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Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology

Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology

Professor John J. Renton Ph.D.
West Virginia University

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Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology

Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology

Professor John J. Renton Ph.D.
West Virginia University
Course No.  1700
Course No.  1700
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Course Overview

About This Course

36 lectures  |  30 minutes per lecture

The drama of geology is all around you. Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, you have stood on a catastrophe in the making. The central region of the park is inside a collapsed volcanic crater that pulses with the hidden energy of magma deep below that will eventually explode in an eruption surpassing any in recorded history. Or have you ever driven in the rolling hills of the Piedmont region that extends from New Jersey to Alabama? Then you have crossed the core of an ancient mountain range that once rivaled the Himalayas. Now almost completely eroded away, these peaks were created 300 million years ago in the collision of tectonic plates that formed the supercontinent of Pangaea. Or have you ever noticed something as simple as tipped fence posts or leaning retaining walls? If so, then you have witnessed one of the most powerful and irresistible agents of geologic change, the ubiquitous force of gradual erosion called mass wasting.

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The drama of geology is all around you. Have you ever been to Yellowstone National Park? If so, you have stood on a catastrophe in the making. The central region of the park is inside a collapsed volcanic crater that pulses with the hidden energy of magma deep below that will eventually explode in an eruption surpassing any in recorded history. Or have you ever driven in the rolling hills of the Piedmont region that extends from New Jersey to Alabama? Then you have crossed the core of an ancient mountain range that once rivaled the Himalayas. Now almost completely eroded away, these peaks were created 300 million years ago in the collision of tectonic plates that formed the supercontinent of Pangaea. Or have you ever noticed something as simple as tipped fence posts or leaning retaining walls? If so, then you have witnessed one of the most powerful and irresistible agents of geologic change, the ubiquitous force of gradual erosion called mass wasting.

A Science That Is Intuitive, Accessible, Concrete, and Exciting

Wherever you live or travel, geology is everywhere. Wouldn't you like to know how to read the rocks and landscape; how to make sense of debates over natural resources; and how to appreciate the "deep time" that governs a geologist's sweeping perspective?

These 36 half-hour lectures are your initiation into the geological world that lies just outside your door. The Nature of Earth: An Introduction to Geology introduces you to physical geology, the study of Earth's minerals, rocks, soils, and the processes that operate on them through time.

No other science deals more practically with the world on which we live, telling us where to dig a well; when to add lime to soil; how gold, oil, and other valuable minerals are formed and where to find them; what kinds of structures are safest in an earthquake zone; and why some active volcanoes are deadlier than others—far deadlier.

Geology also unlocks the history that lies hidden in the land all around us—in a piece of marble, a hillside, a handful of sand, the rock layers of a road cut, or the jagged peaks of a mountain range.

And for anyone who feels hesitant about the inherent complexity of sciences such as biology and physics, geology is surprisingly intuitive, accessible, and concrete. At the same time, it has the excitement of a never-ending detective story, replete with clues to the complex past of our planet.

Learn the Principles from a Master Educator

Geologists themselves are much like their subject matter: plainspoken, no-nonsense, rugged, and with a tinge of romanticism. This accurately describes your instructor for this course, Professor John J. Renton, an award-winning educator at West Virginia University, where he holds the Eberly Family Chair for Distinguished Teaching.

A widely respected expert on the geology of coal, Professor Renton's first love is teaching introductory geology, which he has pursued at West Virginia University with enthusiasm and creativity for more than 40 years. He recalls that as a young faculty member he set aside his lecture notes to try something that would encourage more involvement among his students. He decided to approach each class as an actor would a one-act play. Ever since, he prepares a script, rehearses it for hours, and then destroys it afterward to avoid using the same presentation year after year.

You will find Dr. Renton spontaneous, easy to follow, funny, and extremely well organized. He has a gift for picking simple analogies that make complicated concepts clear and memorable. For example:

  • The moving sidewalk: We have all heard of continental drift, but do the continents really move? Not exactly, says Professor Renton. They are like passengers on a moving sidewalk: the passengers don't move, but the sidewalk does. In the same way, the continents are being carried atop the slowly moving plates of Earth's crust.
  • The fish poacher: What makes Earth's plates move? A fish poacher—an elongated pot designed to fit over two burners on a stove—illustrates the principle in action. In a fish poacher, two heat sources produce alternating cells of rising and sinking water. Similarly, Earth's internal heat creates alternating cells of rising and sinking magma. Earth's plates are driven apart where the currents are rising, and they are forced together where the currents are sinking.
  • The bottle of champagne: A volcano erupts explosively for the same reason that a too-hastily-opened bottle of champagne spews out much of its contents. As magma nears the surface, built-up pressure is suddenly released, causing dissolved gases to come out of solution and expand explosively. In champagne, something similar happens when the cork is popped.

An Innovative Curriculum

As an old hand at teaching new students in geology, Professor Renton has developed an innovative and highly effective curriculum.

After beginning with an overview of Earth's place in the universe, you move directly to the most important unifying concept ever developed in the science of geology: plate tectonics. An understanding of this beautiful idea places other topics such as mountain building and seismology in crystal-clear perspective.

With this "big picture" introduction complete, you shift to the microworld of molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles to gain a basic understanding of minerals, which are the building blocks of rocks and soils. From there you move to the three types of rocks: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic.

Dr. Renton does not ignore terminology, and you will acquire a geological vocabulary that includes such terms as "mafic" and "felsic" (classifications of igneous rock), "lithification" (the process that turns sand into sandstone, for example), and "gneiss" (the most abundant of all metamorphic rocks).

He always explains and puts concepts into context so that you will genuinely understand why "granitic" magma very rarely rises to the surface, but when it does, it produces an eruption of unimaginable violence—and also why the marker for such an event having occurred in the past is a fine grained rock called "rhyolite."

Explore a Range of Topics in Geology

Equipped with knowledge of both the large and small scales, you then venture into the field to explore: volcanism, mass wasting, weathering and soils, the sculpting of the land, groundwater, rock deformation and geologic structures, earthquakes, mountains, and the economic geology of coal and petroleum.

Covering the bulk of the course, these lectures take you to some fascinating places—from the bituminous coal fields of Dr. Renton's home state of West Virginia to the mid-ocean ridges, the most prominent feature on our planet (if you drain away the water). But you also explore your own backyard in lectures that focus on soils and groundwater, two issues that are critically important to everyone.The ability of grain crops to flourish in some areas and not others will suddenly make sense, and so will the rising, falling, and sometimes puzzling behavior of the water table.

In this section of the course, you also put your knowledge of plate tectonics to work, addressing such questions as:

  • How do you recognize a killer volcano? Because of differing magma chemistry, volcanoes along the margin of colliding plates are much more dangerous than those where plates are pulling apart. The former include Mount St. Helens in the United States and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, among many others. The latter include the numerous active volcanoes on Iceland, which rarely harm anyone.
  • What is the evidence that a collision formed the Appalachian Mountains? As you travel west across the Piedmont, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Shenandoah Valley, and the Appalachians, the crumpling of rock strata becomes increasingly less pronounced, showing that the energy that went into producing the folds came from the east—exactly what you would expect for a collision of continents occurring in what is now the Piedmont region.
  • Where is the colliding continent that produced the Appalachians? It's called Africa. The Atlas Mountains in northwest Africa are structurally a mirror image of the Appalachians. Africa separated from North America in the breakup of Pangaea that began about 180 million years ago.
  • What caused the bend in the Hawaiian Island–Emperor Seamount chain? The motion of the Pacific plate over a geologic hot spot created a chain of islands and underwater seamounts. In the middle of the chain is a sharp bend. Why? The bend coincides with the collision of India into Asia 45 million years ago, an event that produced the Himalayan Mountains and apparently knocked the Pacific plate off kilter.
  • Where are new mountain ranges likely to form? Given the present motion of the Earth's plates, future mountain building will occur when Africa runs into Europe and, after that, when Australia collides with China.

Lessons for a Lifetime

In his introductory lecture, Professor Renton reads an e-mail he received from a former student of more than 30 years ago who marvels: "Hardly a week passes that something doesn't cause me to think about your classes.

"Though I never became a geologist," the correspondent writes, "I often draw upon what you lectured about. I can explain to my daughter why this beach has sand and that beach has rocks, or how it is that rivers' courses are the way they are. Well, she thinks I'm pretty bright. But in fact, I'm just passing on what I got from Physical Geology."

"I think that really spells it out," says Professor Renton. "What I'd like you to get out of this course is information that you will take with you for the rest of your life, wherever you go in the world—I don't care whether it's a trip to the office or on vacation—so that you can look at the world that passes you by in a little bit different fashion, understanding it better, appreciating it better."

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36 Lectures
  • 1
    Origin of the Universe
    In the beginning, there was no need for geology because there were no rocks, minerals, or Earth. This lecture takes a "big picture" look at the formation and early evolution of the universe. x
  • 2
    Origin of the Solar System
    The planets formed from a disc of cosmic dust rotating around the Sun. The composition of the planets varies. Those nearest the Sun are made of rock, while those most distant are made of gases. x
  • 3
    Continental Drift
    Until the 20th century, geologists believed that the size, shape, and location of the continents had been fixed in their present configuration for billions of years. Then the theory of plate tectonics changed everything. x
  • 4
    Plate Tectonics
    This lecture describes plate tectonics—the rifting of continents and spreading of the sea floor; the force that drives this process; and the cyclic creation, breaking up, and reformation of supercontinents. x
  • 5
    The Formation of Minerals
    A full understanding of Earth's origin, the evolution of its surface, and how processes shape the land requires knowledge of minerals, how they form, and their basic classification. x
  • 6
    Classification of Minerals
    Minerals are classified by their dominant, negatively charged grouping (anion). By far, the major rock-forming minerals are silicates built around the silicate anion. All other minerals are classified as non-silicates. x
  • 7
    The Identification of Minerals
    For the average geologist in the field, mineral identification is made based on a series of physical properties. Color streak, cleavage, acid reaction, and hardness are four such tests. x
  • 8
    Kinds of Rocks
    Of the three types of rock—igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic—igneous rocks constitute 80 percent of Earth's crust. They are classified and named based on their texture and mineral composition. x
  • 9
    Sedimentary Rocks
    Sedimentary rocks form from the products of weathering and cover 75 percent of Earth's land surface. As a result, they are the type of rock that is normally seen exposed at Earth's surface. x
  • 10
    Metamorphic Rocks
    A metamorphic rock is any rock that forms from a previously existing rock as the result of heat, pressure, and chemically active fluids. This process takes place only at great depth. x
  • 11
    Volcanic Activity
    This lecture introduces volcanism, which is associated with three types of sites: convergent plate margins, divergent plate margins, and hot spots. The composition of magma is crucial in determining the intensity of an eruption. x
  • 12
    Phases of Volcanic Activity
    The site of an eruption and the type of magma involved govern whether the resulting volcano will be a cinder cone, a shield volcano, or a strato- or composite volcano. Eruptions are further classified based on severity. x
  • 13
    The Hawaiian Islands and Yellowstone Park
    The Hawaiian Islands resulted from the movement of the Pacific plate over a volcanic hot spot. Yellowstone Park also sits over a hot spot that caused violent eruptions in prehistory. Another such eruption is likely. x
  • 14
    Mass Wasting—Gravity at Work
    Although mass wasting is one of the most important processes responsible for the evolution of the landscape, most people are unaware of its existence. The driving force of mass wasting is gravity. x
  • 15
    Mass Wasting Processes
    This lecture describes how mass wasting works and where to observe it. Although flows, slides, and falls account for the most dramatic forms of mass wasting, by far the greatest change is achieved by creep. x
  • 16
    Weathering
    Weathering is any process whereby rocks either disintegrate or decompose. The primary agent of physical weathering is the freezing and thawing of water, known as frost wedging. x
  • 17
    Soils and the Clay Minerals
    This lecture explores why soils are so critical to sustaining plant life. Clay minerals turn out to be the key component. Different climates have characteristic soil types, some of which are ideal for agriculture. x
  • 18
    Climate and the Type of Soils
    Soil is the end product of a complex series of factors, the most important of which is climate. The type of soil that forms is controlled by the combination of annual precipitation and temperature. x
  • 19
    Streams—The Major Agent of Erosion
    Despite holding only a tiny fraction of the world's fresh water, streams are the major agent of erosion wherever water can exist, including the desert. Streams are either interior (terminating inland) or exterior (ending in the ocean). x
  • 20
    Sculpting of the Landscape
    Surprisingly, there is no scientific consensus on the process of landscape evolution. One prominent theory, proposed by William Davis, sees land evolving through three stages of maturity due to stream erosion. x
  • 21
    Stream Erosion in Arid Regions
    With minor modifications, Davis's theory on the three stages of a stream's life holds true for arid regions as well as humid regions. Nevada is typical of the process of stream erosion in arid regions. x
  • 22
    Ice Sculpts the Final Scene
    Glaciers are second only to streams as an agent of erosion. In areas such as the Alps and Canadian Rockies, the combined effects of stream and glacial erosion have carved some of the most spectacular scenery on the planet. x
  • 23
    Groundwater
    Earth's largest readily available source of fresh water is groundwater. This lecture looks at the types of rock most suitable for storing groundwater. Those that produce water most easily are classified as aquifers. x
  • 24
    The Production of Groundwater
    Overproduction of an aquifer usually results in the lowering of the water table. Groundwater is not a renewable resource. It may take hundreds of thousands of years to replace a gallon of groundwater with a new gallon. x
  • 25
    Karst Topography
    One of the most spectacular results of groundwater in action is karst topography—irregular topography created by the surface and groundwater dissolution of underlying soluble rock, usually limestone. x
  • 26
    Groundwater Contamination
    Nearly every human activity, from fertilizing yards to parking cars, has the potential to contaminate groundwater. Poorly designed and built landfills rank high among potential contaminants. x
  • 27
    Rock Deformation
    Deformation is any process in which rock changes in size and/or shape. The three types of deformation are elastic, plastic, and brittle, corresponding to rocks that "bounce back," bend, and break. x
  • 28
    The Geologic Structures
    Rock structures form as a result of the application of stress beyond the strength of the rock. The three basic rock structures are folds, faults, and joints. This lecture focuses on folds, which are caused by compression. x
  • 29
    Faults and Joints
    Faults and joints comprise the two types of brittle deformation. Rocks move along faults. There is little or no movement along joints. One well-known fault is the San Andreas, a strike-slip fault. x
  • 30
    Earthquakes
    Earthquakes occur in the same regions as the most violent volcanoes. Both result from the activity of convergent plate or divergent plate margins. Convergent plate margins produce the most violent of both events. x
  • 31
    Damage from Earthquakes
    The intensity of an earthquake refers to the observed results of the quaking and the amount of damage. An earthquake's magnitude measures the amount of Earth movement. Tsunamis are an earthquake-generated phenomenon. x
  • 32
    Seismology
    Earthquakes have been detected for centuries with simple devices, but the ability to study the full impact of earthquakes awaited the invention of a seismograph that could not only detect but actually measure Earth movement. x
  • 33
    The Formation of Mountains
    Mountains are of four types: volcanic, domal, block-fault, and foldbelt. The most impressive are foldbelt mountains such as the Himalayas, which are created by colliding plates at zones of subduction. x
  • 34
    Orogenic Styles
    Orogeny refers to the processes that create foldbelt mountains. These form under three scenarios: ocean-continent collisions, ocean-island arc-continent collisions, and continent-continent collisions. x
  • 35
    Economic Geology of Coal
    Coal comes from wood that has been preserved in environments where oxygen and microbial activity is low. Coal is ranked by its carbon content, which varies widely in the abundant deposits in the United States. x
  • 36
    Economic Geology of Petroleum
    Petroleum is formed when marine material is buried in porous rock capped by an impermeable layer. Predictions about the inevitable decrease and disappearance of oil resources appear to be all too accurate. x

Lecture Titles

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John J. Renton
Ph.D. John J. Renton
West Virginia University
Dr. John J. Renton is Professor of Geology at West Virginia University where he has been teaching for more than 40 years. He earned his bachelor's degree in Chemistry from Waynesburg College and went on to earn his master's degree and Ph.D. in Geology from West Virginia University. Professor Renton is the recipient of several awards for his success in teaching, including the Outstanding Educator Award from the Eastern Section of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, the Outstanding Teacher Award from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences, and the Outstanding Teacher Award from the West Virginia University Foundation. Professor Renton is the author of the textbook, Planet Earth. He has also authored or coauthored 45 papers and has been part of more than $4 million of coal-related research grants.
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Reviews

Rated 4.3 out of 5 by 116 reviewers.
Rated 5 out of 5 by Good but dated I took a lot of geology courses in college but that was 30+ years ago and I wanted an update. Renton has a "good old boy" delivery style that feels somewhat informal and less stuffy than some professors which I did like. The course covered the topic quite well. This course was produced in 2006 and is a little outdated especially in petroleum geology. The new processes of fracturing etc. and the current gas and oil boom currently going on in this country are never mentioned. You finish this course and it is obvious that the petroleum geology lecture really needs an update to make this course feel complete. February 18, 2015
Rated 3 out of 5 by An intro to Geology The computer interface is very awkward and clunky. Frequent "can not play this video", " this video not available now". If I interrupt a session, it gets lost and starts over. Frequent stops to down load content. Overall, very poor interface. January 29, 2015
Rated 2 out of 5 by Geology Unfortunately, this is one of the biggest disappointments from the Great Courses catalog. I am about 1/2 of the thru the course, and it gets no better. The pre-geology information about the origin of the universe, solar system, and earth is just plain wrong and no longer accepted as factual. I learned this from several other Great Courses courses. The professor is likeable, but not up to the company standards, in that his use of audio-video aids is limited and he strays from the facts to often telling anecdotal stories and opinions. The course needs to be shelved until it can be updated, either by this professor or another lecturer. I am seriously considering returning it. January 21, 2015
Rated 5 out of 5 by Good basic course of Geology Course is very understandable for beginning geology . Examples professor uses are appropriate but could use more photos to show points. January 1, 2015
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