that moves rapidly, sweeping up objects in its path. It is formed when a thunderstorm occurs in areas of both cold and warm air.

Hurricane/typhoon/tropical cyclone/tropical storm: A spiral-shaped group of thunderstorms that have formed in close proximity over the ocean, then collided to create a cyclone (a circular movement of wind with a low-pressure center)

Earthquake: A sudden shaking of the surface of the earth due to tectonic plate shifts

Seismic activity: The sum of all of the tremors and earthquakes in a region

Plate tectonics: The movement of the plates that make up Earth’s crust. This movement driven by movements deep in the Earth.

Fault line: The deep cracks in Earth’s crust that make those areas vulnerable to extreme movement when earthquakes strike

Subduction zone: An area where two plates have collided, causing one plate to slide below the other

Volcano: Vents (openings) in the ground from which magma (molten rock), ash, gas, and rock fragments surge upwards, in an event called an eruption. They are often found at boundaries between the plates in Earth’s crust.

Tsunami: A series of huge, destructive waves formed during major events like hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, meteorite crashes and earthquakes. Tsunamis are sometimes mistakenly called tidal waves.

Evaporation: Water vapor that is breaking free from the rest of the liquid

Condensation: The water vapor that collects back into drops on a solid. It comes from the air.

Water vapor: The gas that forms when water evaporates

Dew: The water vapor that forms as the sun rises and begins to warm cold air and humidity into condensation

Humidity: The water vapor in the air

Atmospheric particle/particulate: Microscopic solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere. Some are organic and others are human-made.

Thermometer: A tool to measure temperature

Barometer: A tool to measure air pressure


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