How the Earth Works

Course No. 1750
Professor Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
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Course No. 1750
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Course Overview

Continents move. Glacial cycles come and go. Mountains spring up and erode away. We live on a planet that is constantly in motion-except we see it in extreme slow motion. In this exciting course of 48 half-hour lectures, you effectively speed up the action to witness the history of our planet unfold in spectacular detail, learning what the Earth is made of, where it came from, and, above all, how it works.

An Astonishing Journey

How the Earth Works takes you on an astonishing journey through time and space. You will look at what went into making our planet-from the big bang, to the formation of the solar system, to the gradual evolution of the planet into what it is today. You will travel to the center of the Earth and out again, charting the geological forces that are constantly reshaping the continents and seafloor.

Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and tsunamis are byproducts of our planet's ceaseless activity, and you will focus on specific examples of each to learn why and when they occur. Earth's surface is mostly water, and you will explore the cycling of this vital substance throughout the planet, along with its role in climate, erosion, plate tectonics, and biology.

Not only are humans at the mercy of our planet's natural forces, but we ourselves have become agents of change. We are altering the Earth's land, water, and air faster than any geologic process, and this will be another theme of your journey.

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48 lectures
 |  Average 30 minutes each
  • 1
    Geology's Impact on History
    If you could view Earth's history at high speed, you'd see continents whiz about, ocean basins grow and shrink, and mountain ranges rise and erode away. This lecture sets the stage for investigating our dynamic planet. x
  • 2
    Geologic History—Dating the Earth
    Discovering Earth's exact age took centuries of detective work. Rock strata provide relative ages, but only with the discovery of radioactivity was it possible to determine the absolute geologic timescale. x
  • 3
    Earth's Structure—Journey to Earth's Center
    Analysis of seismic waves from earthquakes allows scientists to map the structure inside Earth. Using this technique, we take a modern-day journey to the center of the Earth in the style of Jules Verne. x
  • 4
    Earth's Heat—Conduction and Convection
    We reverse the direction of the previous lecture to see how heat flows from the center of Earth toward the surface, exploring the phenomena of heat radiation, conduction, and convection. x
  • 5
    The Basics of Plate Tectonics
    The theory of plate tectonics accounts for the existence of continents, oceans, mountains, earthquakes, volcanoes, mineral resource distribution, climate changes, and many other aspects of our planet. x
  • 6
    Making Matter—The Big Bang and Big Bangs
    We investigate the big bang and the early evolution of the universe to learn the origin of atoms, stars, and planets. The supernovae of dying stars played a key role in forging heavy elements. x
  • 7
    Creating Earth—Recipe for a Planet
    The solar system formed 4.6 billion years ago when a cloud of gas, dust, and ice began to collapse and rotate, with Earth accreting in the inner region of the disk. An enormous collision with the proto-Earth produced the Moon. x
  • 8
    The Rock Cycle—Matter in Motion
    Though rocks may seem eternal, they are part of a continuous cycle of changing forms called the rock cycle, which begins with igneous rocks and can involve sedimentary and metamorphic phases. x
  • 9
    Minerals—The Building Blocks of Rocks
    Rocks are made of minerals, which in turn are composed of different elements. Silicon and oxygen are the two most abundant elements in Earth's mantle and crust, and most rocks contain them. x
  • 10
    Magma—The Building Mush of Rocks
    Most magma is generated beneath mid-ocean ridges, where plates move apart and rock moves toward the surface to fill the gaps. Magma forms in these places due to a process called pressure release. x
  • 11
    Crystallization—The Rock Cycle Starts
    When magma cools below certain temperatures, solid mineral crystals begin to grow. With continued cooling the entire magma will eventually crystallize, and the result is an igneous rock. x
  • 12
    Volcanoes—Lava and Ash
    Volcanoes form where magma reaches the surface and erupts—at which point the magma becomes lava. The different kinds of volcanoes are related to the tectonic settings in which they occur. x
  • 13
    Folding—Bending Blocks, Flowing Rocks
    Most rock of the crust and mantle is solid. And yet, over long timescales, the crust and mantle are in motion, bending and flowing. This lecture shows how rocks deform in an elastic, plastic, or brittle manner. x
  • 14
    Earthquakes—Examining Earth's Faults
    More than 200,000 earthquakes are recorded each year. We examine the types of faults along which they occur and the aftermath, which in some cases can leave the Earth ringing like a gong for months. x
  • 15
    Plate Tectonics—Why Continents Move
    Continents move because they are the surface expression of mantle convection. Two main forces are directly responsible for plate motions: slab pull and ridge push. x
  • 16
    The Ocean Seafloor—Unseen Lands
    The seafloor shows a tremendous diversity of features that are related to plate tectonics and the process of mantle convection. x
  • 17
    Rifts and Ridges—The Creation of Plates
    Oceans undergo reincarnation: they repeatedly die and are reborn. The Atlantic Ocean is only 180 million years old and will eventually close up again. The Red Sea appears to be a new ocean in the making. x
  • 18
    Transform Faults—Tears of a Crust
    The San Andreas is a transform fault that separates the North American and Pacific plates. Transform faults are actually rare on land, but mid-ocean ridges are intersected by countless such features. x
  • 19
    Subduction Zones—Recycling Oceans
    Subduction zones are the most geologically exciting places on Earth. Here the most destructive earthquakes and volcanoes occur, and forces are generated that may rip supercontinents apart. x
  • 20
    Continents Collide and Mountains Are Made
    When plate motions bring continents in contact with each other, the result is the formation of mountains. A notable example is the Himalayas, produced by the continental collision of India with China. x
  • 21
    Intraplate Volcanoes—Finding the Hot Spots
    For years intraplate volcanoes such as those that produced the Hawaiian Islands were lumped together under the catch-all name of "hot spots," but recent work is showing that Earth has many different ways of making a volcano. x
  • 22
    Destruction from Volcanoes and Earthquakes
    The largest earthquakes and volcanic eruptions release as much energy as the simultaneous explosion of tens of thousands of nuclear weapons. We look at the human consequences of these events. x
  • 23
    Predicting Natural Disasters
    Volcanoes can be easily monitored, and they reveal many clues to an impending eruption as the magma slowly forces its way toward the surface. Earthquakes, by contrast, are not yet predictable. x
  • 24
    Anatomy of a Volcano—Mount St. Helens
    We examine the eruption of Mount St. Helens on May 18, 1980, triggered when an earthquake caused a gigantic avalanche that released pent-up magma and gases, leveling trees for over 600 square kilometers. x
  • 25
    Anatomy of an Earthquake—Sumatra
    The 2004 Sumatra earthquake produced a massive tsunami that killed more than 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean. We look at the complex tectonic forces behind this cataclysm. x
  • 26
    History of Plate Motions—Where and Why
    Earth's tectonic plates have been moving for at least as long as scientists can see back into the geologic record. Over time the continental fragments collect into supercontinents and then break apart again. x
  • 27
    Assembling North America
    North America has a fascinating geologic history, having continuously grown in size through collisions with other continents. The process of growth has been very different on the East and West coasts. x
  • 28
    The Sun-Driven Hydrologic Cycle
    As fast as plate tectonics creates mountains, erosion tears them down. The principal agents of erosion are water and ice, which are part of a continuous cycle of moving water called the hydrologic cycle. x
  • 29
    Water on Earth—The Blue Planet
    Earth is unique in the solar system for having liquid water at its surface. Water is the single most important substance on our planet, controlling much of geology and allowing for the evolution of life. x
  • 30
    Earth's Atmosphere—Air and Weather
    Earth's gravity is strong enough to hold onto an atmosphere of nitrogen and oxygen, while lighter gases have long since been lost to space. We explore the structure of the atmosphere and its circulation. x
  • 31
    Erosion—Weathering and Land Removal
    A mountain on the Moon can last for billions of years, but the same mountain on Earth is worn down in only tens of millions of years. The reason is the rapid rate of erosion on Earth due to its atmosphere and hydrosphere. x
  • 32
    Jungles and Deserts—Feast or Famine
    The circulation of air within the atmosphere occurs predominantly in the form of six large convecting cycles called Hadley, Ferrel, and Polar cells. These control the distribution of precipitation and therefore of ecosystems. x
  • 33
    Mass Wasting—Rocks Fall Downhill
    Once rock is broken into sediment, gravity makes sure that it heads downhill. Such "mass wasting" can occur as quickly as a landslide or as slowly as the piecemeal creep caused by repeated freezing and thawing. x
  • 34
    Streams—Shaping the Land
    Once sediment is eroded and moved downhill, streams do most of the work from there. Streams are like a giant network of highways, continuously carrying rock from the mountains to the sea. x
  • 35
    Groundwater—The Invisible Reservoir
    There is 100 times more water in the ground than in streams and lakes combined. Groundwater rarely consists of underground rivers, but rather of water percolating slowly though tiny pore spaces within rocks. x
  • 36
    Shorelines—Factories of Sedimentary Rocks
    The pounding of ocean waves is so strong that it sets all the continents reverberating. Shorelines are energetic environments where wave energy erodes rock and transports the sediments that become sedimentary rocks. x
  • 37
    Glaciers—The Power of Ice
    Glaciers are slowly moving rivers of flowing ice. They are remarkably efficient agents of erosion, tearing away mountains faster than any other geologic process. x
  • 38
    Planetary Wobbles and the Last Ice Age
    There is a cyclical pattern in the alternation of cold glacial periods and warmer interglacials, primarily due to variations in Earth's orbital characteristics. These are called Milankovitch cycles. x
  • 39
    Long-Term Climate Change
    Long timescale variations in climate are controlled predominantly by plate tectonics. The global cooling that has occurred over the past 50 million years is largely due to the formation of the Himalayan Mountains. x
  • 40
    Short-Term Climate Change
    This lecture looks at climate change on timescales of decades to thousands of years. Several factors affect climate at these shorter timescales, among them variations in sunlight, ocean current fluctuations, and volcanoes. x
  • 41
    Climate Change and Human History
    The course of human civilization, which began at the same time as the warm, stable climates of the current interglacial period, is strongly tied to small changes in global and regional climates. x
  • 42
    Plate Tectonics and Natural Resources
    Did you ever wonder why there is gold in California, coal in Indiana, and oil in Iraq? During the natural process of plate tectonics, valuable metals and ores become concentrated to levels much higher than they normally exist. x
  • 43
    Nonrenewable Energy Sources
    Most of the energy that humans now consume is in the form of nonrenewable sources, notably oil, natural gas, and coal. Uranium for powering nuclear reactors is also a limited, nonrenewable source. x
  • 44
    Renewable Energy Sources
    We will eventually get almost all of our energy from solar-driven sources. These include solar panels and passive solar heating. Wind power, hydroelectric power, and biomass are also ultimately derived from sunlight. x
  • 45
    Humans—Dominating Geologic Change
    Life has been altering the planet over roughly the past 4 billion years. What is remarkable, however, is the rapidity with which humans have become Earth's most powerful agent of geologic change. x
  • 46
    History of Life—Complexity and Diversity
    Life on Earth began at least 3.85 billion years ago, almost as soon as the conditions of a stable ocean would allow it. The path of evolution since then has been a remarkable one, and an integral part of Earth's story. x
  • 47
    The Solar System—Earth's Neighborhood
    Although Earth is unique in our solar system for having complex life, it is not unique in geologic processes such as volcanism, earthquakes, mantle convection, erosion, and even stream and lake formation. x
  • 48
    The Lonely Planet—Fermi's Paradox
    What are the chances that there are other civilizations in our galaxy? Given the delicate balance of conditions that have allowed life to flourish on Earth, that number may be astonishingly small. x

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Your professor

Michael E. Wysession

About Your Professor

Michael E. Wysession, Ph.D.
Washington University in St. Louis
Dr. Michael E. Wysession is the Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. Professor Wysession earned his Sc.B. in Geophysics from Brown University and his Ph.D. from Northwestern University. An established leader in seismology and geophysical education, Professor Wysession is noted for his development of a new way to create three-dimensional images of Earth's interior from seismic...
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Reviews

How the Earth Works is rated 4.6 out of 5 by 99.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The lecture’s were very well organized in a thoughtful sequence. I pertically learned something new about the long and very long climate change cycles that effecting us today.
Date published: 2018-10-04
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Nicely Constructed I really enjoyed this course. Professor Wysession knows his subject and does an excellent job in presenting it. The lessons about plate tectonics are particularly informative and strong. I took an Earth and Planetary Science course in college in the 1970s and had no idea it was such a young science then. I disagree with some of the criticism with the last few lectures as I found them very timely and a natural conclusion to the course. Climate Change is a very divisive and political topic, but I appreciated hearing it discussed by a Geologist with charts and graphs rather than a politician in Washington. I think anyone would enjoy this course and come away with additional knowledge of earthquakes, coastlines or some other piece that they would find fascinating.
Date published: 2018-09-25
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Awesome Earth Science Course This course has been very helpful in my college study of General Earth Science.
Date published: 2018-08-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Fantastic course The Earth will never look the same. Great material, explanations, examples and overall content. A great value and well worth your time and effort.
Date published: 2018-05-30
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Our Busy Planet Our complex Earth is a world of interlocking cycles. First there is the tectonic. Beneath the surface solid hot rock rises and falls over millions of years, propelling oceanic and continental plates of the planetary crust around the world. Oceanic plates form at underwater ridges and then after one or two hundred million years of motion dive back into the mantle, building up mountain chains and island arcs. Continental plates like bumper cars slam into each other and part ways again, retaining geological evidence of past supercontinents Pangea, Rodinia, Columbia, Kenorland and Vaalbaara. Then there is the rock cycle, or really cycles. Igneous rock erupts at or near plate boundaries and mountains rise in continental collisions, only to weather slowly away under the brute force of rain, wind, stream, temperature changes, and even gravity. The particles flow downhill and downstream to the shorelines, where they gather in layers of sediment that under pressure become sedimentary rock, eventually to rise again as mountains and weather away again or to be buried deep, changed under pressure and then to reemerge at or near the surface as metamorphic rock. Water and air rise and fall and move around the planet. The entire planet moves through Milankovitch cycles, slowly drawing nearer to and further from the sun, its axis gaining and losing angle while steadily changing direction. When these conditions combine to minimize the sun’s light and heat, the Earth cools enough for vast glaciers to blanket continents and sea levels to drop. When the Earth warms again, the glaciers melt away and sea levels rise. In the life cycle we living things are born (or germinate), reproduce and die, though only the very luckiest of us have remains fossilized in sedimentary rock, dug up by paleontologists, and displayed in museums. The course structure has two major parts and a few small ones. Professor Wysessions explains thoroughly the Earth’s tectonic processes in Lectures 1, 3, 5 and 10 through 28, including the effects of vulcanism and quakes, and then the surface processes in Lectures 8 and 29 through 46. Lectures 6 and 7 deal with the solar system’s development, and Lecture 9 with atomic bonding. Lecture 47 briefly examines the other planets in our solar system and Lecture 48 answers the question of whether there is likely life elsewhere in the galaxy. This last lecture is rather a downer, because Wysessions’ answer is no. In his view, our life-bearing planet is extremely unlikely. We happen to be in a narrow band around the galaxy where life is possible, we happen to be just the right distance from the right kind of sun in a near-circular orbit, we happen to be protected from most comets by Jupiter (imagine if Shoemaker-Levy had slammed into the Earth!), and we happen to have an unusually large iron core thanks to long-ago planetary collision, the iron producing the magnetosphere that protects living things from cosmic rays. There’s probably only one planet like Earth in the galaxy, and that’s us. Wysessions’ presentation is mostly excellent. I love his simple yet effective desktop demonstrations, like setting up a lava lamp or a bowl of miso soup to show how mantle convection works, bending or cutting layers of yellow, red and blue clay (or is it Silly Putty?) to show demonstrate rock deformation and erosion, shaking a bottle of fizzy water to reproduce an explosive volcanic eruption, tilting a board on its side with oatmeal, peanut butter, honey and water to show their different viscosities, and using bricks to demonstrate the difference between transform faults and oceanic ridges—it’s a lot easier to slide bricks past each other than to pull each one apart. There are problems with his technique. In his speech he hesitates sometimes and frequently resorts to “umms” to mask pauses. In Lectures 21 and 27 he lacks enough drawings to make his points, so he fills the gap with hand gestures supposed to demonstrate the thrusts and shifts of rock layers. Finally, I object to his overdrawn claims in Lectures 1 and 40 that volcanic eruptions caused the French Revolution of 1789 and drove US settlers westward in 1815-16 by chilling the weather and killing crops. Human history is a lot more complicated than that! Nonetheless, this is a great Earth Science course and I recommend it highly.
Date published: 2018-05-21
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Disappointed This documentary reminds me of "Inexplicable Universe." I disliked that series for the same reason I dislike this series -- too much time is spent trying to use science to disprove religious theories. I greatly enjoyed the lectures from Plant Science: An Introduction to Botany whose professor majored in evolution. If this series was able to focus on science instead of philosophy in the same way the professor from the later series did the presentation would be much more professional and intellectually enjoyable. Like other reviewers mentioned, more visuals would greatly improve the quality of the lectures as well. I have only made it to lecture 13 and feel it is time to consider returning it.
Date published: 2018-05-19
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Clear explanations... fun learning!! I just retired and wanted to fill a life long dream of learning basic, them more advanced, geology. This course exceeds all expectations- I could not be happier with the professor, content and results. Thank you so much Dr Wysession and Great Courses for making this available. One more word WOW!
Date published: 2018-04-17
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Not Enough Visuals Professor is slow to provide information. Points are not explored deeply or when pertinent.
Date published: 2018-02-26
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