Photograph by David Alan Harvey
Weathering and erosion slowly chisel, polish, and buff Earth's rock into ever evolving works of art—and then wash the remains into the sea.
The processes are definitively independent, but not exclusive. Weathering is the mechanical and chemical hammer that breaks down and sculpts the rocks. Erosion transports the fragments away.
Working together they create and reveal marvels of nature from tumbling boulders high in the mountains to sandstone arches in the parched desert to polished cliffs braced against violent seas.
Water is nature's most versatile tool. For example, take rain on a frigid day. The water pools in cracks and crevices. Then, at night, the temperature drops and the water expands as it turns to ice, splitting the rock like a sledgehammer to a wedge. The next day, under the beating sun, the ice melts and trickles the cracked fragments away.
Repeated swings in temperature can also weaken and eventually fragment rock, which expands when hot and shrinks when cold. Such pulsing slowly turns stones in the arid desert to sand. Likewise, constant cycles from wet to dry will crumble clay.
Bits of sand are picked up and carried off by the wind, which can then blast the sides of nearby rocks, buffing and polishing them smooth. On the seashore, the action of waves chips away at cliffs and rakes the fragments back and forth into fine sand.
Plants and animals also take a heavy toll on Earth's hardened minerals. Lichens and mosses can squeeze into cracks and crevices, where they take root. As they grow, so do the cracks, eventually splitting into bits and pieces. Critters big and small trample, crush, and plow rocks as they scurry across the surface and burrow underground. Plants and animals also produce acids that mix with rainwater, a combination that eats away at rocks.
Rainwater also mixes with chemicals as it falls from the sky, forming an acidic concoction that dissolves rock. For example, acid rain dissolves limestone to form karst, a type of terrain filled with fissures, underground streams, and caves like the cenotes of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula.
Back up on the mountains, snow and ice build up into glaciers that weigh on the rocks beneath and slowly push them downhill under the force of gravity. Together with advancing ice, the rocks carve out a path as the glacier slumps down the mountain. When the glacier begins to melt, it deposits its cargo of soil and rock, transporting the rocky debris toward the sea. Every year, rivers deposit millions of tons of sediment into the oceans.
Without the erosive forces of water, wind, and ice, rock debris would simply pile up where it forms and obscure from view nature's weathered sculptures. Although erosion is a natural process, abusive land-use practices such as deforestation and overgrazing can expedite erosion and strip the land of soils needed for food to grow.
The Innovators Project
Meet some of science's most important movers and shakers—from past and present.
A new study on marmoset monkeys offers some hints about the causes of stillbirth.
A National Geographic researcher is startled to see a Greenland shark where none has ever been seen before: off Russia's Franz Josef Land. Video
Shop Our Space Collection
The updated companion book to Carl Sagan's Cosmos, featuring a new forward by Neil deGrasse Tyson is now available. Proceeds support our mission programs, which protect species, habitats, and cultures.