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Geomorphology is the study landforms, including their origin and evolution, and the processes that shape them. The underlying question is: Why do landscapes look the way they do? The term is derived from the Greek geo, meaning Earth, and morph, meaning form. Geomorphologists seek to understand landform history and dynamics, and predict future changes through a combination of field observation, physical experiment, and numerical modeling. The discipline is practiced within geology, geography, and civil and environmental engineering.
Landforms evolve in response to a combination of natural and anthropogenic processes. The landscape is built up through tectonic uplift and volcanism. Denudation occurs by erosion and mass wasting , which produces sediment that is transported and deposited elsewhere within the landscape or off the coast. Landscapes are also lowered by subsidence, either due to tectonics or physical changes in underlying sedimentary deposits. These processes are each influenced differently by climate, ecology, and human activity.
Particular applications of geomorphology include landslide prediction and mitigation, river control and restoration, coastal protection, and even assessing the presence of water on Mars.
Geomorphology was not originally differentiated from the rest of geology. The first geomorphic model was the "cycle of erosion", developed by William Morris Davis between 1884 and 1899. The cycle was inspired by theories of evolution, and was depicted as a sequence by which a river would cut a valley more and more deeply, but then erosion of side valleys would eventually flatten out the terrain again, now at a lower elevation. The cycle could be started over by uplift of the terrain. The model is today considered too much of a simplification to be especially useful in practice.
Modern geomorphology focuses on the quantitative analysis of interconnected processes, such as the contribution of solar energy, the rates of steps of the hydrologic cycle, and plate movement rates from geophysics to compute the age and expected fate of landforms. The use of more precise measurement technique has also enabled processes like erosion to be observed directly, rather than merely surmised from other evidence. Computer simulation is also valuable for testing that a particular model yields results with properties similar to real terrain.
Different geomorphological processes dominate at different spatial and temporal scales. To help categorize landscape scales some geomorphologists use the following taxonomy:
- 1st - Continent, ocean basin, climatic zone (~10,000,000 kmē)
- 2nd - Shield, e.g. Baltic shield, or mountain range (~1,000,000 kmē)
- 3rd - Isolated sea, Sahel (~100,000 kmē)
- 4th - Massif, e.g. Massif Centralor Group of related landforms, e.g., Weald (~10,000 kmē)
- 5th - River valley, Cotswolds (~1,000 kmē)
- 6th - Individual mountain or volcano, small valleys (~100 kmē)
- 7th - Hillslopes, stream channels, estuary (~10 kmē)
- 8th - gully, barchannel (~1 kmē)
- 9th - Meter-sized features
Its use, however, is rare and may be misleading - the nature of landscape chage may be better viewed as a continuum of coupled processes.
- M. J. Selby , Earth's Changing Surface (Oxford University Press, 1985) ISBN 0198232527
- Richard Chorley , Stanley Schumm , and David Sugden , Geomorphology (Methuen, 1984)
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