Landforms, Climates & Ecosystems of the Earth: Patterns & Characteristics

Instructor: Marc Chiacchio

Marc has taught Bachelor level students climate science and has a PhD in climate science.

Landforms, climates, and ecosystems of the Earth all interact with one another and back onto the climate in different ways. In this lesson we explore the characteristics and patterns of these features and the processes involved in their formation.

Landforms

Have you ever noticed the physical features of the Earth's surface where you live? If you live in the countryside, take a walk outside and begin to notice your surroundings. Are the surface features of your neighborhood located on a high hilltop or part of a large mountain range? If you then take a trip a few hours away, these features may then change to a flat plain.

Physical characteristics that are used to define the surface of the Earth are known as landforms. There are four main types of landforms: mountains, plains, hills, and plateaus. Minor forms include buttes, canyons, valleys, and basins. Each of these landforms is formed and shaped by the activity that the Earth may be under.

The mountain or hill that you're living on is formed by a process called plate tectonics, whereby the land is pushed up through the surface of the Earth. Erosion from wind and rain (from strong storms occurring over time) can create valleys and canyons by eroding the land. One such example is the Grand Canyon in Arizona, where it took about 6 million years for the Colorado River to carve it out. An example of the highest landform on the Earth is Mount Everest in Nepal with a height of 8,500 meters (29,035 feet) above sea level. The deepest landform involves a basin: the Mariana Trench in the South Pacific Ocean.

Example of a valley such as the Grand Canyon.
grand canyon

If you've ever visited states such as Utah, Oregon, Idaho, and California, you might have driven into a large basin called the Great Basin Range. Here, the land is affected by the Wasatch Mountains in Utah and the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Mountains in Washington, Oregon, and California. These ranges create a rain shadow (a dry area on the downwind side of a mountain) over a large part of the basin, preventing storms in this area. The formation of this basin due to plate tectonics also created the largest desert in the United States. This readily affects the ecosystem as we will see in the next section.

Ecosystems and Climate

Have you ever gone fishing on a lake on a sunny day and noticed insects among the living organisms found there, besides the plants and the fish? Actually, they interact with one another, acting as food for the fish or the plants. This interaction between living organisms and the environment (including the sunlight, water, temperature, and air pressure) is known as the ecosytem.

These are just some of the major components that make up ecosystems, which fall into two categories: terrestrial and aquatic. Terrestrial ecosystems include forests, grasslands, deserts, and tundra while aquatic ecosystems include freshwater and marine bodies of water. What is important to note about these different ecosystems is that, although they are all complex, there are processes at work that produce certain patterns associated with each type of ecosystem. For instance, the tundra ecosystem has a surface that is frozen year round and is snow covered. This is due to the high latitude that causes these types of ecosystems (as in the Arctic).

Example of snow and ice in the Arctic tundra.
arctic

Closely tied to ecosystems and the processes involved to produce certain characteristic features are the different climates or climate zones. There are three major climate zones (polar, temperate, and tropical), which are mainly driven by the latitude of the region. For example, the tropics is characterized by hot and humid weather and a high amount of rainfall.

Example of a warm and humid day in the tropics.
tropics

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