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Geological Processes

Geological Processes

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Did you know that our planet has a dynamic surface that is in an ever changing state? Geology isn't just the study of rocks – it's a branch of natural science that focuses on the Earth's physical structure and its history. This includes volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, erosion and weathering, mineral depositions … and the geological processes behind them all.

Geological Processes: Definition

What are geological processes?

Geological processes are the natural forces that shape the physical planet.

Such processes often occur at enormous scales – spanning millions of centuries and thousands of kilometres. A human lifetime is barely a blip on the geological timescale.

The Geological Timescale

The geological timescale (GTS) is a 'calendar' of all of Earth's history, descending chronologically from modern day to the formation of earth. The GTS subdivides all time into abstract units, which are (in descending order of duration): eons, eras, periods, epochs, and ages.

Currently, Earth is in:

  • The Phanerozoic Eon
  • The Cenozoic Era
  • The Quaternary Period
  • The Anthropocene Epoch

Examples of Geological Processes

We've learned that geological processes shape our planet. What kind of processes are there?

Mantle Convection

To understand mantle convection, you need to know about the crust and the mantle.

The crust is the thin outer layer of Earth, made up of solid rock and minerals.

The crust is broken up into tectonic plates.

The mantle is Earth's second layer, made up of semi-molten or solid silicate rock.

The mantle is heated by the core below it. As it is heated, its density decreases, so it rises towards the crust. But once the mantle has risen, it begins to cool back down and sink, dragging the crust's tectonic plates above it. This circular movement is known as a convection current.

Nonetheless, not all geological hazards are caused by movement of the Earth's interior. Erosion, weathering, and deposition take place on Earth's exterior, driven by biological, hydrological and atmospheric processes.

You may have heard of tectonic plates in the context of them causing Earthquakes. Earthquakes are caused by the movement of tectonic plates and this can have catastrophic effects on buildings, infrastructure and peoples livelihoods.


Erosion is the breakdown and transport of rock particles.

There are six causes of erosion:

  • Gravity - Bits of land that have been weathered are caused to go from higher to lower ground by gravity eg. Landslides

  • Wind - Wind erodes rock and carries away the sand created. This further erodes other pieces of land. eg. Brimham Rocks, North Yorkshire.

  • Rain - Rain-splash erosion causes weathered material such as pebbles or soil to become dislodged. Heavy rainfall then carries sediment into streams and rivers. eg. Rain gullies in Black Ven landslide, Lyme Regis, Dorset.

  • Glaciers - These are massive rivers of ice heavy ice that flow slowly and erode away big portions of land, depositing the debris at their tip eg. An Teallach, in Ross and Cromarty

  • Oceans - Both current and rising and falling tides cause erosion of coastal areas. eg. Newbiggin Cliff near Filey, North Yorkshire

  • River - Rivers both erode and build up land. Meanders form when fast flowing water on an outside curve flows faster than water on the inside. The water on the outside has more power to erode and extend that riverbank while slower water on the inside curve deposits material carried by the river on the inside riverbank. eg. the River Forth


Weathering is the breakdown of rocks while they remain in their place.

Causes of weathering can be biological, chemical, or physical.

Biological: plants grow in a crack in a rock, causing the crack to widen as the roots increase in size.

Chemical: acidic rainwater reacts with compounds in the rocks, causing them to break down.

Physical: water in a crack freezes and expands, causing the crack to expand over time.

Erosion and weathering are often confused; they're similar processes. However, erosion involves MOVEMENT, whilst weathering does not.


Deposition is the laying down of sediment.

Sediment can be transported as various sizes (pebbles, sand, silt, or dissolved in water) by:

  • Wind

  • Flowing water (rivers, streams, oceans)

  • Ice

How Can Geological Processes Cause Hazards?

Firstly, what is a hazard?

A hazard is something that has the potential to cause harm to life and human property.

A hazard can result in disaster if it causes damage and destruction.

Hazards at Plate Boundaries

Hazards are common at the boundaries between tectonic plates due to the build up and release of pressure.

Earthquakes: an earthquake is a sudden violent shaking of the Earth's surface. Severe earthquakes can cause widespread damage and destruction, sometimes taking thousands of lives.

Tsunamis: these enormous waves are caused by the displacement of a large volume of water. Marine earthquakes or undersea volcanic eruptions have the potential to generate a tsunami.

Volcanoes: a volcano is a rupture in Earth's crust, from which lava, ash, and gas can escape.

There are two kinds of volcano: shield and composite.

Composite volcanoes are the stereotypical, steep-sided volcanoes. They emit viscous acidic lava during infrequent yet violent eruptions.

Mount Vesuvius, the infamous destroyer of Pompeii, is a composite volcano.

Shield volcanoes are gently sloping volcanoes that emit basic, runny lava. The eruptions are more frequent but less violent.

Eyjafjallajökull, an Icelandic volcano, erupted multiple times in the spring of 2010. No one was killed, but the ash cloud produced disrupted flights for several months.

Hazards at Coastal Zones

Geological processes such as erosion and weathering are common along the coastline, where the constant movement of water and wind breaks down rocks. This breakdown can lead to sudden mass movement of rock, which has the potential to cause harm.

Rockfall: rock suddenly breaks away from a steep cliff, triggered by weathering, and forms down the slope to form scree.

Mudflows: earth and mud flow downhill over unconsolidated rock. If it's sudden and fast-flowing, it can present a hazard.

Landslide: rock moves rapidly downhill, often mixed in with mud. Landslides are triggered by very heavy rainfall and can cause a threat to people.

In June 1993, a major landslide destroyed the Holbeck Hall Hotel in Scarborough, North Yorkshire. Over two days, a rotational landslide cut away 70 metres of the cliff. The area had experienced heavy rainfall in the prior months. Poor drainage led to a build up of water pressure.

What are the Effects of Geological Processes?

Over time, geological processes can create landforms. These features on the Earth's surface make up the terrain.

Features on land include mountains, plains, and valleys.

Coastal features include bays, spits, and peninsulas.

Underwater features include mid-ocean ridges, trenches, and ocean basins.

There are two different ways of organising landforms.

They can be categorised by their physical attributes:

  • Slope

  • Soil type

  • Elevation

  • Rock exposure

  • Orientation (direction)

Or by the geological processes that created them:

  • Wind

  • Erosion

  • Weathering

  • Glacial movement

  • Tectonic plate movement

  • Deposition

Geological Processes himalayas mountain formation tectonic collision StudySmarterThe Himalayas were formed by the collision of the Eurasian and Indian tectonic plates. Unsplash

What is the Importance of Geological Processes?

Geological processes don't just affect rocks and create landforms; they are tightly linked to life and biodiversity. For example, substrate composition plays an important role in determining biodiversity. The underlying rock type influences the species of plants that grow in an area; in turn, this affects the community composition. The properties of underlying rock can also determine drainage and water availability.

As well as impacting biodiversity, geological processes create resources used by humans in their day-to-day lives.

Energy Resources

Most of the world's electricity is generated by burning fossil fuels – the remains of organisms from millions of years ago. Geological processes such as heating, pressure and sedimentation convert the remains into energy-dense fuels.

Geological Processes coal fossil fuel geological resource StudySmarterCoal, a fossil fuel, is formed by geological processes acting on ancient plant remains. Unsplash

Peat bogs are another source of energy. These bogs are dense wetlands filled with partially decayed vegetation. In some parts of the world, such as Ireland, peat bogs are a major energy resource and are burned to heat houses.

Food and Drink

Soil properties and mineral composition influence the plants that can grow in that area.

Potatoes grow best in highly acidic (pH 5 to 6.5), well-drained, sandy soils.

Drinking water (as well as water for domestic use) originates from sources above and below ground. The sources underground are known as aquifers – water stored in rock layers.


Geological processes result in mineral deposits. Some can be useful for humans.

  • Fluoride is a naturally occurring mineral added to toothpaste to protect teeth from developing cavities.

  • Calcium is a mineral required for healthy bones and teeth, found in dairy products. Originally, calcium is found in the soil and taken up by grass, which is eaten by cows. Over time, calcium builds up in their bodies and milk.

  • Minerals such as gold, cobalt, and lithium are used to build computers and smartphones.

I hope that this article has explained geological processes for you. These natural forces shape our planet, creating landforms and useful resources, but these powerful processes can cause hazards that risk human lives.

Geological Processes - Key takeaways

  • Geological processes are the natural forces that shape the physical planet. These processes occur at massive scales - over millions of years and thousands of kilometres.
  • Geological processes include convection currents in the mantle, erosion, weathering, and deposition.
  • Geological processes can cause hazards. At plate boundaries, hazards such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes are common. Coastal zones experience hazards like rockfall, mudflows, and landslides.
  • Geological processes create landforms. These are classified according to their formation or physical properties.
  • Biodiversity and natural resources are closely linked to geological processes.

1. British Geological Society, Holbeck Hall, Scarborough, 2022

2. International Commission on Stratigraphy, Geologic time scale, 2022

3. Magnús T. Gudmundsson, Ash generation and distribution from the April-May 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland, Nature, 2012

Frequently Asked Questions about Geological Processes

A geological process is a natural force that shapes the physical planet.

The 4 major geological processes are mantle convection currents, erosion, weathering, and deposition.

At plate boundaries, geological processes cause pressure to build up. Its release can trigger hazards like earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. In coastal zones, geological processes break down rocks, which can lead to sudden mass movement.

Geological processes influence biodiversity and provide important resources for humans.

Geological processes create landforms, features on the Earth's surface that constitute the terrain and the physical environment.

Final Geological Processes Quiz

Geological Processes Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Define geological processes.

Show answer


Geological processes are the natural forces that shape the physical planet.

Show question


What is the geological timescale?

Show answer


The geological timescale is a 'calendar' of all of Earth's history.

Show question


Describe how mantle convection currents work.

Show answer


The mantle is heated by the core and rises towards the surface. It cools and sinks, dragging the crust's tectonic plates above it.

Show question


What is the difference between weathering and erosion?

Show answer


Erosion involves the movement of rock particles, whilst weathering does not.

Show question


Define deposition.

Show answer


Deposition is the laying down of sediment.

Show question


What are some hazards commonly experienced at tectonic plates?

Show answer


Hazards commonly experienced at tectonic plates include earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions.

Show question


What is a hazard?

Show answer


A hazard is something that has the potential to cause harm to life and human property.

Show question


Rock moves rapidly downhill, often mixed in with mud. What hazard is this?

Show answer



Show question


How are landforms categorised?

Show answer


Physical attributes

Show question


What is the mantle?

Show answer


The mantle is Earth's second layer, made up of semi-molten or solid silicate rock.

Show question


What are some examples of coastal landforms?

Show answer



Show question


What soil features can influence plant growth?

Show answer


Soil properties and mineral composition can influence plant growth.

Show question


Which minerals support healthy teeth?

Show answer



Show question


What is an earthquake?

Show answer


An earthquake is a sudden violent shaking of the Earth's surface.

Show question


Define peat bogs.

Show answer


Peat bogs are dense wetlands filled with partially decayed vegetation

Show question


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