EarTh (Planet) INTRODUCTION Earth An oxygen-rich and protective atmosphere, moderate temperatures, abundant water, and a varied chemical composition enable Earth to support life, the only planet known to harbor life. The planet is composed of rock and metal, which are present in molten form beneath its surface. The Apollo 17 spacecraft took this snapshot in 1972 of the Arabian Peninsula, the African continent, and Antarctica (most of the white area near the bottom). Earth (planet), third planet in distance from the Sun in the solar system, the only planet known to harbor life, and the “home” of human beings.
From space Earth resembles a big blue marble with swirling white clouds floating above blue oceans. About 71 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by water, which is essential to life. The rest is land, mostly in the form of continents that rise above the oceans. Earth’s surface is surrounded by a layer of gases known as the atmosphere, which extends upward from the surface, slowly thinning out into space.
Below the surface is a hot interior of rocky material and two core layers composed of the metals nickel and iron in solid and liquid form.
Unlike the other planets, Earth has a unique set of characteristics ideally suited to supporting life as we know it. It is neither too hot, like Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, nor too cold, like distant Mars and the even more distant outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and the tiny dwarf planet Pluto. Earth’s atmosphere includes just the right amount of gases that trap heat from the Sun, resulting in a moderate climate suitable for water to exist in liquid form. The atmosphere also helps block radiation from the Sun that would be harmful to life.
Earth’s atmosphere distinguishes it from the planet Venus, which is otherwise much like Earth. Venus is about the same size and mass as Earth and is also neither too near nor too far from the Sun. But because Venus has too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, its surface is extremely hot—462°C (864°F)—hot enough to melt lead and too hot for life to exist. Although Earth is the only planet known to have life, scientists do not rule out the possibility that life may once have existed on other planets or their moons, or may exist today in primitive form.
Mars, for example, has many features that resemble river channels, indicating that liquid water once flowed on its surface. If so, life may also have evolved there, and evidence for it may one day be found in fossil form. Water still exists on Mars, but it is frozen in polar ice caps, in permafrost, and possibly in rocks below the surface. Earth from the Moon In the late 1960s, people saw for the first time what Earth looked like from space. This famous photo of Earth was taken by astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission as they orbited the Moon in 1968.
For thousands of years, human beings could only wonder about Earth and the other observable planets in the solar system. Many early ideas—for example, that the Earth was a sphere and that it traveled around the Sun—were based on brilliant reasoning. However, it was only with the development of the scientific method and scientific instruments, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, that humans began to gather data that could be used to verify theories about Earth and the rest of the solar system. By studying fossils found in rock layers, for example, scientists realized that the Earth was much older than previously believed.
And with the use of telescopes, new planets such as Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were discovered. In the second half of the 20th century, more advances in the study of Earth and the solar system occurred due to the development of rockets that could send spacecraft beyond Earth. Human beings were able to study and observe Earth from space with satellites equipped with scientific instruments. Astronauts landed on the Moon and gathered ancient rocks that revealed much about the early solar system. During this remarkable advancement in human history, humans also sent unmanned spacecraft to the other planets and their moons.
Spacecraft have now visited all of the planets except Pluto, now classified as a dwarf planet. The study of other planets and moons has provided new insights about Earth, just as the study of the Sun and other stars like it has helped shape new theories about how Earth and the rest of the solar system formed. As a result of this recent space exploration, we now know that Earth is one of the most geologically active of all the planets and moons in the solar system. Earth is constantly changing. Over long periods of time land is built up and worn away, oceans are formed and re-formed, and continents move around, break up, and merge.
Life itself contributes to changes on Earth, especially in the way living things can alter Earth’s atmosphere. For example, Earth at one time had the same amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere as Venus now has, but early forms of life helped remove this carbon dioxide over millions of years. These life forms also added oxygen to Earth’s atmosphere and made it possible for animal life to evolve on land. A variety of scientific fields have broadened our knowledge about Earth, including biogeography, climatology, geology, geophysics, hydrology, meteorology, oceanography, and zoogeography.
Collectively, these fields are known as Earth science. By studying Earth’s atmosphere, its surface, and its interior and by studying the Sun and the rest of the solar system, scientists have learned much about how Earth came into existence, how it changed, and why it continues to change. EARTH, THE SOLAR SYSTEM, AND THE GALAXY Solar System The Solar System (including the Earth) formed from a large, rotating cloud of interstellar dust and gas called the solar nebula, orbiting the Milky Way’s galactic center. It was composed of hydrogen and helium created shortly after the Big Bang 13. 7 Ga and heavier elements ejected by supernovas.
About 4. 6 Ga, the solar nebula began to contract, possibly due to the shock wave of a nearby supernova. Such a shock wave would have also caused the nebula to rotate and gain angular momentum. As the cloud began to accelerate its rotation, gravity and inertia flattened it into a protoplanetary disk oriented perpendicularly to its axis of rotation. Most of the mass concentrated in the middle and began to heat up, but small perturbations due to collisions and the angular momentum of other large debris created the means by which protoplanets up to several kilometres in length began to form, orbiting the nebular center.
The infall of material, increase in rotational speed and the crush of gravity created an enormous amount of kinetic heat at the center. Its inability to transfer that energy away through any other process at a rate capable of relieving the build-up resulted in the disk’s center heating up. Ultimately, nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium began, and eventually, after contraction, a T Tauri star ignited to create the Sun. Meanwhile, as gravity caused matter to condense around the previously perturbed objects outside the gravitational grasp of the new sun, dust particles and the rest of the protoplanetary disk began separating into rings.
Successively larger fragments collided with one another and became larger objects, ultimately becoming protoplanets. These included one collection about 150 million kilometers from the center: Earth. The planet formed about 4. 54 billion years ago (within an uncertainty of 1%) and was largely completed within 10–20 million years. The solar wind of the newly formed T Tauri star cleared out most of the material in the disk that had not already condensed into larger bodies. The Proto-Earth grew by accretion, until the inner part of the protoplanet was hot enough to melt the heavy, siderophile metals.
Such liquid metals, with now higher densities, began to sink to the Earth’s center of mass. This so called iron catastrophe resulted in the separation of a primitive mantle and a (metallic) core only 10 million years after the Earth began to form, producing the layered structure of Earth and setting up the formation of Earth’s magnetic field. During the accretion of material to the protoplanet, a cloud of gaseous silica must have surrounded the Earth, to condense afterwards as solid rocks on the surface.
What was left surrounding the planet was an early atmosphere of light (atmophile) elements from the solar nebula, mostly hydrogen and helium, but the solar wind and Earth’s heat would have driven off this atmosphere. This changed when Earth accreted to about 40% its present radius, and gravitational attraction retained an atmosphere which included water. Computer simulations have shown that planets with distances equal to the terrestrial planets in our solar system can be created from a protoplanetary disk.
The now widely accepted nebular hypothesis suggests that the same process, which gave rise to the solar system’s planets, produces accretion disks around virtually all newly forming stars in the universe, some of which yield planets. Earth is the third planet from the Sun, after Mercury and Venus. The average distance between Earth and the Sun is 150 million km (93 million mi). Earth and all the other planets in the solar system revolve, or orbit, around the Sun due to the force of gravitation. The Earth travels at a velocity of about 107,000 km/h (about 67,000 mph) as it orbits the Sun.
All but one of the planets orbit the Sun in the same plane—that is, if an imaginary line were extended from the center of the Sun to the outer regions of the solar system, the orbital paths of the planets would intersect that line. The exception is the dwarf planet Pluto, which has an eccentric (unusual) orbit. Milankovitch Cycles Milankovitch cycles are three periodic variations in Earth’s orientation toward the Sun. Scientists believe the three variations combine to produce cyclical changes in climate about once every 100,000 years.
Earth’s orbital path is not quite a perfect circle but instead is slightly elliptical (oval-shaped). For example, at maximum distance Earth is about 152 million km (about 95 million mi) from the Sun; at minimum distance Earth is about 147 million km (about 91 million mi) from the Sun. If Earth orbited the Sun in a perfect circle, it would always be the same distance from the Sun. Milky Way Galaxy Our own solar system exists within one of the spiral arms of the disk-shaped galaxy called the Milky Way. This false-color image looks toward the center of the Milky Way, located 30,000 light-years away.
Bright star clusters are visible along with darker areas of dust and gas. The solar system, in turn, is part of the Milky Way Galaxy, a collection of billions of stars bound together by gravity. The Milky Way has armlike discs of stars that spiral out from its center. The solar system is located in one of these spiral arms, known as the Orion arm, which is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the Galaxy. In most parts of the Northern Hemisphere, this disc of stars is visible on a summer night as a dense band of light known as the Milky Way.
Earth is the fifth largest planet in the solar system. Its diameter, measured around the equator, is 12,756 km (7,926 mi). Earth is not a perfect sphere but is slightly flattened at the poles. Its polar diameter, measured from the North Pole to the South Pole, is somewhat less than the equatorial diameter because of this flattening. Although Earth is the largest of the four planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—that make up the inner solar system (the planets closest to the Sun), it is small compared with the giant planets of the outer solar system—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.
For example, the largest planet, Jupiter, has a diameter at its equator of 143,000 km (89,000 mi), 11 times greater than that of Earth. A famous atmospheric feature on Jupiter, the Great Red Spot, is so large that three Earths would fit inside it. Earth has one natural satellite, the Moon. The Moon orbits the Earth, completing one revolution in an elliptical path in 27 days 7 hr 43 min 11. 5 sec. The Moon orbits the Earth because of the force of Earth’s gravity. However, the Moon also exerts a gravitational force on the Earth. Evidence for the Moon’s gravitational influence can be seen in the ocean tides.
A popular theory suggests that the Moon split off from Earth more than 4 billion years ago when a large meteorite or small planet struck the Earth. As Earth revolves around the Sun, it rotates, or spins, on its axis, an imaginary line that runs between the North and South poles. The period of one complete rotation is defined as a day and takes 23 hr 56 min 4. 1 sec. The period of one revolution around the Sun is defined as a year, or 365. 2422 solar days, or 365 days 5 hr 48 min 46 sec. Earth also moves along with the Milky Way Galaxy as the Galaxy rotates and moves through space.
It takes more than 200 million years for the stars in the Milky Way to complete one revolution around the Galaxy’s center. Earth’s axis of rotation is inclined (tilted) 23. 5° relative to its plane of revolution around the Sun. This inclination of the axis creates the seasons and causes the height of the Sun in the sky at noon to increase and decrease as the seasons change. The Northern Hemisphere receives the most energy from the Sun when it is tilted toward the Sun. This orientation corresponds to summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the Southern Hemisphere.
The Southern Hemisphere receives maximum energy when it is tilted toward the Sun, corresponding to summer in the Southern Hemisphere and winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Fall and spring occur in between these orientations. | | Geological clock EARTH’S ATMOSPHERE Because the Earth lacked an atmosphere immediately after the giant impact, cooling must have occurred quickly. Within 150 million years, a solid crust with a basaltic composition must have formed. The felsic continental crust of today did not yet exist. Within the Earth, further differentiation could only begin when the mantle had at least partly solidified again.
Nevertheless, during the early Archaean (about 3. 0 Ga) the mantle was still much hotter than today, probably around 1600°C. This means the fraction of partially molten material was still much larger than today. Steam escaped from the crust, and more gases were released by volcanoes, completing the second atmosphere. Additional water was imported by bolide collisions, probably from asteroids ejected from the outer asteroid belt under the influence of Jupiter’s gravity. The large amount of water on Earth can never have been produced by volcanism and degassing alone.
It is assumed the water was derived from impacting comets that contained ice. :130-132 Though most comets are today in orbits farther away from the Sun than Neptune, computer simulations show they were originally far more common in the inner parts of the solar system. However, most of the water on Earth was probably derived from small impacting protoplanets, objects comparable with today’s small icy moons of the outer planets. Impacts of these objects can have enriched the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars) with water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, nitrogen and other volatiles.
If all water on Earth was derived from comets alone, millions of comet impacts would be required to support this theory. Computer simulations illustrate that this is not an unreasonable number. :131 As the planet cooled, clouds formed. Rain created the oceans. Recent evidence suggests the oceans may have begun forming by 4. 2 Ga, or as early as 4. 4 Ga. In any event, by the start of the Archaean eon the Earth was already covered with oceans. The new atmosphere probably contained water vapor, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and smaller amounts of other gases. 27] As the output of the Sun was only 70% of the current amount, significant amounts of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere most likely prevented the surface water from freezing.  Free oxygen would have been bound by hydrogen or minerals on the surface. Volcanic activity was intense and, without an ozone layer to hinder its entry, ultraviolet radiation flooded the surface. Lithified stromatolites on the shores of Lake Thetis (Western Australia). Stromatolites are formed by colonies of single celled organisms like cyanobacteria or chlorophyta.
These colonies of algae entrap sedimentary grains, thus forming the draped sedimentary layers of a stromatolite. Archaean stromatolites are the first direct fossil traces of life on Earth, even though little preserved fossilized cells have been found inside them. The Archaean and Proterozoic oceans could have been full of algal mats like these. The atmosphere is a layer of different gases that extends from Earth’s surface to the exosphere, the outer limit of the atmosphere, about 9,600 km (6,000 mi) above the surface. Near Earth’s surface, the atmosphere consists almost entirely of nitrogen (78 percent) and oxygen (21 percent).
The remaining 1 percent of atmospheric gases consists of argon (0. 9 percent); carbon dioxide (0. 03 percent); varying amounts of water vapor; and trace amounts of hydrogen, nitrous oxide, ozone, methane, carbon monoxide, helium, neon, krypton, and xenon. Layers of the Atmosphere Divisions of the Atmosphere Without our atmosphere, there would be no life on Earth. A relatively thin envelope, the atmosphere consists of layers of gases that support life and provide protection from harmful radiation. The layers of the atmosphere are the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere.
The troposphere is the layer in which weather occurs and extends from the surface to about 16 km (about 10 mi) above sea level at the equator. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which has an upper boundary of about 50 km (about 30 mi) above sea level. The layer from 50 to 90 km (30 to 60 mi) is called the mesosphere. At an altitude of about 90 km, temperatures begin to rise. The layer that begins at this altitude is called the thermosphere because of the high temperatures that can be reached in this layer (about 1200°C, or about 2200°F). The region beyond the thermosphere is called the exosphere.
The thermosphere and the exosphere overlap with another region of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere, a layer or layers of ionized air extending from almost 60 km (about 50 mi) above Earth’s surface to altitudes of 1,000 km (600 mi) and more. Greenhouse Effect Earth’s atmosphere and the way it interacts with the oceans and radiation from the Sun are responsible for the planet’s climate and weather. The atmosphere plays a key role in supporting life. Almost all life on Earth uses atmospheric oxygen for energy in a process known as cellular respiration, which is essential to life.
The atmosphere also helps moderate Earth’s climate by trapping radiation from the Sun that is reflected from Earth’s surface. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere act as “greenhouse gases. ” Like the glass in a greenhouse, they trap infrared, or heat, radiation from the Sun in the lower atmosphere and thereby help warm Earth’s surface. Without this greenhouse effect, heat radiation would escape into space, and Earth would be too cold to support most forms of life. Other gases in the atmosphere are also essential to life.
The trace amount of ozone found in Earth’s stratosphere blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Without the ozone layer, life as we know it could not survive on land. Earth’s atmosphere is also an important part of a phenomenon known as the water cycle or the hydrologic cycle. See also Atmosphere. The Atmosphere and the Water Cycle Water Cycle The water cycle simply means that Earth’s water is continually recycled between the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land. All of the water that exists on Earth today has been used and reused for billions of years. Very little water has been created or lost during this period of time.
Water is constantly moving on Earth’s surface and changing back and forth between ice, liquid water, and water vapor. The water cycle begins when the Sun heats the water in the oceans and causes it to evaporate and enter the atmosphere as water vapor. Some of this water vapor falls as precipitation directly back into the oceans, completing a short cycle. Some of the water vapor, however, reaches land, where it may fall as snow or rain. Melted snow or rain enters rivers or lakes on the land. Due to the force of gravity, the water in the rivers eventually empties back into the oceans.
Melted snow or rain also may enter the ground. Groundwater may be stored for hundreds or thousands of years, but it will eventually reach the surface as springs or small pools known as seeps. Even snow that forms glacial ice or becomes part of the polar caps and is kept out of the cycle for thousands of years eventually melts or is warmed by the Sun and turned into water vapor, entering the atmosphere and falling again as precipitation. All water that falls on land eventually returns to the ocean, completing the water cycle. EARTH’S SURFACE Earth’s surface is the outermost layer of the planet.
It includes the hydrosphere, the crust, and the biosphere. Hydrosphere The hydrosphere consists of the bodies of water that cover 71 percent of Earth’s surface. The largest of these are the oceans, which contain over 97 percent of all water on Earth. Glaciers and the polar ice caps contain just over 2 percent of Earth’s water in the form of solid ice. Only about 0. 6 percent is under the surface as groundwater. Nevertheless, groundwater is 36 times more plentiful than water found in lakes, inland seas, rivers, and in the atmosphere as water vapor. Only 0. 017 percent of all the water on Earth is found in lakes and rivers.
And a mere 0. 001 percent is found in the atmosphere as water vapor. Most of the water in glaciers, lakes, inland seas, rivers, and groundwater is fresh and can be used for drinking and agriculture. Dissolved salts compose about 3. 5 percent of the water in the oceans, however, making it unsuitable for drinking or agriculture unless it is treated to remove the salts. CRUST The crust consists of the continents, other land areas, and the basins, or floors, of the oceans. The dry land of Earth’s surface is called the continental crust. It is about 15 to 75 km (9 to 47 mi) thick.
The oceanic crust is thinner than the continental crust. Its average thickness is 5 to 10 km (3 to 6 mi). The crust has a definite boundary called the Mohorovicic discontinuity, or simply the Moho. The boundary separates the crust from the underlying mantle, which is much thicker and is part of Earth’s interior. Oceanic crust and continental crust differ in the type of rocks they contain. There are three main types of rocks: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Igneous rocks form when molten rock, called magma, cools and solidifies. Sedimentary rocks are usually created by the breakdown of gneous rocks. They tend to form in layers as small particles of other rocks or as the mineralized remains of dead animals and plants that have fused together over time. The remains of dead animals and plants occasionally become mineralized in sedimentary rock and are recognizable as fossils. Metamorphic rocks form when sedimentary or igneous rocks are altered by heat and pressure deep underground. Oceanic crust consists of dark, dense igneous rocks, such as basalt and gabbro. Continental crust consists of lighter-colored, less dense igneous rocks, such as granite and diorite.
Continental crust also includes metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks. Biosphere The biosphere includes all the areas of Earth capable of supporting life. The biosphere ranges from about 10 km (about 6 mi) into the atmosphere to the deepest ocean floor. For a long time, scientists believed that all life depended on energy from the Sun and consequently could only exist where sunlight penetrated. In the 1970s, however, scientists discovered various forms of life around hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Pacific Ocean where no sunlight penetrated.
They learned that primitive bacteria formed the basis of this living community and that the bacteria derived their energy from a process called chemosynthesis that did not depend on sunlight. Some scientists believe that the biosphere may extend relatively deep into Earth’s crust. They have recovered what they believe are primitive bacteria from deeply drilled holes below the surface. | | Changes to Earth’s Surface Earth’s surface has been constantly changing ever since the planet formed. Most of these changes have been gradual, taking place over millions of years.
Nevertheless, these gradual changes have resulted in radical modifications, involving the formation, erosion, and re-formation of mountain ranges, the movement of continents, the creation of huge supercontinents, and the breakup of supercontinents into smaller continents. The weathering and erosion that result from the water cycle are among the principal factors responsible for changes to Earth’s surface. Another principal factor is the movement of Earth’s continents and seafloors and the buildup of mountain ranges due to a phenomenon known as plate tectonics. Heat is the basis for all of these changes.
Heat in Earth’s interior is believed to be responsible for continental movement, mountain building, and the creation of new seafloor in ocean basins. Heat from the Sun is responsible for the evaporation of ocean water and the resulting precipitation that causes weathering and erosion. In effect, heat in Earth’s interior helps build up Earth’s surface while heat from the Sun helps wear down the surface. Weathering Weathering is the breakdown of rock at and near the surface of Earth. Most rocks originally formed in a hot, high-pressure environment below the surface where there was little exposure to water.
Once the rocks reached Earth’s surface, however, they were subjected to temperature changes and exposed to water. When rocks are subjected to these kinds of surface conditions, the minerals they contain tend to change. These changes constitute the process of weathering. There are two types of weathering: physical weathering and chemical weathering. Physical weathering involves a decrease in the size of rock material. Freezing and thawing of water in rock cavities, for example, splits rock into small pieces because water expands when it freezes. Chemical weathering involves a chemical change in the composition of rock.
For example, feldspar, a common mineral in granite and other rocks, reacts with water to form clay minerals, resulting in a new substance with totally different properties than the parent feldspar. Chemical weathering is of significance to humans because it creates the clay minerals that are important components of soil, the basis of agriculture. Chemical weathering also causes the release of dissolved forms of sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and other chemical elements into surface water and groundwater. These elements are carried by surface water and groundwater to the sea and are the sources of dissolved salts in the sea.
Erosion | | | Glacial Erosion Glaciers erode the Earth’s surface through processes such as abrasion, crushing, and fracturing of the material in the glacier’s path. Glaciers move by growing or shrinking, depending on the climate. Moving glaciers erode and transport large quantities of rocks, sand, and other particles along their path. The icy path shown here is a moraine formed by a glacier in Switzerland. Erosion is the process that removes loose and weathered rock and carries it to a new site. Water, wind, and glacial ice combined with the force of gravity can cause erosion.
Erosion by running water is by far the most common process of erosion. It takes place over a longer period of time than other forms of erosion. When water from rain or melted snow moves downhill, it can carry loose rock or soil with it. Erosion by running water forms the familiar gullies and V-shaped valleys that cut into most landscapes. The force of the running water removes loose particles formed by weathering. In the process, gullies and valleys are lengthened, widened, and deepened. Often, water overflows the banks of the gullies or river channels, resulting in floods.
Each new flood carries more material away to increase the size of the valley. Meanwhile, weathering loosens more and more material so the process continues. Erosion by glacial ice is less common, but it can cause the greatest landscape changes in the shortest amount of time. Glacial ice forms in a region where snow fails to melt in the spring and summer and instead builds up as ice. For major glaciers to form, this lack of snowmelt has to occur for a number of years in areas with high precipitation. As ice accumulates and thickens, it flows as a solid mass.
As it flows, it has a tremendous capacity to erode soil and even solid rock. Ice is a major factor in shaping some landscapes, especially mountainous regions. Glacial ice provides much of the spectacular scenery in these regions. Features such as horns (sharp mountain peaks), aretes (sharp ridges), glacially formed lakes, and U-shaped valleys are all the result of glacial erosion. Wind is an important cause of erosion only in arid (dry) regions. Wind carries sand and dust, which can scour even solid rock. Many factors determine the rate and kind of erosion that occurs in a given area.
The climate of an area determines the distribution, amount, and kind of precipitation that the area receives and thus the type and rate of weathering. An area with an arid climate erodes differently than an area with a humid climate. The elevation of an area also plays a role by determining the potential energy of running water. The higher the elevation the more energetically water will flow due to the force of gravity. The type of bedrock in an area (sandstone, granite, or shale) can determine the shapes of valleys and slopes, and the depth of streams.
A landscape’s geologic age—that is, how long current conditions of weathering and erosion have affected the area—determines its overall appearance. Relatively young landscapes tend to be more rugged and angular in appearance. Older landscapes tend to have more rounded slopes and hills. The oldest landscapes tend to be low-lying with broad, open river valleys and low, rounded hills. The overall effect of the wearing down of an area is to level the land; the tendency is toward the reduction of all land surfaces to sea level. Plate Tectonics | | | Plate Tectonics
Opposing this tendency toward leveling is a force responsible for raising mountains and plateaus and for creating new landmasses. These changes to Earth’s surface occur in the outermost solid portion of Earth, known as the lithosphere. The lithosphere consists of the crust and another region known as the upper mantle and is approximately 65 to 100 km (40 to 60 mi) thick. Compared with the interior of the Earth, however, this region is relatively thin. The lithosphere is thinner in proportion to the whole Earth than the skin of an apple is to the whole apple.
Scientists believe that the lithosphere is broken into a series of plates, or segments. According to the theory of plate tectonics, these plates move around on Earth’s surface over long periods of time. Tectonics comes from the Greek word, tektonikos, which means “builder. ” Continental Drift According to the theory, the lithosphere is divided into large and small plates. The largest plates include the Pacific plate, the North American plate, the Eurasian plate, the Antarctic plate, the Indo-Australian plate, and the African plate. Smaller plates include the Cocos plate, the Nazca plate, the Philippine plate, and the Caribbean plate.
Plate sizes vary a great deal. The Cocos plate is 2,000 km (1,000 mi) wide, while the Pacific plate is nearly 14,000 km (nearly 9,000 mi) wide. These plates move in three different ways in relation to each other. They pull apart or move away from each other, they collide or move against each other, or they slide past each other as they move sideways. The movement of these plates helps explain many geological events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as well as mountain building and the formation of the oceans and continents. When Plates Pull Apart | | Magma Upwelling
Mid-ocean ridges occur along boundaries between plates of Earth’s outer shell where new seafloor is created as the plates spread apart. As plates move apart under the ocean, molten rock, or magma, wells up from deep below the surface of the seafloor. Some of the magma that ascends to the seafloor produces enormous volcanic eruptions. The rest solidifies on the edges of the plates as they spread apart, creating new rocky seafloor material. When the plates pull apart, two types of phenomena occur depending on whether the movement takes place in the oceans or on land. When plates pull apart on land, deep valleys known as rift valleys form.
An example of a rift valley is the Great Rift Valley that extends from Syria in the Middle East to Mozambique in Africa. When plates pull apart in the oceans, long, sinuous chains of volcanic mountains called mid-ocean ridges form, and new seafloor is created at the site of these ridges. Rift valleys are also present along the crests of the mid-ocean ridges. Most scientists believe that gravity and heat from the interior of the Earth cause the plates to move apart and to create new seafloor. According to this explanation, molten rock known as magma rises from Earth’s interior to form hot spots beneath the ocean floor.
As two oceanic plates pull apart from each other in the middle of the oceans, a crack, or rupture, appears and forms the mid-ocean ridges. These ridges exist in all the world’s ocean basins and resemble the seams of a baseball. The molten rock rises through these cracks and creates new seafloor. When Plates Collide | | Converging Plates The outer layer of the Earth, the lithosphere, is broken into about 20 pieces, called tectonic plates. These plates slowly slide around on the asthenosphere below, periodically colliding with each other. When plates collide or push against each other, regions called convergent plate margins form.
Along these margins, one plate is usually forced to dive below the other. As that plate dives, it triggers the melting of the surrounding lithosphere and a region just below it known as the asthenosphere. These pockets of molten crust rise behind the margin through the overlying plate, creating curved chains of volcanoes known as arcs. This process is called subduction. If one plate consists of oceanic crust and the other consists of continental crust, the denser oceanic crust will dive below the continental crust. If both plates are oceanic crust, then either may be subducted.
If both are continental crust, subduction can continue for a while but will eventually end because continental crust is not dense enough to be forced very far into the upper mantle. Mount Everest Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,850 m (29,035 ft), is located in the Himalayas. The Himalayas form the highest mountain system in the world, with more than 30 peaks towering 7,600 m (25,000 ft) or more. The results of this subduction process are readily visible on a map showing that 80 percent of the world’s volcanoes rim the Pacific Ocean where plates are colliding against each other.
The subduction zone created by the collision of two oceanic plates—the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate—can also create a trench. Such a trench resulted in the formation of the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench, which is estimated to be 11,033 m (36,198 ft) below sea level. On the other hand, when two continental plates collide, mountain building occurs. The collision of the Indo-Australian plate with the Eurasian plate has produced the Himalayan Mountains. This collision resulted in the highest point of Earth, Mount Everest, which is 8,850 m (29,035 ft) above sea level.
When Plates Slide Past Each Other San Andreas Fault, California The San Andreas Fault, unlike most faults that stay below the ocean, emerges from the Pacific Ocean and traverses hundreds of miles of land. It runs through California for about 1,000 km (about 600 mi) from Point Arena to the Imperial Valley. The fault marks the boundary between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates; earthquakes are caused by these plates sliding together. Finally, some of Earth’s plates neither collide nor pull apart but instead slide past each other. These regions are called transform margins.
Few volcanoes occur in these areas because neither plate is forced down into Earth’s interior and little melting occurs. Earthquakes, however, are abundant as the two rigid plates slide past each other. The San Andreas Fault in California is a well-known example of a transform margin. The movement of plates occurs at a slow pace, at an average rate of only 2. 5 cm (1 in) per year. But over millions of years this gradual movement results in radical changes. Current plate movement is making the Pacific Ocean and Mediterranean Sea smaller, the Atlantic Ocean larger, and the Himalayan Mountains higher. EARTH’S INTERIOR | |
Internal Structure of the Earth Earth is made up of a series of layers that formed early in the planet’s history, as heavier material gravitated toward the center and lighter material floated to the surface. The dense, solid, inner core of iron is surrounded by a liquid, iron, outer core. The lower mantle consists of molten rock, which is surrounded by partially molten rock in the asthenosphere and solid rock in the upper mantle and crust. Between some of the layers, there are chemical or structural changes that form discontinuities. Lighter elements, such as silicon, aluminum, calcium, potassium, sodium, and oxygen, compose the outer crust.
The interior of Earth plays an important role in plate tectonics. Scientists believe it is also responsible for Earth’s magnetic field. This field is vital to life because it shields the planet’s surface from harmful cosmic rays and from a steady stream of energetic particles from the Sun known as the solar wind. Composition of the Interior Earth’s interior consists of the mantle and the core. The mantle and core make up by far the largest part of Earth’s mass. The distance from the base of the crust to the center of the core is about 6,400 km (about 4,000 mi).
Scientists have learned about Earth’s interior by studying rocks that formed in the interior and rose to the surface. The study of meteorites, which are believed to be made of the same material that formed the Earth and its interior, has also offered clues about Earth’s interior. Finally, seismic waves generated by earthquakes provide geophysicists with information about the composition of the interior. The sudden movement of rocks during an earthquake causes vibrations that transmit energy through the Earth in the form of waves. The way these waves travel through the interior of Earth reveals the nature of materials inside the planet.
The mantle consists of three parts: the lower part of the lithosphere, the region below it known as the asthenosphere, and the region below the asthenosphere called the lower mantle. The entire mantle extends from the base of the crust to a depth of about 2,900 km (about 1,800 mi). Scientists believe the asthenosphere is made up of mushy plastic-like rock with pockets of molten rock. The term asthenosphere is derived from Greek and means “weak layer. ” The asthenosphere’s soft, plastic quality allows plates in the lithosphere above it to shift and slide on top of the asthenosphere.
This shifting of the lithosphere’s plates is the source of most tectonic activity. The asthenosphere is also the source of the basaltic magma that makes up much of the oceanic crust and rises through volcanic vents on the ocean floor. The mantle consists of mostly solid iron-magnesium silicate rock mixed with many other minor components including radioactive elements. However, even this solid rock can flow like a “sticky” liquid when it is subjected to enough heat and pressure. The core is divided into two parts, the outer core and the inner core. The outer core is about 2,260 km (about 1,404 mi) thick.
The outer core is a liquid region composed mostly of iron, with smaller amounts of nickel and sulfur in liquid form. The inner core is about 1,220 km (about 758 mi) thick. The inner core is solid and is composed of iron, nickel, and sulfur in solid form. Because the inner core is surrounded by a liquid region, it can rotate independently. Recent scientific studies indicate that the inner core may actually rotate faster than the rest of the planet, making one full extra spin over a period of 700 to 1,200 years. The inner core and the outer core also contain a small percentage of radioactive material.
The existence of radioactive material is one of the sources of heat in Earth’s interior because as radioactive material decays, it gives off heat. Temperatures in the inner core may be as high as 6650°C (12,000°F). The Core and Earth’s Magnetism Earth’s Magnetic Field Scientists believe that Earth’s liquid iron core is instrumental in creating a magnetic field that surrounds Earth and shields the planet from harmful cosmic rays and the Sun’s solar wind. The idea that Earth is like a giant magnet was first proposed in 1600 by English physician and natural philosopher William Gilbert.
Gilbert proposed the idea to explain why the magnetized needle in a compass points north. According to Gilbert, Earth’s magnetic field creates a magnetic north pole and a magnetic south pole. The magnetic poles do not correspond to the geographic North and South poles, however. Moreover, the magnetic poles wander and are not always in the same place. The north magnetic pole is currently close to Ellef Ringnes Island in the Queen Elizabeth Islands near the boundary of Canada’s Northwest Territories with Nunavut. The south magnetic pole lies just off the coast of Wilkes Land, Antarctica.
Not only do the magnetic poles wander, but they also reverse their polarity—that is, the north magnetic pole becomes the south magnetic pole and vice versa. Magnetic reversals have occurred at least 170 times over the past 100 million years. The reversals occur on average about every 200,000 years and take place gradually over a period of several thousand years. Scientists still do not understand why these magnetic reversals occur but think they may be related to Earth’s rotation and changes in the flow of liquid iron in the outer core. Aurora Borealis
The aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, creates a spectacular light show near Fairbanks, Alaska. Auroras, most frequently seen in the far northern and far southern regions of the globe, are common sights in the Alaskan sky. Luminous displays visible to the naked eye only at night, auroras occur when charged particles from the Sun interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere. Some scientists theorize that the flow of liquid iron in the outer core sets up electrical currents that produce Earth’s magnetic field. Known as the dynamo theory, this theory appears to be the best explanation yet for the origin of the magnetic field.
Earth’s magnetic field operates in a region above Earth’s surface known as the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is shaped somewhat like a teardrop with a long tail that trails away from the Earth due to the force of the solar wind. Inside the magnetosphere are the Van Allen radiation belts, named for the American physicist James A. Van Allen who discovered them in 1958. The Van Allen belts are regions where charged particles from the Sun and from cosmic rays are trapped and sent into spiral paths along the lines of Earth’s magnetic field.
The radiation belts thereby shield Earth’s surface from these highly energetic particles. Occasionally, however, due to extremely strong magnetic fields on the Sun’s surface, which are visible as sunspots, a brief burst of highly energetic particles streams along with the solar wind. Because Earth’s magnetic field lines converge and are closest to the surface at the poles, some of these energetic particles sneak through and interact with Earth’s atmosphere, creating the phenomenon known as an aurora. EARTH’S PAST Origin of Earth
Most scientists believe that the Earth, Sun, and all of the other planets and moons in the solar system formed about 4. 6 billion years ago from a giant cloud of gas and dust known as the solar nebula. The gas and dust in this solar nebula originated in a star that ended its life in a violent explosion known as a supernova. The solar nebula consisted principally of hydrogen, the lightest element, but the nebula was also seeded with a smaller percentage of heavier elements, such as carbon and oxygen. All of the chemical elements we know were originally made in the star that became a supernova.
Our bodies are made of these same chemical elements. Therefore, all of the elements in our solar system, including all of the elements in our bodies, originally came from this star-seeded solar nebula. Due to the force of gravity tiny clumps of gas and dust began to form in the early solar nebula. As these clumps came together and grew larger, they caused the solar nebula to contract in on itself. The contraction caused the cloud of gas and dust to flatten in the shape of a disc. As the clumps continued to contract, they became very dense and hot.
Eventually the atoms of hydrogen became so dense that they began to fuse in the innermost part of the cloud, and these nuclear reactions gave birth to the Sun. The fusion of hydrogen atoms in the Sun is the source of its energy. Many scientists favor the planetesimal theory for how the Earth and other planets formed out of this solar nebula. This theory helps explain why the inner planets became rocky while the outer planets, except for the dwarf planet Pluto, are made up mostly of gases. The theory also explains why all of the planets orbit the Sun in the same plane.
According to this theory, temperatures decreased with increasing distance from the center of the solar nebula. In the inner region, where Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars formed, temperatures were low enough that certain heavier elements, such as iron and the other heavy compounds that make up rock, could condense out—that is, could change from a gas to a solid or liquid. Due to the force of gravity, small clumps of this rocky material eventually came together with the dust in the original solar nebula to form protoplanets or planetesimals (small rocky bodies).
These planetesimals collided, broke apart, and re-formed until they became the four inner rocky planets. The inner region, however, was still too hot for other light elements, such as hydrogen and helium, to be retained. These elements could only exist in the outermost part of the disc, where temperatures were lower. As a result two of the outer planets—Jupiter and Saturn—are mostly made of hydrogen and helium, which are also the dominant elements in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune. Starting with the Earth’s formation by accretion from the solar nebula 4. 54 billion years ago (4. 4 Ga), the first eon in the Earth’s history is called the Hadean. It lasted until the Archaean eon, which began 3. 8 Ga. The oldest rocks found on Earth date to about 4. 0 Ga, and the oldest detrital zircon crystals in some rocks have been dated to about 4. 4 Ga, close to the formation of the Earth’s crust and the Earth itself. Because not much material from this time is preserved, little is known about Hadean times, but scientists hypothesize at an estimated 4. 53 Ga, shortly after formation of an initial crust, the proto-Earth was impacted by a smaller protoplanet, which ejected part of the mantle and crust into space and created the Moon.
During the Hadean, the Earth’s surface was under a continuous bombardment by meteorites, and volcanism must have been severe due to the large heat flow and geothermal gradient. The detrital zircon crystals dated to 4. 4 Ga show evidence of having undergone contact with liquid water, considered as proof that the planet already had oceans or seas at that time.  From crater counts on other celestial bodies it is inferred that a period of intense meteorite impacts, called the “Late Heavy Bombardment”, began about 4. 1 Ga, and concluded around 3. 8 Ga, at the end of the Hadean.
By the beginning of the Archaean, the Earth had cooled significantly. It would have been impossible for most present day life forms to exist due to the composition of the Archaean atmosphere, which lacked oxygen and an ozone layer. Nevertheless it is believed that primordial life began to evolve by the early Archaean, with some possible fossil finds dated to around 3. 5 Ga.  Some researchers, however, speculate that life could have begun during the early Hadean, as far back as 4. 4 Ga, surviving the possible Late Heavy Bombardment period in hydrothermal vents below the Earth’s surface.
Origin of life The replicator in virtually all known life is deoxyribonucleic acid. DNA is far more complex than the original replicator and its replication systems are highly elaborate. Main article: Abiogenesis The details of the origin of life are unknown, but the basic principles have been established. There are two schools of thought about the origin of life. One suggests that organic components arrived on Earth from space (see “Panspermia”), while the other argues that they originated on Earth. Nevertheless, both schools suggest similar mechanisms by which life initially arose.
If life arose on Earth, the timing of this event is highly speculative—perhaps it arose around 4 Ga.  It is possible that, as a result of repeated formation and destruction of oceans during that time period caused by high energy asteroid bombardment, life may have arisen and extinguished more than once. In the energetic chemistry of early Earth, a molecule gained the ability to make copies of itself — a replicator. (More accurately, it promoted the chemical reactions which produced a copy of itself. ) The replication was not always accurate: some copies were slightly different from their parent.
If the change destroyed the copying ability of the molecule, the molecule did not produce any copies, and the line “died out”. On the other hand, a few rare changes might have made the molecule replicate faster or better: those “strains” would become more numerous and “successful”. This is an early example of evolution on abiotic material. The variations present in matter and molecules combined with the universal tendency for systems to move towards a lower energy state allowed for an early method of natural selection.
As choice raw materials (“food”) became depleted, strains which could utilize different materials, or perhaps halt the development of other strains and steal their resources, became more numerous. The nature of the first replicator is unknown because its function was long since superseded by life’s current replicator, DNA. Several models have been proposed explaining how a replicator might have developed. Different replicators have been posited, including organic chemicals such as modern proteins, nucleic acids, phospholipids, crystals, or even quantum systems.
There is currently no way to determine whether any of these models closely fits the origin of life on Earth. One of the older theories, one which has been worked out in some detail, will serve as an example of how this might occur. The high energy from volcanoes, lightning, and ultraviolet radiation could help drive chemical reactions producing more complex molecules from simple compounds such as methane and ammonia. Among these were many of the simpler organic compounds, including nucleobases and amino acids, which are the building blocks of life.
As the amount and concentration of this “organic soup” increased, different molecules reacted with one another. Sometimes more complex molecules would result—perhaps clay provided a framework to collect and concentrate organic material. Certain molecules could speed up a chemical reaction. All this continued for a long time, with reactions occurring at random, until by chance it produced a replicator molecule. In any case, at some point, the function of the replicator was superseded by DNA; all known life (except some viruses and prions) use DNA as their replicator, in an almost identical manner (see Genetic code).
A small section of a cell membrane. This modern cell membrane is far more sophisticated than the original simple phospholipid bilayer (the small blue spheres with two tails). Proteins and carbohydrates serve various functions in regulating the passage of material through the membrane and in reacting to the environment. Modern life has its replicating material packaged inside a cellular membrane. It is easier to understand the origin of the cell membrane than the origin of the replicator, because a cell membrane is made of phospholipid molecules, which often form a bilayer spontaneously when placed in water.
Under certain conditions, many such spheres can be formed (see “The bubble theory”). The prevailing theory is that the membrane formed after the replicator, which perhaps by then was RNA (the RNA world hypothesis), along with its replicating apparatus and other biomolecules. Initial protocells may have simply burst when they grew too large; the scattered contents may then have recolonized other “bubbles”. Proteins that stabilized the membrane, or that later assisted in an orderly division, would have promoted the proliferation of those cell lines.
RNA is a likely candidate for an early replicator, because it can both store genetic information and catalyze reactions. At some point DNA took over the genetic storage role from RNA, and proteins known as enzymes took over the catalysis role, leaving RNA to transfer information, synthesize proteins and regulate the process. There is increasing belief that these early cells evolved in association with undersea volcanic vents known as black smokers or even hot, deep rocks. It is believed that of this multiplicity of protocells, only one line survived.
Current phylogentic evidence suggests that the last universal common ancestor lived during the early Archean eon, perhaps roughly 3. 5 Ga or earlier. This “LUCA” cell is the ancestor of all life on Earth today. It was probably a prokaryote, possessing a cell membrane and probably ribosomes, but lacking a nucleus or membrane-bound organelles such as mitochondria or chloroplasts. Like all modern cells, it used DNA as its genetic code, RNA for information transfer and protein synthesis, and enzymes to catalyze reactions.
Some scientists believe that instead of a single organism being the last universal common ancestor, there were populations of organisms exchanging genes in lateral gene transfer. The Early Earth Life originated on Earth about four billion years ago, when oceans dotted with volcanic islands covered most of Earth’s surface and continents were very small. The air was hot and contained almost no breathable oxygen. The Moon was much closer to Earth, and a day was less than 15 hours long. Meteorites fell more frequently, and there was more volcanic activity than there is today.
Within the planetesimal Earth, heavier matter sank to the center and lighter matter rose toward the surface. Most scientists believe that Earth was never truly molten and that this transfer of matter took place in the solid state. Much of the matter that went toward the center contained radioactive material, an important source of Earth’s internal heat. As heavier material moved inward, lighter material moved outward, the planet became layered, and the layers of the core and mantle were formed. This process is called differentiation.
Not long after they formed, more than 4 billion years ago, the Earth and the Moon underwent a period when they were bombarded by meteorites, the rocky debris left over from the formation of the solar system. The impact craters created during this period of heavy bombardment are still visible on the Moon’s surface, which is unchanged. Earth’s craters, however, were long ago erased by weathering, erosion, and mountain building. Because the Moon has no atmosphere, its surface has not been subjected to weathering or erosion. Thus, the evidence of meteorite bombardment remains.
Energy released from the meteorite impacts created extremely high temperatures on Earth that melted the outer part of the planet and created the crust. By 4 billion years ago, both the oceanic and continental crust had formed, and the oldest rocks were created. These rocks are known as the Acasta Gneiss and are found in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Due to the meteorite bombardment, the early Earth was too hot for liquid water to exist and so it was impossible for life to exist. Geologic Time Fossil-bearing Rocks Sedimentary rocks, such as this fossil-bearing limestone, can help geologists determine geologic time.
Because the bottom layers were deposited first, the oldest fossils are found in the bottom layers of sedimentary rocks. The accumulation of shells or shell fragments and other fossils in limestone provides geologists with a record of the evolution of the animals that used to live in the ancient oceans. Geologists divide the history of the Earth into three eons: the Archean Eon, which lasted from around 4 billion to 2. 5 billion years ago; the Proterozoic Eon, which lasted from 2. 5 billion to 543 million years ago; and the Phanerozoic Eon, which lasted from 543 million years ago to the present.
Each eon is subdivided into different eras. For example, the Phanerozoic Eon includes the Paleozoic Era, the Mesozoic Era, and the Cenozoic Era. In turn, eras are further divided into periods. For example, the Paleozoic Era includes the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian Periods. Geologic Time Scale The Archean Eon is subdivided into four eras, the Eoarchean, the Paleoarchean, the Mesoarchean, and the Neoarchean. The beginning of the Archean is generally dated as the age of the oldest terrestrial rocks, which are about 4 billion years old.
The Archean Eon ended 2. 5 billion years ago when the Proterozoic Eon began. The Proterozoic Eon is subdivided into three eras: the Paleoproterozoic Era, the Mesoproterozoic Era, and the Neoproterozoic Era. The Proterozoic Eon lasted from 2. 5 billion years ago to 543 million years ago when the Phanerozoic Eon began. The Phanerozoic Eon is subdivided into three eras: the Paleozoic Era from 543 million to 248 million years ago, the Mesozoic Era from 248 million to 65 million years ago, and the Cenozoic Era from 65 million years ago to the present. Stratigraphic Column
Fossils preserved in rock strata provide scientists with clues to evolutionary history. This stratigraphic column is based on paleontological evidence and shows the order in which organisms appeared in the fossil-rich Paleozoic era. Each layer represents a particular time frame and shows a representative organism that flourished during that time. Although fossils are rarely found in the idealized and localized fashion shown here, they are often in more or less chronological order. Generally, the oldest fossils appear in lower layers, and the most recent fossils at the top, so that placement may be used as an aid in dating the specimens.
Geologists base these divisions on the study and dating of rock layers or strata, including the fossilized remains of plants and animals found in those layers. Until the late 1800s scientists could only determine the relative ages of rock strata. They knew that in general the top layers of rock were the youngest and formed most recently, while deeper layers of rock were older. The field of stratigraphy shed much light on the relative ages of rock layers. The study of fossils also enabled geologists to determine the relative ages of different rock layers.
The fossil record helped scientists determine how organisms evolved or when they became extinct. By studying rock layers around the world, geologists and paleontologists saw that the remains of certain animal and plant species occurred in the same layers, but were absent or altered in other layers. They soon developed a fossil index that also helped determine the relative ages of rock layers. Beginning in the 1890s, scientists learned that radioactive elements in rock decay at a known rate. By studying this radioactive decay, they could determine an absolute age for rock layers.
This type of dating, known as radiometric dating, confirmed the relative ages determined through stratigraphy and the fossil index and assigned absolute ages to the various strata. As a result scientists were able to assemble Earth’s geologic time scale from the Archean Eon to the present. See also Geologic Time. The first continents Mantle convection, the process that drives plate tectonics today, is a result of heat flow from the core to the Earth’s surface. It involves the creation of rigid tectonic plates at mid-oceanic ridges. These plates are destroyed y subduction into the mantle at subduction zones. The inner Earth was warmer during the Hadean and Archaean eons, so convection in the mantle must have been faster. When a process similar to present day plate tectonics did occur, this would have gone faster too. Most geologists believe that during the Hadean and Archaean, subduction zones were more common, and therefore tectonic plates were smaller. The initial crust, formed when the Earth’s surface first solidified, totally disappeared from a combination of this fast Hadean plate tectonics and the intense impacts of the Late Heavy Bombardment.
It is, however, assumed that this crust must have been basaltic in composition, like today’s oceanic crust, because little crustal differentiation had yet taken place. The first larger pieces of continental crust, which is a product of differentiation of lighter elements during partial melting in the lower crust, appeared at the end of the Hadean, about 4. 0 Ga. What is left of these first small continents are called cratons. These pieces of late Hadean and early Archaean crust form the cores around which today’s continents grew. The oldest rocks on Earth are found in the North American craton of Canada.
They are tonalites from about 4. 0 Ga. They show traces of metamorphism by high temperature, but also sedimentary grains that have been rounded by erosion during transport by water, showing rivers and seas existed then. Cratons consist primarily of two alternating types of terranes. The first are so called greenstone belts, consisting of low grade metamorphosed sedimentary rocks. These “greenstones” are similar to the sediments today found in oceanic trenches, above subduction zones. For this reason, greenstones are sometimes seen as evidence for subduction during the Archaean.
The second type is a complex of felsic magmatic rocks. These rocks are mostly tonalite, trondhjemite or granodiorite, types of rock similar in composition to granite (hence such terranes are called TTG-terranes). TTG-complexes are seen as the relicts of the first continental crust, formed by partial melting in basalt. The alternation between greenstone belts and TTG-complexes is interpreted as a tectonic situation in which small proto-continents were separated by a thorough network of subduction zones. Precambrian | | | Cyanobacteria Cyanobacteria (formerly blue-green algae) are among the most ancient organisms on earth.
These photosynthetic organisms can be single-celled, connected in afilamentous form as shown here, or arranged in simple colonies. Cyanobacteria are capable of enduring a wide variety of environmental conditions ranging from freshwater and marine habitats to snowfields and glaciers. They are capable of surviving and flourishing even at
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