The term mass wasting (sometimes called mass movement) encompasses a broad array of processes whereby earth material is transported down a slope by the force of gravity. It is related closely to weathering, which is the breakdown of minerals or rocks at or near Earth's surface through physical, chemical, or biological processes, and to erosion, the transport of material through a variety of agents, most of them flowing media, such as air or water.
The materials that make up Earth are each products of complex cycles and interactions, as a study of sediment and sedimentation shows. Sediment is unconsolidated material deposited at or near Earth's surface from a number of sources, most notably preexisting rock.
If there is anything on Earth that seems simple and ordinary, it is the soil beneath our feet. Other than farmers, people hardly think of it except when tending to their lawns, and even when we do turn our attention to the soil, we tend to view it as little more than a place where grass grows and earthworms crawl.
With the rise of the environmentalist movement in the 1960s and afterward, it has become common to speak of conserving natural resources such as trees or fossil fuels. Yet long before humans recognized the need to make responsible use of things taken from the ground, they learned to conserve the ground itself—that is, the soil.
Of the 92 elements produced in nature, only six are critical to the life of organisms: hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur. Though these elements account for 95% of the mass of all living things, their importance extends far beyond the biosphere.
If a person were asked to name the element most important to sustaining life, chances are he or she would say oxygen. It is true that many living things depend on oxygen to survive, but, in fact, carbon is even more fundamental to the sustenance of life.
Contrary to popular belief, the air we breathe is not primarily oxygen; by far the greatest portion of air is composed of nitrogen. A colorless, odorless gas noted for its lack of chemical reactivity—that is, its tendency not to bond with other elements—nitrogen plays a highly significant role within the earth system.
An ecosystem is a complete community of living organisms and the nonliving materials of their surroundings. Thus, its components include plants, animals, and microorganisms; soil, rocks, and minerals; as well as surrounding water sources and the local atmosphere.
Ecology is the study of the relationships between organisms and their environments. As such, it is subsumed into the larger subject of ecosystems, which encompasses both living and nonliving components of the environment.
Hydrology is among the principal disciplines within the larger framework of hydrologic sciences, itself a subcategory of earth sciences study. Of particular importance to hydrology is the hydrologic cycle by which water is circulated through various earth systems above and below ground.
The hydrologic cycle is the continuous circulation of water throughout Earth and between Earth's systems. At various stages, water—which in most cases is synonymous with the hydrosphere—moves through the atmosphere, the biosphere, and the geosphere, in each case performing functions essential to the survival of the planet and its life-forms.
Glaciology is the study of ice and its effects. Since ice can appear on or in the earth as well as in its seas and other bodies of water and even its atmosphere, the purview of glaciologists is potentially very large.