Fundamentals of Physical Geography (Class XI) Chapter-6- GEOMORPHIC PROCESSES

  • The external forces are known as exogenic forces and the internal forces are known as endogenic forces.
  • The actions of exogenic forces result in wearing down (degradation) of relief/elevations and filling up (aggradation) of basins/ depressions, on the earth’s surface.
  • The phenomenon of wearing down of relief variations of the surface of the earth through erosion is known as gradation. 
  • The endogenic forces continuously elevate or build up parts of the earth’s surface and hence the exogenic processes fail to even out the relief variations of the surface of the earth


  • The endogenic and exogenic forces causing physical stresses and chemical actions on earth materials and bringing about changes in the configuration of the surface of the earth are known as geomorphic processes. 
  • Diastrophism and volcanism are endogenic geomorphic processes. 
  • Weathering, mass wasting, erosion and deposition are exogenic geomorphic processes. 
  • Any exogenic element of nature (like water, ice, wind, etc.,) capable of acquiring and transporting earth materials can be called a geomorphic agent. 
  • When these elements of nature become mobile due to gradients, they remove the materials and transport them over slopes and deposit them at lower level. Geomorphic processes and geomorphic agents especially exogenic, unless stated separately, are one and the same. 
  • Gravity besides being a directional force activating all downslope movements of matter also causes stresses on the earth’s materials. Indirect gravitational stresses activate wave and tide induced currents and winds. 
  • Without gravity and gradients there would be no mobility and hence no erosion, transportation and deposition are possible. So, gravitational stresses are as important as the other geomorphic processes. Gravity is the force that is keeping us in contact with the surface and it is the force that switches on the movement of all surface material on earth.
  • All the movements either within the earth or on the surface of the earth occur due to gradients — from higher levels to lower levels, from high pressure to low pressure areas etc.


  • The energy emanating from within the earth is the main force behind endogenic geomorphic processes. This energy is mostly generated by radioactivity, rotational and tidal friction and primordial heat from the origin of the earth. This energy due to geothermal gradients and heat flow from within induces diastrophism and volcanism in the lithosphere. Due to variations in geothermal gradients and heat flow from within, crustal thickness and strength, the action of endogenic forces are not uniform and hence the tectonically controlled original crustal surface is uneven.


  • All processes that move, elevate or build up portions of the earth’s crust come under diastrophism. They include:

(i) orogenic processes involving mountain building through severe folding and affecting long and narrow belts of the earth’s crust;

(ii) epeirogenic processes involving uplift or warping of large parts of the earth’s crust;

(iii) earthquakes involving local relatively minor movements; 

  • plate tectonics involving horizontal movements of crustal plates.
  • Orogeny is a mountain building process whereas epeirogeny is continental building process.
  • Through the processes of orogeny, epeirogeny, earthquakes and plate tectonics, there can be faulting and fracturing of the crust. All these processes cause pressure, volume and temperature (PVT) changes which in turn induce metamorphism of rocks.


Volcanism includes the movement of molten rock (magma) onto or toward the earth’s surface and also formation of many intrusive and extrusive volcanic forms.


  • The exogenic processes derive their energy from atmosphere determined by the ultimate energy from the sun and also the gradients created by tectonic factors processes and their respective driving forces. 
  • Temperature and precipitation are the two important climatic elements that control various processes.
  • All the exogenic geomorphic processes are covered under a general term, denudation. The word ‘denude’ means to strip off or to uncover. Weathering, mass wasting/movements, erosion and transportation are included in denudation 
  • Gravitational force acts upon all earth materials having a sloping surface and tend to produce movement of matter in down slope direction. Force applied per unit area is called stress. Stress is produced in a solid by pushing or pulling. This induces deformation. Forces acting along the faces of earth materials are shear stresses (separating forces). It is this stress that breaks rocks and other earth materials. 
  • The shear stresses result in angular displacement or slippage.
  • molecular stresses that may be caused by a number of factors amongst which temperature changes, crystallization and melting are the most common. 
  • Chemical processes normally lead to loosening of bonds between grains, dissolving of soluble minerals or cementing materials. Thus,
  • the basic reason that leads to weathering, mass movements, and erosion is development of stresses in the body of the earth materials.
  • Different types of rocks with differences in their structure offer varying resistances to various geomorphic processes 


  • Weathering is action of elements of weather and climate over earth materials. There are a number of processes within weathering which act either individually or together to affect the earth materials in order to reduce them to fragmental state. 
  • Weathering is defined as mechanical disintegration and chemical decom position of rocks through the actions of various elements of weather and climate.
  • As very little or no motion of materials takes place in weathering, it is an in-situ or on-site process. 
  • Weathering processes are conditioned by many complex geological, climatic, topographic and
    vegetative factors. Climate is of particular importance. Not only weathering processes differ from climate to climate, but also the depth of the weathering mantle
  • There are three major groups of weathering processes :

(i) chemical;

(ii) physical or mechanical;

(iii) biological weathering processes.

Chemical Weathering Processes

  • A group of weathering processes viz; solution, carbonation, hydration, oxidation and reduction act on the rocks to decompose, dissolve or reduce them to a fine clastic state through chemical reactions by oxygen, surface and/or soil water and other acids.
  • Water and air (oxygen and carbon dioxide) along with heat must be present to speed up all chemical reactions .
  • Solution When something is dissolved in water or acids, the water or acid with dissolved contents is called solution.
  • This process involves removal of solids in solution and depends upon solubility of a mineral in water or weak acids. On coming in contact with water many solids disintegrate and mix up as suspension in water.
  • Soluble rock forming minerals like nitrates, sulphates, and potassium etc. are affected by this process.  So, these minerals are easily leached out without leaving any residue in rainy climates and accumulate in dry regions. Minerals like calcium carbonate and calcium magnesium bicarbonate present in limestones are soluble in water containing carbonic acid (formed with the addition of carbon dioxide in water), and are carried away in water as solution.
  • Carbon dioxide produced by decaying organic matter along with soil water greatly aids in this reaction.
  • Common salt (sodium chloride) is also a rock forming mineral and is susceptible to this process of solution.


  • Carbonation is the reaction of carbonate and bicarbonate with minerals and is a common process helping the breaking down of feldspars and carbonate minerals.
  • Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and soil air is absorbed by water, to form carbonic acid that acts as a weak acid. 
  • Calcium carbonates and magnesium carbonates are dissolved in carbonic acid and are removed in a solution without leaving any residue resulting in cave formation.


  • Hydration is the chemical addition of water. Minerals take up water and expand; this expansion causes an increase in the volume of the material itself or rock. Calcium sulphate takes in water and turns to gypsum, which is more unstable than calcium sulphate.
  • This process is reversible and long, continued repetition of this process causes fatigue in the rocks and may lead to their disintegration.

Oxidation and Reduction

  • In weathering, oxidation means a combination of a mineral with oxygen to form oxides or hydroxides.
  • Oxidation occurs where there is ready access to the atmosphere and oxygenated waters. The minerals most commonly involved in this process are iron, manganese, sulphur etc. In the process of oxidation rock breakdown occurs due to the disturbance caused by addition of oxygen. Red colour of iron upon oxidation turns to brown or yellow.
  • When oxidised minerals are placed in an environment where oxygen is absent, reduction takes place. Such conditions exist usually below the water table, in areas of stagnant water and waterlogged ground. Red colour of iron upon reduction turns to greenish or bluish grey.
  • These weathering processes are inter- related. Hydration, carbonation and oxidation go hand in hand and hasten the weathering process

Physical Weathering Processes

Physical or mechanical weathering processes depend on some applied forces. The applied forces could be:

(i) gravitational forces such as over burden pressure, load and shearing stress;

(ii) expansion forces due to temperature changes, crystal growth or animal activity;

(iii) water pressures controlled by wetting and drying cycles.

  • Many of these forces are applied both at the surface and within different earth materials leading to rock fracture. Most of the physical weathering processes are caused by thermal expansion and pressure release.

Unloading and Expansion 

  • Removal of overlying rock load because of continued erosion causes vertical pressure release with the result that the upper layers of the rock expand producing disintegration of rock masses. 
  • Fractures will develop roughly parallel to the ground surface. In areas of curved ground surface, arched fractures tend to produce massive sheets or exfoliation slabs of rock. Exfoliation sheets resulting from expansion due to unloading and pressure release may measure hundreds or even thousands of metres in horizontal extent. Large, smooth rounded domes called exfoliation domes .

Temperature Changes and Expansion

  • Various minerals in rocks possess their own limits of expansion and contraction. With rise in temperature, every mineral expands and pushes against its neighbour and as temperature falls, a corresponding contraction takes place.
  • Because of diurnal changes in the temperatures, this internal movement among the mineral grains of the superficial layers of rocks takes place regularly. This process is most effective in dry climates and high elevations where diurnal temperature changes are drastic.

Freezing, Thawing and Frost Wedging

  • Frost weathering occurs due to growth of ice within pores and cracks of rocks during repeated cycles of freezing and melting. This process is most effective at high elevations in mid-latitudes where freezing and melting is often repeated. Glacial areas are subject to frost wedging daily.
  • In this process, the rate of freezing is important. Rapid freezing of water causes its sudden expansion and high pressure. The resulting expansion affects joints, cracks and small inter granular fractures to become wider and wider till the rock breaks apart.

Salt Weathering:-

  • Salts in rocks expand due to thermal action, hydration and crystallisation. Many salts like calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium and barium have a tendency to expand. Expansion of these salts depends on temperature and their thermal properties. High temperature ranges between 30 and 50oC of surface temperatures in deserts favour such salt expansion.
  • Salt crystals in near-surface pores cause splitting of individual grains within rocks, which eventually fall off. This process of falling off of individual grains may result in granular disintegration or granular foliation cause splitting of individual grains within rocks, which eventually fall off. This process of falling off of individual grains may result in granular disintegration or granular foliation.
  • Salt crystallisation is most effective of all salt-weathering processes 
  • With salt crystal growth, chalk breaks down most readily, followed by limestone, sandstone, shale, gneiss and granite etc.


  • Biological weathering is contribution to or removal of minerals and ions from the weathering environment and physical changes due to growth or movement of organisms. Burrowing and wedging by organisms like earthworms, termites, rodents etc., help in exposing the new surfaces to chemical attack and assists in the penetration of moisture and air. 
  • Human beings by disturbing vegetation, ploughing and cultivating soils, also help in mixing and creating new contacts between air, water and minerals in the earth materials. Decaying plant and animal matter help in the production of humic, carbonic and other acids which enhance decay and solubility of some elements. Plant roots exert a tremendous pressure on the earth materials mechanically breaking them apart.


Exfoliation- Exfoliation is a result but not a process. Flaking off of more or less curved sheets of shells from over rocks or bedrock results in smooth and rounded surfaces. Exfoliation can occur due to expansion and contraction induced by temperature changes. Exfoliation domes and tors result due to unloading and thermal expansion respectively.


  • Weathering processes are responsible for breaking down the rocks into smaller fragments and preparing the way for formation of not only regolith and soils, but also erosion and mass movements.
  • Biomes and bio- diversity is basically a result of forests (vegetation) and forests depend upon the depth of weathering mantles.
  • Erosion cannot be significant if the rocks are not weathered.
  • That means, weathering aids mass wasting, erosion and reduction of relief and changes in landforms are a consequence of erosion.
  • Weathering of rocks and deposits helps in the enrichment and concentrations of certain valuable ores of iron, manganese, aluminium, copper etc., which are of great importance for the national economy. 
  • Weathering is an important process in the formation of soils. 
  • When rocks undergo weathering, some materials are removed through chemical or physical leaching by groundwater and thereby the concentration of remaining (valuable) materials increases. Without such a weathering taking place, the concentration of the same valuable material may not be sufficient and economically viable to exploit, process and refine. This is what is called enrichment.


  • These movements transfer the mass of rock debris down the slopes under the direct influence of gravity. That means, air, water or ice do not carry debris with them from place to place but on the other hand the debris may carry with it air, water or ice.
  • Gravity exerts its force on all matter, both bedrock and the products of weathering. So, weathering is not a pre-requisite for mass movement though it aids mass movements. Mass movements are very active over weathered slopes rather than over unweathered materials.
  • mass movements do not come under erosion though there is a shift (aided by gravity) of materials from one place to another.
  • Several activating causes precede mass movements. They are :

(i) removal of support from below to materials above through natural or artificial means;

(ii) increase in gradient and height of slopes;

(iii) overloading through addition of materials naturally or by artificial filling;

(iv) overloading due to heavy rainfall, saturation and lubrication of slope materials;

(v) removal of material or load from over the original slope surfaces;

(vi) occurrence of earthquakes, explosions or machinery;

(vii) excessive natural seepage;

(viii) heavy drawdown of water from lakes, reservoirs and rivers leading to slow outflow of water from under the slopes or river banks;

(ix) indis- criminate removal of natural vegetation.

  • Heave (heaving up of soils due to frost growth and other causes), flow and slide are the three forms of movements.

Slow mass Movements 

  • Creep is one type under this category which can occur on moderately steep, soil covered slopes. Movement of materials is extremely slow and imperceptible except through extended observation.
  • Materials involved can be soil or rock debris. 
  • fence posts, telephone poles lean downslope from their vertical position that is due to the creep effect. 
  • Depending upon the type of material involved, several types of creep viz., soil creep, talus creep, rock creep, rock-glacier creep etc., can be identified.
  • Also included in this group is solifluction which involves slow downslope flowing soil mass or fine grained rock debris saturated or lubricated with water. 
  • This process is quite common in moist temperate areas where surface melting of deeply frozen ground and long continued rain respectively, occur requently. When the upper portions get saturated and when the lower parts are impervious to water percolation, flowing occurs in the upper parts.

Rapid Movements

  • These movements are mostly prevalent in humid climatic regions and occur over gentle to steep slopes.
  • Movement of water-saturated clayey or silty earth materials down low-angle terraces or hillsides is known as earthflow.
  • Quite often, the materials slump making step- like terraces and leaving arcuate scarps at their heads and an accumulation bulge at the toe.
  • When slopes are steeper, even the bedrock especially of soft sedimentary rocks like shale or deeply weathered igneous rock may slide downslope.
  • mudflow.-In the absence of vegetation cover and with heavy rainfall, thick layers of weathered materials get saturated with water and either slowly or rapidly flow down along definite channels. It looks like a stream of mud within a valley. When the mudflows emerge out of channels onto the piedmont or plains, they can be very destructive engulfing roads, bridges and houses. Mudflows occur frequently on the slopes of erupting or recently erupted volcanoes. Volcanic ash, dust and other fragments turn into mud due to heavy rains and flow down as tongues or streams of mud causing great destruction to human habitations. 
  • debris avalanche, which is more characteristic of humid regions with or without vegetation cover and occurs in narrow tracks on steep slopes. This debris avalanche can be much faster than the mudflow. Debris avalanche is similar to snow avalanche. 
  • Landslides -These are relatively rapid and perceptible movements. The materials
    involved are relatively dry. The size and shape of the detached mass depends on the nature of discontinuities in the rock, the degree of weathering and the steepness of the slope. 
  • Depending upon the type of movement of materials several types are identified in this category.
  • Slump is slipping of one or several units of rock debris with a backward rotation with respect to the slope over which the movement takes place 
  • Rapid rolling or sliding of earth debris without backward rotation of mass is known as debris slide. Debris fall is nearly a free fall of earth debris from a vertical or overhanging face.
  • Sliding of individual rock masses down bedding, joint or fault surfaces is rockslide. Over steep slopes, rock sliding is very fast and destructive. Rock fall is free falling of rock blocks over any steep slope keeping itself away from the slope. Rock falls occur from the superficial layers of the rock face, an occurrence that distinguishes it from rockslide which affects materials up to a substantial depth.
  •  In our country, debris avalanches and landslides occur very frequently in the Himalayas. There are many reasons for this.

The erosion 

  • can be defined as “application of the kinetic energy associated with the agent to the surface of the land along which it moves”. Kinetic energy is computed as KE = 1/2 mv2 where ‘m’ is the mass and ‘v’ is the velocity.   The work of the other two agents of erosion waves and ground water is not controlled by climate. In case of waves it is the location along the interface of lithe and hydro sphere coastal region — that will determine the work of waves, whereas the work of ground water is determined more by the lithological character of the region.
  • If the rocks are permeable and soluble and water is available only then karst topography develops.


  • It is a consequence of erosion. The erosional agents loose their velocity and hence energy on gentler slopes and the materials carried by them start to settle themselves. In other words, deposition is not actually the work of any agent.
  • The coarser materials get deposited first and finer ones later. By deposition depressions get filled up. The same erosional agents viz., running water, glaciers, wind, waves and groundwater act as aggregational or depositional agents also.


Soil and Soil Contents

  1. A pedologist who studies soils defines soil as a collection of natural bodies on the earth’s surface containing living and/or dead matter and supporting or capable of supporting plants.
  2. Soil is a dynamic medium in which many chemical, physical and biological activities go on constantly.
  3. Soil is a result of decay, it is also the medium for growth. It is a changing and developing body.
  4. It has many characteristics that fluctuate with the seasons. It may be alternatively cold and warm or dry and moist. Biological activity is slowed or stopped if the soil becomes too cold or too dry

Process of Soil Formation 

  1. Soil formation or pedogenesis depends first on weathering. It is this weathering mantle (depth of the weathered material) which is the basic input for soil to form.
  2. the weathered material or transported deposits are colonized by bacteria and other inferior plant bodies like mosses and lichens. Also, several minor organisms may take shelter within the mantle and deposits. The dead remains of organisms and plants help in humus accumulation.
  3. Minor grasses and ferns may grow; later, bushes and trees will start growing through seeds brought in by birds and wind. Plant roots penetrate down, burrowing animals bring up particles, mass of material becomes porous and sponge- like with a capacity to retain water and to permit the passage of air and finally a mature soil, a complex mixture of mineral and organic products forms.
  • Pedology is soil science. A pedologist is a soil-scientist.

Soil-forming Factors

Five basic factors control the formation of soils:

(i) parent material;

(ii) topography;

(iii) climate;

(iv) biological activity;

(v) time. In fact soil forming factors act in union and affect the action of one another.

Parent Material

  1. Parent material is a passive control factor in soil formation. Parent materials can be any in- situ or on-site weathered rock debris (residual soils) or transported deposits (transported soils).
  2. Soil formation depends upon the texture (sizes of debris) and structure (disposition of individual grains/particles of debris) as well as the mineral and chemical composition
    of the rock debris/deposits.
  3. Nature and rate of weathering and depth of weathering mantle are important considerations under parent materials. There may be differences in soil over similar bedrock and dissimilar bedrocks may have similar soils above them. But when soils are very young and have not matured these show strong links
  4. with the type of parent rock. Also, in case of some limestone areas, where the weathering processes are specific and peculiar, soils will show clear relation with the parent rock.


  1. Topography like parent materials is another passive control factor. 
  2. The influence of topography is felt through the amount of exposure of a surface covered by parent materials to sunlight and the amount of surface and sub-surface drainage over and through the parent materials.
  3. Soils will be thin on steep slopes and thick over flat upland areas. Over gentle slopes where erosion is slow and percolation of water is good, soil formation is very favourable.
  4. Soils over flat areas may develop a thick layer of clay with good accumulation of organic matter giving the soil dark colour. In middle latitudes, the south facing slopes exposed to sunlight have different conditions of vegetation and soils and the north facing slopes with cool, moist conditions have some other soils and vegetation.


  • The climatic elements involved in soil development are :

(i) moisture in terms of its intensity, frequency and duration of precipitation – evaporation and humidity;

(ii) temperature in terms of seasonal and diurnal variations.

  • Precipitation gives soil its moisture content which makes the chemical and biological activities possible.
  • Excess of water helps in the downward transportation of soil components through the soil (eluviation) and deposits the same down below (illuviation). In climates like wet equatorial rainy areas with high rainfall, not only calcium, sodium, magnesium, potassium etc. but also a major part of silica is removed from the soil. 
  • Removal of silica from the soil is known as desilication. In dry climates, because of high temperature, evaporation exceeds precipitation and hence ground water is brought up to the surface by capillary action and in the process the water evaporates leaving behind salts in the soil. Such salts form into a crust in the soil known as hardpans. In tropical climates and in areas with intermediate precipitation conditions, calcium carbonate nodules (kanker) are formed.
  • Temperature acts in two ways — increasing or reducing chemical and biological activity. Chemical activity is increased in higher temperatures, reduced in cooler temperatures (with
    an exception of carbonation) and stops in freezing conditions. That is why, tropical soils with higher temperatures show deeper profiles and in the frozen tundra regions soils contain largely mechanically broken materials.

Biological Activity-

  • The vegetative cover and organisms that occupy the parent materials from the beginning and also at later stages help in adding organic matter, moisture retention, nitrogen etc.
  • Dead plants provide humus, the finely divided organic matter of the soil. Some organic acids which form during humification aid in decomposing the minerals of the soil parent materials. 
  • Intensity of bacterial activity shows up differences between soils of cold and warm climates. Humus accumulates in cold climates as bacterial growth is slow.
  • With undecomposed organic matter because of low bacterial activity, layers of peat develop in sub-arctic and k6tundra climates.
  • In humid tropical and equatorial climates, bacterial growth and action is intense and dead vegetation is rapidly oxidised leaving very low humus content in the soil.
  • Further, bacteria and other soil organisms take gaseous nitrogen from the air and convert it into a chemical form that can be used by plants. This process is known as nitrogen fixation. Rhizobium, a type of bacteria, lives in the root nodules of leguminous plants and fixes nitrogen beneficial to the host plant.
  • The influence of large animals like ants, termites, earthworms, rodents etc., is mechanical, but, it is nevertheless important in soil formation as they rework the soil up and down. In case of earthworms, as they feed on soil, the texture and chemistry of the soil that comes out of their body changes.


  • Time is the third important controlling factor in soil formation. The length of time the soil forming processes operate, determines maturation of soils and profile development.
  • A soil becomes mature when all soil-forming processes act for a sufficiently long time developing a profile. 
  • Soils developing from recently deposited alluvium or glacial till are considered young and they exhibit no horizons or only poorly developed horizons.
  • No specific length of time in absolute terms can be fixed for soils to develop and mature

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