The Geosphere

What is the Geosphere?

The geosphere is the earth itself: the rocks, minerals, and landforms of the surface and interior. Below the crust – which varies in depth from about 5 km beneath the ocean floor to up to 70 km below the land surface, temperatures are high enough for deformation and a paste-like flow of elements. At one time, roughly 200 million years ago, the continents were joined together in a supercontinent called Pangaea, but since then tectonic plates have slowly separated, creating the arrangement of the continents we are accustomed to today.

Plate tectonic movement is ongoing, and humans can witness its sometimes violent activity in the form of earthquakes and volcanoes. More regularly, however, human interaction with the dynamic geosphere comes in the form of surface erosion, our use of arable land for farming, and excavations for the construction of buildings, roads, and mines.

How does the geosphere interact in the earth system?

Evolution of the continents. Fast-forward 200 million years from the time of Pangaea to the creation of the modern-day continents. (Credit: ARC Science Simulations)

While seemingly static, the geosphere is in fact a very active player in the earth’s systems, affecting the atmosphere and the oceans, as well as critical processes such as the water cycle and biogeochemical cycles. For instance, the types of minerals contained in soils – the results of geologic processes – help to determine the vegetative cover and ecosystems on the soil surface. Carbon – an essential element of life – is bound in organic matter and is carried to the ocean via wind and water erosion where eventually it becomes part of the ocean floor. Tectonic movement carries ocean deposits into the earth’s interior. On geologic timescales, volcanic activity can vent the stored carbon to the Earth’s atmosphere as carbon dioxide. The carbon cycle is one of the key cycles linking the geosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere.

The inner core of the earth contains liquid iron. Its motion is thought to drive the earth’s magnetic field – the magnetosphere – which extends far beyond the atmosphere, protecting Earth and its biosphere from solar wind and cosmic radiation. This layer is extremely hot and advances in geothermal technology could some day enable us to harness greater amounts of heat energy from within the crust and convert it to electricity at the surface.

Soy Plantation, Amazon Brazil. With the aid of fossil fuel-powered machinery, man can make sweeping changes to the natural landscape.

How do humans interact with the geosphere?

Aside from surface disturbances such as excavations and agriculture, humans have a fairly minor impact on the workings and scale of the geosphere. Humans still live largely at the mercy of powerful geologic forces. The 2010 Haiti earthquake is just one of many examples of the impact of these forces. While we may never be able to stop earthquakes or volcanoes, studying their mechanics can enable us to better understand their dynamics so that we may continue to develop means for reducing risk to homes and people when they occur.

Journal Activity

Materials: Notebook, paper and pencil or dedicated computer file where you can keep your work.

  1. Pick one or more of the Geosphere Questions.
  2. Write down or sketch your answers based on your own understanding without looking anything up.
  3. Ask a family member, friend, or teacher the same question(s) and write down or sketch their answers.
  4. What are the common ideas in the answers you’ve collected? Write or sketch the common themes/ideas.
  5. Come up with your own strategy for digging deeper (ask a scientist, check out university and government agency websites like NASA and NOAA, go to the library, design and conduct an experiment, etc.) until you’re satisfied the answer makes sense to you.
  6. Summarize what is known and unknown about the subject of the question(s). Also note what evidence there is in supporting what is known and how the evidence was obtained.
  7. Rate the answer you’ve come up with on a scale of 1 to 10, 1 being weak with lots of uncertainty, 10 being perfect.