The Physical Environment
                                          Contents | Glossary | Atlas |  Index | TPE Today | Google Earth | Search

Earth Materials and Structure

Forces That Shape the Surface of the Earth

In chapter 2 "The Earth System" you were introduced to sources of energy that drive earth system processes. The lithosphere is constantly being altered by these forces originating from within and outside the Earth system. Great forces from within causes the surface to heave and buckle, sometimes with disastrous consequences to humans.  Energy received from the sun drives processes like those that create majestic sand dunes and carve magnificent stream valleys.

Endogenic Processes and the Lithosphere

Recall that endogenic forces or processes are those that are are driven by the Earth's vast heat engine are called . The movement of tectonic plates is thought to be a product of convection currents in the mantle. Deep within the Earth's core, heat is generated by the radioactive decay of elements like uranium, thorium, and potassium. The heat is transferred upward to warm the mantle causing it to slowly circulate and tug on the plates above. (For more see Some Unanswered Questions, The Dynamic Earth, USGS). As the crustal plates are moved about, they interact by colliding, sliding by, or diverging from one another. The result of such movement produces faults and earthquakes, volcanoes, the creation of mountain systems, or deep valleys and trenches. The great mountain systems of Earth like the Himalayas are a product of the collision of lithospheric plates.  Similarly, the huge trenches found on the ocean floor, like the Marianas Trench, are caused by plate interaction.


Figure 14.4a 
Mt. Shishaldin, Alaska is a composite volcano

Image courtesy USGS


Figure 14.4b 
Teton Mountains were created by faulting

Image courtesy USGS

Exogenic Processes and the Lithosphere

Those processes acting at the surface of the earth and primarily driven by solar energy are called exogenic processes. For instance, wind is created by the variation in pressure over distance (pressure gradient force). Pressure variations are, in part, created by the variation of surface heating due to the unequal distribution of solar energy receipt. As wind blows it exerts an erosive force on the surface to detach and transport soil particles. Wind erosion is therefore an exogenic process. Erosion by rain is likewise driven by the initial evaporation due to absorption of energy and subsequent conversion into precipitation by condensation processes. The geologic work of glaciers is considered an exogenic process. Glaciers form when summer temperatures decrease to the point where the previous winter's snowfall does not melt and accumulates over time eventually compacting and metamorphosing into ice. The accumulating ice spreads out as a great sheet sculpting the surface beneath it.

Figure 14.5a 
Water Erosion
Severe sheet erosion on 
farm land

Image courtesy NRCS

Figure 14.5b
Wind Erosion
Massive dust storm during the 
Dust Bowl era 

Image courtesy USGS DDS21

Figure 14.5c
Glacial Erosion
Alpine glaciers are found on all continents today at high altitudes

Image courtesy USGS DDS21


Previous |Continue    

Contents |Glossary | Atlas Index  |  Blog | Podcast | Google Earth | Search Updates | Top of page

About TPE | Who's Used TPE |  Earth Online Media

Please contact the author for inquiries, permissions, corrections or other feedback.

For Citation: Ritter, Michael E. The Physical Environment: an Introduction to Physical Geography.
Date visited.

Michael Ritter (
Last revised 1/22/14

Help keep this site available by donating through PayPal.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License..