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Viewing Earth’s surface as a soft-matter landscape


Earth’s surface is composed of a staggering diversity of particulate–fluid mixtures: dry to wet, dilute to dense, colloidal to granular and attractive to repulsive particles. This material variety is matched by the range of relevant stresses and strain rates, from laminar to turbulent flows and steady to intermittent forcing, leading to anything from rapid and catastrophic landslides to the slow relaxation of soil and rocks over geologic timescales. From a physics point of view, virtually all Earth and planetary landscapes are composed of soft matter, in the sense that they are both deformable and sensitive to collective effects. Geophysical materials, however, often involve compositions and flow geometries that have not yet been examined in physics. In this Review, we explore how a soft-matter physics perspective has helped to illuminate, and even predict, the rich dynamics of earth materials and their associated landscapes. We also highlight phenomena of geophysical flows that challenge, and will hopefully inspire, work on more fundamental aspects of soft matter.

Key points

  • Earth and planetary landscapes are created by the erosion and deposition of particulate material; this discipline is called geomorphology.

  • Soil, rocks and ice relax over geologic timescales, but may also fluidize under shear or lubrication; thus, glassy dynamics, rigidity transitions and rheology are central concepts.

  • Progress in soft-matter physics can be extended to improve the understanding of geophysical flows that shape landscapes.

  • Landscapes present a wider range of material heterogeneity, system geometry and excitations than have been examined in physics experiments, presenting new challenges and opportunities.

  • Soft-matter physics and geomorphology are long-lost relatives, and we outline promising avenues for reunification and collaboration.

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Fig. 1: Phase diagram of particulate geophysical flows, parameterized by dimensionless shear rate I and solid volume fraction ϕ.
Fig. 2: Interfacial and bulk dynamics of geophysical flows illustrated on a prototypical soil-covered hillslope.
Fig. 3: Example landscape patterns and particle–fluid interactions of associated flows.
Fig. 4: The landscape of valid states (geological landscapes).


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The idea for this manuscript originated at the Physics of Dense Suspensions program at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics, supported by the National Science Foundation (PHY-1748958). The authors are grateful to all participants of that workshop, especially the organizers: Bulbul Chakraborty, Emanuela Del Gado and Jeff Morris. D.J.J. was sponsored by the Army Research Office (W911-NF-16-1-0290), the National Science Foundation (NRI INT 1734355) and the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (P42ES02372). K.E.D. is grateful for support from the National Science Foundation (DMR-1206808 and DMR-1608097), the International Fine Particle Research Institute and the James S. McDonnell Foundation. The authors thank their research groups and also Doug Durian and Paulo Arratia for discussions that contributed to ideas presented here, and Andrew Gunn for creating Fig. 2.

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Correspondence to Douglas J. Jerolmack or Karen E. Daniels.

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Nature Reviews Physics thanks E. Brodsky, A. Kudrolli and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.



The application of models derived from small scale dynamics, transferred to larger scales.

Yield stress

The amount of load a material can accommodate without bulk flow arising.


Materials composed of one type of microscopic particle dispersed within a second substance, which doesn’t easily phase-separate once mixed.

Glassy dynamics

Extremely slow dynamics (creep) observed in disordered materials in the vicinity of yielding.


The development of a finite yield stress in an idealized, disordered material; the transition from a flowing to a rigid state.


Ability to support a finite stress without inducing bulk flow.

Disordered materials

Solid materials in a non-crystalline state.


The science relating how external forces cause material deformation, including the rate-dependence of these effects.


Small deformation or motion of the particles within a solid, occurring below yield.

Thermal effects

Effects arising when the thermal fluctuations on the constituent particles in the material are of non-negligible magnitude; this corresponds to low Péclet number.

Colloidal gel

Colloidal system consisting of attractive or cohesive particles dispersed in a liquid, at a volume fraction that is above the rigidity transition.


Component of shear strength that is independent of inter-particle friction (geotechnical) or the finite force required to separate two particles in contact (physics); our usage is compatible with both.

Shear localization

Deformation of a material is accommodated within a small region; one example is shear banding associated with a region 5–10 particles across, and another is shear transformation zones defined below.

Mohr–Coulomb failure

A solid mechanical failure criterion that determines the shear and normal stresses required to cause fracture in a frictional material.


A metastable state in which very small perturbations can lead to structural rearrangements and/or flow.

Shear transformation zones

(Also known as STZs). Small regions within an amorphous solid which undergo localized, plastic deformation due to an applied load.


The phenomenon in which an interface within a rough potential-energy landscape becomes unstable and slips.

Excluded volume

Volume that a particle cannot occupy because another particle is already at that location.


Refers to rearrangements of particles that occur during creep or yield, and are irreversible.

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Jerolmack, D.J., Daniels, K.E. Viewing Earth’s surface as a soft-matter landscape. Nat Rev Phys 1, 716–730 (2019).

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