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ESS Common Misconceptions


*as opposed to questions of scale, time,
     4-dimensional processes, etc.

Modified list from Kent Kirkby, University Of Minnesota

Earth's Structure

  • Crust & Lithosphere/plates synonymous

  • Asthenosphere is liquid—students familiar with liquid convection, not solid convection, many HS ESS films refer to molten internal layer

  • Lower Mantle liquid—reasons similar above

  • Earth's core hollow, or large hollow spaces occur deep within Earth— relict of cosmology & popular literature/movies

  • Earth's core acts like permanent bar magnet

  • Magnetic reversals can result in mass extinctions, natural disasters, etc.—original scientific hypothesis for origin of mass extinctions, also Hollywood movies

Mineral and Rock Terms

  • Separations along bedding plane, like dominate sedimentary outcrops, occur deep beneath Earth's surface

  • Rocks/minerals grow

  • Coarse-grained rocks rough; fine-grained rocks smooth

  • Coarse-grained sedimentary rocks cooled slowly; coarse-grained igneous rocks formed in areas of high depositional energy, etc.

  • Minerals—term 'massive' texture means samples are big

  • No relationship between outcrops & bedrock—Upper Midwest, whole concept of "bedrock" fairly nebulous

Plate Tectonics

  • Only continents move—Wegener's original concept, along with the common use of 'Continental Drift' term in general texts, HS ESS films

  • Most crust motions—especially associated w/ mountain building processes or deep sea trench formation—due to vertical motions, not lateral—terms like 'mountain uplift' & textbook terminology

  • Ocean ridges due to vertical uplift/convergence, rather than divergence—student experience— buckling due to uplift, not heat/density differences—ridge  illustration do not readily fit with a pulling apart motion

  • Present oceans began as Pangea broke apart—idea Pangea was original continent—few educational ESS films mention prior to Pangea—emphasis on Atlantic spreading; Pacific overlooked

  • Plate movement imperceptible on human timeframe—common use fingernail growth analogy only true for slowest plates & underestimates importance of motion

  • Plate motion rapid that continent collision can cause financial/political chaos—rifting can divide families/separate species from food source

  • Oceans responsible for oceanic crust—rather other way round

  • Continental 'shelves' similar to shelves in homes, extend out over edge of continent & can break/collapse to form tsunamis 

  • Edge of continent is same as plate boundary

  • Over time, no significant change in oceanic to continental area ratio—stasis common
    misconception, but part of Lyell's original concept

  • Except ice volume fluctuations, sea level remained constant through time—impact of plate speed on sea level not recognized until recently

  • Plate boundary type is same as Plate—i.e. plate must be divergent or convergent


  • Earthquakes rare events—media coverage limited & biased

  • Ground cracks opens during earthquake to swallow people/buildings—Hollywood movies & literature

  • Earth shaking is deadly—opposed to building collapse, tsunamis, landslides, fire, etc

  • Seismic waves involve long distance net motion of particles

  • Seismic waves go from crust to core, but not core to crust—textbooks seldom discuss second half journey apart from shadow zones

  • S-waves—shear waves—do not reach other side of Earth from earthquake origination—cannot pass through oceans—cannot reach islands

  • Wind blowing through subterranean passages causes earthquakes—Aristotle's hypothesis, tied w/ older cosmology of hollow passages through earth

  • Earthquakes occur from collapse of subterranean hollow spaces—tie to older cosmologies
  • Biggest earthquake is magnitude 10


  • Magma comes from molten layer beneath Earth's crust—older cosmologies, Franklin's idea, as well as literature such as Dante's Inferno

  • Magma originates deep within Earth's mantle—textbook & ESS educational movies use of 'deep' terminology—older cosmology of passage-filled Earth

  • Magma comes from Earth's outer core—when students realize no molten layer in mantle

  • Basalt's origin connected to presence of seawater—original concept/name, coupled with its association with oceanic crust & oceanic hotspots

  • Volcanic eruptions rare events—media coverage biased by location 

  • Volcanoes dominantly tropical features—Gilligan Island phenomena, common depiction

  • Most deaths during volcanic eruptions are due to suffocation from smoke/poisonous gases—older scientific hypothesis until 1902 Pelee eruption

  • Most deaths during volcanic eruptions due to fear/panic during evacuation—real life knowledge, Hollywood depictions

  • Most magma forms as rock melts due to an increase in temperature—the way most things melt, coupled w/ knowledge that temp rises within Earth

  • Most magma forms as rock is subjected to great pressure deep within the Earth—since increased pressure makes rock easier to deform or convect, even greater pressure should turn it to liquid

  • Wind blowing across tops of volcanic mountains cause eruption, similar to wind blowing over a flute—older cosmology dating back to Greeks

  • Most volcanoes are tall peaks w/ craters at summit—bias of photographic record, most photographed, subduction volcanoes more accessible than submarine

  • Common use of active, dormant & extinct terms having geologic validity

  • Volcanoes are only hazards, not important long-term resources

Ocean Systems

  • Sea level is level—common use of sea level as base for surveying

  • Sea level is constant—apart from changes due to ice volume—ignoring changes due to temp/long term changes in plate motion speed

  • Coastlines are continent edges, edges of continental crust or plate boundaries

  • Coastal/Ocean systems remain constant through time—stasis

  • Waves/surf synonymous terms— wave motion involves net long distance movement of water particles—common use for surfing, knowledge of message bottles

  • Tsunamis are immense (100's of feet tall) waves/surf—Hollywood depictions

  • Second tidal bulge (away from Moon) is due to Moon's reduced gravitational attraction—described in textbooks

  • Second tidal bulge (away from Moon) due to Moon pulling solid Earth more than water—described in textbooks

  • Ocean currents (North Atlantic Current) sink because of temperature—works with air masses & air circulation system

  • Upwelling occur as deeper water layers warm/rise—how air masses affected by temp

  • Upwelling occur as deeper water layers lose salinity/rise

  • Salinity changes produce temp changes or vice versa

River Systems

  • Streams are simply flowing water—no concept of sediment movement

  • Rivers flow south—some rivers in N. Hemisphere flow south; S. Hemisphere flow north

  • 30, 100, 500-year floods set time intervals between events, rather than water heights

  • Human activities cannot affect geological processes like river flow, flood cycles, etc

  • Increased water improves/aids wetland area/environments

  • Most tied to idea of 'stasis':
    • Floods rare, atypical, almost unnatural events rather than normal river behavior

    • Rivers do not carve valleys, but only passively flow down them—old idea, role of rivers in sculpting land surface was not recognized until the exploration of SW US by Powell & other early surveys

    • Rivers cut down over time, do not cut to sides—attention paid to Grand Canyon & Goosenecks in textbooks

    • Waterfalls can increase in height, but do not retreat

Groundwater & Karst Systems:

  • Groundwater primarily exists as vast subterranean rivers, lakes & seas—difficulty conceiving water flow through 'solid' rock—older cosmologies, Hollywood movies & familiarity with surface water flow

  • Groundwater only exists within pores of rock—some underground rivers/lakes do exist & in many areas more important than matrix flow!

  • Ground/spring waters are pure, naturally filtered water systems—filtering emphasized in texts & common literature, advertising

  • No real connection between ground/surface water systems

  • Groundwater is largely paleo-water from earlier periods in Earth's history—textbooks & focus on aquifers problems where true

  • Lakes/rivers contain more freshwater than groundwater systems

  • Caves extend deep within Earth—older cosmology & literature

Glacial Systems

  • 'Ice Ages' happened in past & now over—text book & science education movie terminology, Hollywood movies & original hypothesis

  • Present Ice Caps always existed on Earth, although size has changed through time—texts mention ice ages are exception, not rule

  • Glaciers can metamorphose rock—can erode/depress crust, why not alter it?—textbook & movie emphasis on glacial efficiency,  association of metamorphosed Precambrian rock exposed in glacial areas

  • Glaciers only moving ice masses—no concept of sediment transport

  • Glacial ice moves backwards during glacial 'retreats'

  • Glacial ice stationary during times when front is neither advancing/retreating

  • Glacial retreat/advance is motion of whole ice cap back/forth with no significant change in total ice volume

  • Use of 'bulldozer' analogy for glacial movement & sediment transport—textbooks & education films

  • Four ice ages still prevalent in general ES literature

Earth's Setting

  • Planet orbits strongly elliptical— orbits shown from oblique view in most textbooks to save page space

  • Pluto lies at limit of solar system— text illustrations designed to save space

  • Moon typical size for moons

  • Life exists on Earth because the Earth is the right distance from the Sun for water to exist in liquid form


  • Equator warmer because tropics closer to the Sun—older cosmology dating to Icarus myth, depictions in textbooks, real life experiences with heat sources

  • Summer warmer because closer to Sun during those months

  • Tropics warmer because closer to Earth's core

  • Tropics warmer because they have more volcanoes

  • Tropics warmer because more water located to absorb heat

  • Earth's climate controlled primarily by atmosphere circulation, rather than ocean circulation—weather reports


  • Deserts rare—few humans live in them, not familiar to most students

  • Deserts are hot—Hollywood depictions, cartoons & best known deserts in warm areas

  • Deserts are sand-covered areas—Hollywood depictions & bias of photographic record

  • Deserts subject to extreme temp changes—freezing nights alternate with blazingly hot days

  • Deserts only occur in subtropical settings or inland areas far removed from oceans

  • Little to no life in desert areas

Greenhouse Warming

  • Earth warmed directly by sunlight—real life experience, difficult to disassociate sunlight from heat coming off surrounding surfaces

  • Greenhouse warming works like greenhouses do— mentioned in texts

  • Greenhouse warming is an unproven concept—tied to politics & confusion over greenhouse warming/climate change due to human activities

  • Greenhouse warming is only due to human activities

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