From the perspective of geochemical cycles, there are two end-member processes, differentiation and mixing; two end-member domains, the exterior Earth environment and the interior; and two end-member time frames, hundreds of million of years and the instant. Within each end-member pair, there is a continuum of possibilities. Generally, surface domain processes occur very quickly and interior processes endure over long intervals, although there are exceptions. Some continental material has endured for billions of years near the surface, and mantle plumes may erupt at the surface with no detectable warning, after migrating from the core-mantle boundary over mere millions of years. And while differentiation and mixing of large volumes continue for eons within the mantle, incremental changes within small volumes can take place quickly both at the surface and within the interior.
The domains that extend above and beneath the surface contain the Earth's fluid envelopes. Water vapor in the atmosphere condenses and falls as rain. At the surface, water weathers the rocks physically and chemically: physically by impact and by freeze-thaw action and chemically by solution and the introduction of ions that foster reactions with rock minerals. Particles and solutions from crustal rocks wash downstream and enter the great water reservoirs of river, lake, ocean, and groundwater—settling out as detrital sediment and as precipitates.
At ocean spreading centers and in volcanic environments, water may aid in the precipitation of mineral concentrations that become valuable resources when discovered in accessible terrain. Magmas and other fluids that move through the crust have the potential of becoming significant sources of minerals and energy. Along subduction zones, hydrated crust and water-saturated ocean-bottom sediments descend into the interior beneath a mantle wedge that extends over the sinking plate. At high-temperature and pressure these rocks dehydrate, which leads to melting. Volatile-rich magmas rise and interact with crustal rocks to generate the type of gas-charged magmas that erupt at the surface with devastating violence. The volatility is most pronounced along Cordilleran arcs of continents; the volcanoes along the South and North American Cordillera erupt in explosions that may literally blow them apart, as Mount St. Helens did in 1980.
Volcanoes that build over hot-spots, such as those in the Hawaiian Islands, erupt magmas that flow rather placidly because of their chemical makeup. They contain smaller proportions of silica, and gases escape readily. By the time the magma reaches the surface it is less explosive and sticky, so it flows easily. Eruptions from hot-spots produce large volumes of basaltic lava spreading over extensive areas in layered sheets that may accumulate to great thicknesses; the Hawaiian volcanoes reach heights over 9,000 m above the deep ocean floor and nearly 4,000 m above sea level.
Hot-spots originate deep within the Earth. They are the result of plumes that reach the surface after rising through mantle and crust. The source of these plumes may be within the mantle or from the mantle-core boundary. They may originate at both depths, and researchers are not yet able to recognize evidence that could characterize distinct sources.