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.


Rock: A hard lump of one or more minerals. Some examples are limestone, shale, sandstone, granite, marble, basalt, obsidian, coal, quartz, conglomerate and chalk.

Mineral: An inorganic substance of uniform color, texture, luster and structure

Sedimentary rock: Rock formed when other rocks break down into sediment, then gradually reform into new layers of rock due to pressure and layering. An example is found in the Grand Canyon, whose layers are clearly visible.

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

Metamorphic rock: Rock that has undergone significant changes due to heat. An example is marble, which forms after limestone is subjected to high heat and pressure.

Ore: Any natural material that contains a metal and is mined for that metal. An example is iron ore, which is rock that contains iron.

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

Dirt: A loose 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 and contains living organisms

Sediment: 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 they are buried under layers of sediment and pressed upon for many years. Some are rocks that show imprints of organic material that has eroded away and others are the actual remains of the organism, such as bone, or remains that have slowly become petrified

Petrification: A process by which organic material, such as wood or bone, is gradually replaced by minerals and turned into stone. Little by little, minerals fill the spaces where the material has broken down until the entire material is replaced with mineral but retains the shape of the original material. This process typically occurs over a long period of time, as the organic material is buried under sediment and subjected to high pressure and temperatures.

Clay: A type of dirt that contains very small particles, which allow for a soft, uniform, well-mixed substance. It holds water well and is often good for farming.

The four layers of the earth: The outer crust (oceans and tectonic plates), the mantle (rock), the outer core (extremely hot liquid metal), and the inner core (solid metal)

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

Erosion: The movement of soil, sand and sediment from one place to another through wind, water, tilling and more. Since topsoil is richest in nutrients, erosion lowers soil quality.

The carbon cycle: The process by which carbon cycles through plants, animals, water bodies, the soil and the atmosphere. It occurs during plant photosynthesis; the intake of carbon from plants by animals for energy; organic decomposition; and the burning of fossil fuels.

The nitrogen cycle: The process by which nitrogen cycles through plants, animals, water, the soil and the atmosphere as it is used by plants, animals and bacteria for creating amino acids and other needed compounds

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

Evaporation: The process by which a liquid or solid is transformed into a vapor

Condensation: The process by which water vapor from the air collects back into drops on a solid

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

Ocean currents: The large-scale movements of the oceans due to wind, the rotation of the earth and more

Groundwater: The water that resides under the earth’s surface in porous rocks and cracks in soil and sand

The water table: The top of the groundwater zone, the depth of which is affected by rainfall or lack thereof

Air: The gas mixture that animals breathe and that makes up the earth’s atmosphere. It is made up of oxygen (about 21 percent), nitrogen (about 78 percent) and other gases, including carbon dioxide (about 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. Its gases can be separated out by specialized cooling and compression processes in which each gas liquefies at a different temperature and allows for separation.

Air pressure: The force exerted by the weight and movement of air molecules on an area due to the closeness of the particles. High-pressure air naturally and quickly moves toward areas of lower-pressure air due to its energy and momentum. 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.”

Earth’s atmosphere: All of the air that surrounds the earth, which is held in place by gravity and which has no distinct endpoint. It is divided into layers, with higher, thinner layers that have less oxygen and are unbreathable.

Earthquake: A sudden and rapid shaking of the surface of the earth, usually due to tectonic plate shifts

Seismic activity: The sum of all of the tremors and earthquakes in a region over a specified period of time

Tectonic plates: Large pieces of the earth’s crust that move, whose movement is driven by movements deep in the earth’s molten mantle

Fault line: An area where two tectonic plates meet that are particularly vulnerable to earthquake effects

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

Volcano: Openings in the ground from which magma, ash, gas, and rock fragments surge upward and erupt as lava. This occurs when magma is pushed to the surface due to pressure from within the earth.

Magma: Molten rock (plus some minerals and gases) that is found deep in the earth’s crust and mantle and forms due to intense pressure and heat

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

Radiometric dating: A scientific, though inexact, method for determining the age of rock and other materials based on the decay of radioactive isotopes

Carbon dating: A type of radiometric dating that measures the amount of carbon still in organic materials after death and decay


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 community of similar plants, animals, climate and geography

The eleven biomes of Earth: Tropical rainforests, temperate forests, coniferous forests, tundra, grasslands, savannas, deserts, scrublands, alpine, wetlands and marine

Biodiversity: The huge variety of living things in a particular area, which can be lost with selective breeding, deforestation and other human activities

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

Drought: An extended period without adequate precipitation in a given area

Waterlogged: Oversaturated with water. Water-holding capacity is better for rich soil but poorer for sandy soil.

Aeration: The process of adding air to soil, which increases its oxygen levels and helps plants grow. This can be done by bacteria and other animals in the soil, or by specialized human techniques.

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

Soil management: Maintaining proper balance of soil nutrients, airflow and water in soil

Soil conservation: Measures used to prevent erosion and maintain soil quality, such as crop rotation, reduced tillage and more

Renewable resource: A natural resource that replenishes itself fast enough to keep up with human rates of use, including sunlight, wind, rain, tides, waves and geothermal heat

Non-renewable resource: A natural resource that does not renew itself fast enough to keep up with human rates of use, including minerals, metal ores, fossil fuels (coal, petroleum and natural gas) and some groundwater

Fossil fuel: A fuel that forms deep under the earth from the remains of decomposed animals and plants. Some examples are coal, petroleum and natural gas. They are considered non-renewable because it takes millions of years for them to complete one cycle of formation.

The Ozone Layer: The layer of ozone (O3) that exists in the upper atmosphere of the earth and that protects humans from UV rays

The Greenhouse Effect: The natural process whereby gases in the earth’s atmosphere trap heat and keep the planet warm. When there is an overabundance of these gases (due to human production of carbon dioxide and methane, for example), the planet warms too much, creating climate change that then results in the melting of polar ice caps, the rising of ocean levels, the death of coral reefs and other detrimental effects.

Global warming: A slow warming of the earth resulting from the Greenhouse Effect


Weather: The atmospheric conditions, including temperature, precipitation, humidity, wind, and other variables, in a given place and time that are caused by changing air pressure and heat from the sun

Climate: The long-term average 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: A large rotating storm system with a low-pressure center called an eye, formed when multiple oceanic thunderstorms collide. They are sometimes also called typhoons or cyclones.

Tsunami: A series of huge, destructive waves formed during major ocean events like volcanic eruptions, meteorite crashes, landslides and underwater earthquakes. They are sometimes mistakenly called tidal waves, though they are not caused by tides.

Atmospheric particle: Organic and human-made microscopic solid or liquid particles suspended in the atmosphere

Barometer: A tool to measure air pressure

Cumulus clouds: Large, puffy clouds with a flat base and a rounded top that often indicate fair weather

Stratus clouds: Flat clouds that form in layers, often cover the entire sky and often produce light rain

Cirrus clouds: Thin, wispy clouds made up of ice crystals that form at high altitudes

Nimbus clouds: Large, dark-colored clouds that produce precipitation


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