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The Earth's Layers

Earth split in half to show crust, mantle and inner and outer core

The Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, starting out as an accumulation of meteorites, and has been bombarded by meteorites since. It is made up of three layers. They are:

1. Core

  • The core is in the very middle of the Earth
  • It is solid in the centre, and liquid on the outside
  • It is very hot! 

2. Mantle 

  • The largest part of the Earth
  • Molten, this is where lava comes from
  • 84% of the Earth's volume is mantle

3. Crust

  • The outer-most part of the Earth
  • Broken into many pieces
  • The smallest section
  • Where everything lives
  • Where we get the rocks and minerals that we use daily
 

You might be surprised to learn that the Earth is not solid! This fact allows for fascinating geological processes like Plate Tectonics and events like volcanoes, earthquakes, tsunamis, and the generation of new rocks.  

If you watch a pot of hot water boil you might notice that the hottest water at the bottom of the pot rises to the surface, while the surface water moves down. This same principle applies to the liquid section of our planet and is called a convection current. It is this process that moves the pieces of the crust. The incredible force built up over time as these plates move and collide can cause earthquakes and subsequently tsunamis, regions of volcanoes, and even build new land! 

Rocks and Minerals 

StibniteRhodochrositeTurquoise

What is a mineral?

A mineral is made of the same substance all the way through. There are about 5000 known minerals on Earth and many are essential for improving the way we live our lives. Almost any piece of technology, including what you're viewing this on now, uses specific minerals to function! Some minerals, like tiny amounts of copper and iron, are even required for human life.  

What is a rock?

A rock is made up of two or more minerals. Our homes, schools, places of work and roads are all made of rocks, we have learned a lot about which rocks are best for certain buildings and activities given their unique properties! Have you ever broken a piece of chalk? Then you know while it may be ideal for drawing, it would not make a strong building. 

There are three types of rocks. The Rock Cycle can be used to explain how rocks change from one type to another.

Rock Characteristics

  • Made of more than one mineral
  • Can be organic eg. Coal

Shared Characteristics

  • Solid 
  • Naturally occurring

Mineral Characteristics

  • Made of one substance
  • Must be inorganic 
  • Repeating internal structure
 
 

Rock Cycle Diagram

The Rock Cycle can be used to explain how rocks change from one type to another. Image: Santa Fe College 

Igneous rock example1. Igneous

  • ​Forms from liquid rock (lava and magma) 
  • Think of freezing water - as it cools crystals form
  • Other rocks can be turned into igneous rocks if they are heated so much that they melt
  • E.g., Granite

Metamorphic rock example2. Metamorphic

  • Forms when an existing rock is re-heated (without fully melting). Involves a lot of heat and pressure
  • Think of a tadpole turning into a frog. It becomes something else on the outside while staying the same on the inside
  • E.g., Gneiss

Sedimentary rock example3. Sedimentary

  • Forms from pieces of pre-existing rocks that undergo weathering and erosion followed by cementation 
  • Weathering is the process of breaking down an existing rock, and erosion is the process of moving the pieces of rock from one place to another
  • E.g., Petrified Wood, Ripple Marked Sandstone, Glacial Striae

Our Solar System

The Sun

solWhat do you see when you look up into the night sky? Do you ever see stars? Let’s start at the most important star in your life: the Sun.

That’s right; the Sun is a star too! It is very hot, and a lot bigger than Earth. All of the planets in our solar system travel around it! We believe that the Sun formed about 5 billion years ago. By mass it is 71% hydrogen and 27% helium. 

Why is the Sun important?

  • It provides the Earth with energy. If there was no Sun there would be no life on Earth
  • It keeps us warm
  • It defines the seasons
  • The light produced tells us and animals when to sleep

Learn about the Sun's surface with this video...

Rocky Planets

mercuryvenusearthmars

The rocky planets, from left to right: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars

Gaseous Planets

jupitarsaturnuranusneptune

The gaseous planets, from left to right: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune

Dwarf Planet

pluto

Pluto is now a dwarf planet because of its size and location

 

Water Cycle

What happens to the rain after it hits the ground? Where does it go and where did it come from? Let’s start at the beginning!

Earth does not lose or gain any substantial amount of water. The water that we have, we got when the Earth was just being formed. This means that the water in your cup has been around for many hundreds of millions of years. It gets recycled through a process called the water cycle.

Water Cycle Diagram

1. Evaporation

Have you ever left a glass of water out on the table for a few days before? If so, did you notice all of the water slowly disappear? This is caused by evaporation. The liquid water is turning into water vapour!

The evaporated water floats up into the atmosphere and combines with small pieces of dust. When the water and the dust collect, they form clouds in the sky.

Transpiration: Lakes, rivers, and open cups of water aren’t the only places that the clouds get water from. Water also comes from plants! The plants take water out of the ground through their roots and then they “sweat” through their leaves! Transpiration is the special name for evaporation off of plants. 

2. Condensation

When the water is in the clouds it can’t stay in its gas form for too long. It is cold high up in the sky, so the water turns back into liquid or even ice. This process is called condensation.

3. Precipitation

Clouds can only hold so much water. When they get really full they release the water as precipitation.

Precipitation can be rain, snow, hail, sleet, or any other kind of water that falls from the sky. Most precipitation starts off as a solid and melts as it falls.

4. Ground Water and Runoff

But where does the water go when it hits the ground? That’s a harder question to answer.

When the rain hits cement, like when it lands on a road or a sidewalk, it may stay in one place and collect in a puddle. This is why we have storm drains on the side of the road for the water to go into. They give this pooling water a place to go so that our roads don’t get too flooded. These storm drains collect the water and then release it into streams, lakes, rivers, and oceans. We have to be very careful about what we put in these drains because the fish and other inhabitants of lakes, rivers, and oceans will be harmed if we put toxic things in them.

When the rain falls on grass, plants, or dirt it doesn’t usually form puddles. Why? We will call these places “green spaces”. Think of them as giant sponges, they soak up the water and slowly let it travel through the ground because soils have space in them for water to fill and flow through. In Waterloo, we actually get most of our drinking water from the ground! We have lots of wells that suck up water from under the ground.

Sometimes when it rains a lot, the ground cannot soak up all the water in time and it runs off the land and into streams, oceans, and lakes. This is called runoff.

When it snows the same thing happens, but there is a delay while the water stays in one spot until it melts and then continues through the water cycle.

5. Accumulation

Water sometimes collects and stays in one place for a really long time. This is called accumulation. Water in oceans and lakes sometimes spends thousands of years in one place until it is evaporated again.

Ecosystem Interactions and Change

Ecosystem Interactions

Ecosystems are composed of living (biotic) and non-living (abiotic) parts that interact and rely upon each other. The size of an ecosystem can depend on the scope of the person observing it, interactions occur at small scale levels, like the ecosystem in your gut, or large scale like the Great Lakes region.

It’s important to remember that ecosystems are not designed! They function well because natural selection favours creatures that can exploit their environment, for instance, using abundant available resources.

Energy is not created or destroyed. This is one of the basic principles of physics, but it applies to all sciences. Life requires energy (food/fuel) is a fundamental biology concept. In an ecosystem energy is transferred up and around by different types of interactions.  

Type of Interaction Example, Description, (Positive or Negative)
Predation Wolves and Dear. Wolves are the preditor and dear are the prey. Typically, these are lethal relationships.  ( +, - )
Parasitism Humans and Leaches. Leaches benefit from our blood loss. Typically, these are not lethal relationships. (+, - ) 
Mutualism

Bees and Flowers. Bees get nectar and flowers spread their pollen. ( +, + )

Competition

Different bird species compete for limited ideal shelter, this isn’t good for either party. ( - , - )

Commensalism Lichens and Trees. The tree is unaffected while the lichens that grow on it get access to more sunlight. ( +, neutral)

Predator 

  • The creature that eats another or damages another for its own benefit
  • Eg. Wolves

Prey 

  • The creature that is eaten or damaged for the predator's benefit
  • Eg. Dear

Primary Producer

  • A creature that harnesses the energy from a non living source, usually the sun
  • Eg. Clovers
 
 
 

Image: National Geographic - Tim Gunther 

Trophic LevelsPrimary producers are energy gateways! Plants and other organisms that photosynthesize (capture the suns energy) bring energy into an ecosystem in a usable form for other species. From there those that eat the plants gain some of their energy.

When an animal eats another animal (or a plant) only about 10% of the prey’s energy is retained by the predator, the rest is left behind or was used up and released during the prey’s life. So, if a dear only gets 10% of a plant's energy they have to eat many more plants. This theory explains why predators are much fewer in number than primary producers. It also explains why populations don’t grow out of control, more wolves can’t survive long-term if their prey populations remain the same.

Human intervention into these natural balances creates issues. Areas of Southern Ontario have seen a growth in dear population as wolf numbers drop (human activity scares them and has destroyed their habitats). Having so many dear has made roads more dangerous and damaged more crops.

Energy flow doesn’t stop when we get to the top predator in an ecosystem! Even that animal will pass, and their energy will be returned to lower levels and they will feed the microorganisms in the soil and scavengers.

Ecosystem interactions are not just related to life and death though. The shade of trees cools the forest below, beaver dams shape aquatic environments, and snow can insulate the ground.

Try removing or doubling the population of your favourite species, can you predict a chain of 5 changes? Or even 10?

Past Ecosystems

Over the course of the 3.7 billion years life has existed on our planet it has continued to change! Humans have only been around for 200-300 thousand years and we have drastically changed the planet we live on. We have brought foreign creatures to distant lands (invasive species), created new species through breeding (woof woof), and dramatically increased the populations of our favourite animals like cats and dogs!  

But what about before us? It is estimated that over 99% of all species that have ever existed have gone extinct, that’s around 5,000,000,000 species. You may be familiar with some of the more infamous ones like Dinosaurs and the Megalodon that you see in movies, but these creatures didn’t live alone. They had thriving complex ecosystems like ours!

Western Interior SeawayIf you’re familiar with plate tectonics you know that land masses or continents are changing and moving. Significant portions of Canada were much closer to the equator in the past and if you think about the tropics today, you know that they have very different plants and animals. What is above water today probably wasn’t always, shallow seas covered areas of Canada for millions of years and they evolved their own odd life forms. While we can’t see these ancient ecosystems in action, we do have access to the fossils some left behind, and we possess the tools to date them!  

Image: Earth.com

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Sea ScorpionYou can have a lot of fun googling extinct creatures, try words like, largest, scariest, and strangest extinct animals and plants!  Pictured here is an artist's rendering of a Sea Scorpion based on fossil evidence. 

Image: Yale University - Patrick Lynch

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Future Ecosystems

It is important to remember that ecosystems have always changed, and things go extinct naturally! Though you might have heard terms like Climate Change, Global Change and Global Warming, so what are they talking about? While ecosystems change, and extinction happens, both usually happen at very slow rates, sometimes called background extinction. The problem is scientists know that these things are happening much more quickly in the last 200 years. Through extensive research we know that human activity has changed the composition of our atmosphere to include more gasses that trap more heat, in particular carbon dioxide, CO2. We also know that our expanding presence has taken up more land, and we’ve pushed animals and plants out of large spaces further increasing the rate of extinction while decreasing biodiversity.  

Diagram of the green house effect

The Green House Effect describes how some incoming radiation escapes and other remains. Without this effect Earth would be freezing! The issue is we are increasing the amount of retained energy by changing the atmosphere's composition. Image: The Open University

Human created climate change has lots of implications, we simply can’t list them all and we likely don’t know of them all yet. Major ones include rising sea levels and more extreme weather like floods, droughts, and heat waves. These problems have implications outside of the obvious, many people will be displaced, and tropical diseases may extend their ranges.  Human created climate change is already in motion and we have a limited amount of time to take drastic action. Countries have begun making changes to ensure we avoid the worst effects, but we need further action and cooperation to tackle this crisis and protect our ecosystems.

It’s not all doom and gloom though! Action like the Paris Agreement show international cooperation and recognition of climate change is increasing. 2020 saw thousands of people take to the streets to voice their desire for serious action to combat climate change.