Weathering is the breaking down of rocks, soils and minerals as well as artificial materials through contact with the Earth's atmosphere, biota and waters. Weathering occurs in situ, or "with no movement", and thus should not be confused with erosion, which involves the movement of rocks and minerals by agents such as water, ice, snow, wind, waves and gravity.
Two important classifications of weathering processes exist – physical and chemical weathering; each sometimes involves a biological component. Mechanical or physical weathering involves the breakdown of rocks and soils through direct contact with atmospheric conditions, such as heat, water, ice and pressure. The second classification, chemical weathering, involves the direct effect of atmospheric chemicals or biologically produced chemicals (also known as biological weathering) in the breakdown of rocks, soils and minerals.
The materials left over after the rock breaks down combined with organic material creates soil. The mineral content of the soil is determined by the parent material, thus a soil derived from a single rock type can often be deficient in one or more minerals for good fertility, while a soil weathered from a mix of rock types (as in glacial, aeolian or alluvial sediments) often makes more fertile soil. In addition many of Earth's landforms and landscapes are the result of weathering processes combined with erosion and re-deposition.
Erosion is the process by which soil and rock are removed from the Earth's surface by exogenetic processes such as wind or water flow, and then transported and deposited in other locations.
While erosion is a natural process, human activities have increased by 10-40 times the rate at which erosion is occurring globally. Excessive erosion causes problems such as desertification, decreases in agricultural productivity due to land degradation, sedimentation of waterways, and ecological collapse due to loss of the nutrient rich upper soil layers. Water and wind erosion are now the two primary causes of land degradation; combined, they are responsible for 84% of degraded acreage, making excessive erosion one of the most significant global environmental problems.
Industrial agriculture, deforestation, roads, anthropogenic climate change and urban sprawl are amongst the most significant human activities in regard to their effect on stimulating erosion. However, there are many available alternative land use practices that can curtail or limit erosion, such as terrace-building, no-till agriculture, and revegetation of denuded soils.