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Earth Materials and Health: Research Priorities for Earth Science and Public Health
erosion and the latter are being filled through sedimentary deposition. The earth’s surface is continuously being reworked, and a dynamic equilibrium has been established between competing agents of crustal erosion and deposition (external processes) versus crustal construction (an internal process). Crustal deformation, a consequence of mantle dynamics, is the ultimate cause of many geological hazards, including earthquakes and tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, and landslides. In addition to the direct fatalities and injuries, natural catastrophes result in the displacement of surviving populations into unhealthy environments where communicable diseases can—and often do—spread widely.
Plate Tectonics—Origins of Continental and Ocean Crust
Scientists have studied the on-land geology of the earth for more than two centuries, and much is known concerning the diverse origins of the continental crust, its structure, and constituent rocks and minerals (see Earth Materials below). Within the past 35 years, marine research has elucidated the bathymetry, structure, and physicochemical nature of the oceanic crust, and as a result we have a considerably improved appreciation of the manner in which various parts of the earth have evolved with time. A startling product of this work was the realization that, beneath the relatively stiff outer rind of the planet (the lithosphere), portions of the more ductile mantle (the asthenosphere) are slowly flowing. Both continental and oceanic crusts form only the uppermost, near-surface layers of great lithospheric plates; differential motions of these plates—plate tectonics— are coupled to the circulation of the underlying asthenosphere on which they rest. The eastern and western hemispheric continents are presently drifting apart across the Atlantic Ocean and have been doing so for more than 120 million to 190 million years. Locally, continental fragments came together in the past and others are presently colliding, especially around the Pacific Rim.
Mid-ocean ridges represent the near-surface expression of hot, slowly ascending mantle currents with velocities on the order of a few centimeters per year. Whether this upwelling is due to part of a convection cell that returns asthenosphere to shallower levels after it has been dragged to depths by a lithospheric plate sinking elsewhere, or is a consequence of deeply buried thermal anomalies that heat and buoy up the asthenosphere, is not known, but both processes probably occur to varying degrees. Approaching the seafloor, the rising mantle undergoes decompression and partial melting to generate basaltic liquid. The magma within the upwelling asthenosphere is less dense and thus even more buoyant. It rises toward the interface with seawater and solidifies to form the oceanic crust, capping the stiffer, less buoyant mantle. The mid-oceanic ridges—