The processes that shape landforms

Robyn Auld
23 January 2012

Above: Image © Sven Dirks, Wikimedia Commons

Landform is a general term used to describe the many types of surface features on Earth. This is also known as the topology of the place. Landforms are the characteristics that create the different land surfaces. They also provide homes for wildlife and humans...and stunning views!

What's really interesting, however, is how these landforms arise or break down!

Did you know? Topography is the study of a surface. This includes its features, and also its relief (elevation change).

One of the major forces that creates different physical features of an area is weathering. Weathering is a process that includes the effects of heat, rain and pressure on rocks, minerals and soil. It also includes the chemical breakdown of rocks, minerals and soil over time.

Weathering that breaks the Earth’s materials apart is called mechanical weathering. An example is frost disintegration. This happens when water freezes in tiny rock cracks and expands. As it expands, it causes the rock to break. Another example of mechanical weathering is the cracks that occur in rocks as a result of pressure underneath the Earth's surface. When this pressure builds, it can cause rocks to split or separate from one another.

Did you know? Quick - name as many landforms as you can! Valleys, plateaus, mountains, plains, hills, loess, glaciers, caves, dunes, peninsulas, mesas, islands, isthmus, fjords, buttes, archipelagos... and the list goes on!

Meanwhile, chemical weathering can change the chemical properties of Earth materials. A very well-known example of this type of change is the process of carbonation. This process happens when acid rain falls on a rock that contains calcium carbonate, such as limestone. The limestone rock disappears as a new chemical product, calcium bicarbonate, is formed.

Did you know? Acid rain can cause certain building materials to deteriorate. This is a major concern within the construction industry. Another reason to keep acid rain to a minimum!

Erosion is another geological process that can create landforms by moving material like rocks, minerals and soil from one place to another. When wind, water or ice removes material from a location, a valley can result. Some types of plateaus are also formed this way. On the other side of the coin, these same forces can push, pull and carry Earth materials to new locations. Eroded material piled up in layers is called deposition. It can also result in new landforms.

Did you know? Two prominent examples of erosion are the Grand Canyon in Arizona, U.S.A. and the Canadian Badlands in Alberta, Canada.

Gravity is one other force that can create landforms. The constant downward pull that affects our world can slowly (or quickly!) change the landscape. For example, small particles of soil tumbling down a hill over years is a very slow process. Meanwhile, giant slabs of soil or rock giving way to a landslide is a very fast process!

There are many other forces that shape the Earth's landforms. People have built entire careers on studying how these features form or are changed. This helps scientists learn more about Earth's history and predict future events. Geologists, geographers and other Earth scientists are constantly finding out more about our planet's fascinating features!

This article was updated by Let's Talk Science staff on 2016-08-26 to improve readability by reducing the reading grade level.

Learn More!

If you are interested in learning more about landforms and the processes that shape them, check out these sites:

Robyn Auld

Robyn has a PhD in Biology and works full time for Let's Talk Science as the Coordinator of Online Volunteer Engagement. She thinks it's a great way to put her love of science and her education to use in a way other than research. Robyn loves talking to people, playing Ultimate and hanging out with her family.

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