everything in earth's system can be placed into one of four major subsystems: land, water, living things, or air. these four subsystems are called “spheres.” specifically, they are the lithosphere (land), hydrosphere (water), biosphere (living things), and atmosphere (air). each of these four spheres can be further divided into sub-spheres. to keep things simple in this course, there will be no distinction among the sub-spheres of any of the four major spheres.
lithosphere - land
the lithosphere contains all of the cold, hard solid land of the planet's crust (surface), the semi-solid land underneath the crust, and the liquid land near the center of the planet.* the surface of the lithosphere is very uneven (see image on right). there are high mountain ranges like the rockies and andes (shown in red), huge plains or flat areas like those in texas, iowa, and brazil (shown in green), and deep valleys along the ocean floor (shown in blue).
the solid, semi-solid, and liquid land of the lithosphere form layers that are physically and chemically different. if someone were to cut through earth to its center, these layers would be revealed like the layers of an onion (see right image above). the outermost layer of the lithosphere consists of loose soil rich in nutrients, oxygen, and silicon. beneath that layer lies a very thin, solid crust of oxygen and silicon. next is a thick, semi-solid mantle of oxygen, silicon, iron, and magnesium. below that is a liquid outer core of nickel and iron. at the center of earth is a solid inner core of nickel and iron.
* note: the word "lithosphere" can take on different meanings depending on the speaker and the audience. for example, many geologists--scientists who study the geologic formations of earth--reserve the word "lithosphere" to mean only the cold, hard surface of earth, not the entire inside of the planet. for the purpose of this course, however, there will be no distinction among the various layers of land. the word "lithosphere" will be used in reference to all land in earth's system.
hydrosphere - water
the hydrosphere contains all the solid, liquid, and gaseous water of the planet.** it ranges from 10 to 20 kilometers in thickness. the hydrosphere extends from earth's surface downward several kilometers into the lithosphere and upward about 12 kilometers into the atmosphere.
a small portion of the water in the hydrosphere is fresh (non-salty). this water flows as precipitation from the atmosphere down to earth's surface, as rivers and streams along earth's surface, and as groundwater beneath earth's surface. most of earth's fresh water, however, is frozen.
ninety-seven percent of earth's water is salty. the salty water collects in deep valleys along earth's surface. these large collections of salty water are referred to as oceans. the image above depicts the different temperatures one would find on oceans' surfaces. water near the poles is very cold (shown in dark purple), while water near the equator is very warm (shown in light blue). the differences in temperature cause water to change physical states. extremely low temperatures like those found at the poles cause water to freeze into a solid such as a polar icecap, a glacier, or an iceberg. extremely high temperatures like those found at the equator cause water to evaporate into a gas.
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