Earth is the third planet from the Sun. Earth is the largest of the terrestrial planets in the Solar System in diameter, mass and density. It is also referred to as the Earth, Planet Earth, the World, and Terra.
Home to millions of species, including humans, Earth is the only place in the universe where life is known to exist. Scientific evidence indicates that the planet formed 4.54 billion years ago, and life appeared on its surface within a billion years. Since then, Earth’s biosphere has significantly altered the atmosphere and other abiotic conditions on the planet, enabling the proliferation of aerobic organisms as well as the formation of the ozone layer which, together with Earth’s magnetic field, blocks harmful radiation, permitting life on land.
Earth’s outer surface is divided into several rigid segments, or tectonic plates, that gradually migrate across the surface over periods of many millions of years. About 71% of the surface is covered with salt-water oceans, the remainder consisting of continents and islands; liquid water, necessary for all known life, is not known to exist on any other planet’s surface. Earth’s interior remains active, with a thick layer of relatively solid mantle, a liquid outer core that generates a magnetic field, and a solid iron inner core.
Earth interacts with other objects in outer space, including the Sun and the Moon. At present, Earth orbits the Sun once for every roughly 366.26 times it rotates about its axis. This length of time is a sidereal year, which is equal to 365.26 solar days. The Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted 23.4° away from the perpendicular to its orbital plane, producing seasonal variations on the planet’s surface with a period of one tropical year (365.24 solar days). Earth’s only known natural satellite, the Moon, which began orbiting it about 4.53 billion years ago, provides ocean tides, stabilizes the axial tilt and gradually slows the planet’s rotation. A cometary bombardment during the early history of the planet played a role in the formation of the oceans. Later, asteroid impacts caused significant changes to the surface environment
History of the Earth
Scientists have been able to reconstruct detailed information about the planet’s past. Earth and the other planets in the Solar System formed 4.54 billion years ago out of the solar nebula, a disk-shaped mass of dust and gas left over from the formation of the Sun. Initially molten, the outer layer of the planet Earth cooled to form a solid crust when water began accumulating in the atmosphere. The Moon formed soon afterwards, possibly as the result of a Mars-sized object (sometimes called Theia) with about 10% of the Earth’s mass impacting the Earth in a glancing blow. Some of this object’s mass would have merged with the Earth and a portion would have been ejected into space, but enough material would have been sent into orbit to form the Moon.
Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice and liquid water delivered by asteroids and the larger proto-planets, comets, and trans-Neptunian objects produced the oceans. The highly energetic chemistry is believed to have produced a self-replicating molecule around 4 billion years ago, and half a billion years later, the last common ancestor of all life existed.
The development of photosynthesis allowed the Sun’s energy to be harvested directly by life forms; the resultant oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere and resulted in a layer of ozone (a form of molecular oxygen [O3]) in the upper atmosphere. The incorporation of smaller cells within larger ones resulted in the development of complex cells called eukaryotes. True multicellular organisms formed as cells within colonies became increasingly specialized. Aided by the absorption of harmful ultraviolet radiation by the ozone layer, life colonized the surface of Earth.
Beginning with almost no dry land, the total amount of surface lying above the oceans has steadily increased. During the past two billion years, for example, the total size of the continents has doubled. As the surface continually reshaped itself, over hundreds of millions of years, continents formed and broke up. The continents migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750 million years ago (mya), the earliest known supercontinent, Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia, 600–540 mya, then finally Pangaea, which broke apart 180 mya.
Since the 1960s, it has been hypothesized that severe glacial action between 750 and 580 mya, during the Neoproterozoic, covered much of the planet in a sheet of ice. This hypothesis has been termed “Snowball Earth”, and is of particular interest because it preceded the Cambrian explosion, when multicellular life forms began to proliferate.
Following the Cambrian explosion, about 535 mya, there have been five mass extinctions. The last extinction event occurred 65 mya, when a meteorite collision probably triggered the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs and other large reptiles, but spared small animals such as mammals, which then resembled shrews. Over the past 65 million years, mammalian life has diversified, and several mya, an African ape-like animal gained the ability to stand upright. This enabled tool use and encouraged communication that provided the nutrition and stimulation needed for a larger brain. The development of agriculture, and then civilization, allowed humans to influence the Earth in a short time span as no other life form had, affecting both the nature and quantity of other life forms.
The present pattern of ice ages began about 40 mya, then intensified during the Pleistocene about 3 mya. The polar regions have since undergone repeated cycles of glaciation and thaw, repeating every 40–100,000 years. The last ice age ended 10,000 years ago.
Composition of the Earth
Earth is a terrestrial planet, meaning that it is a rocky body, rather than a gas giant like Jupiter. It is the largest of the four solar terrestrial planets, both in terms of size and mass. Of these four planets, Earth also has the highest density, the highest surface gravity and the strongest magnetic field.
The Earth’s shape is very close to an oblate spheroid—a rounded shape with a bulge around the equator—although the precise shape (the geoid) varies from this by up to 100 meters. The average diameter of the reference spheroid is about 12,742 km. More approximately the distance is 40,000 km/π because the meter was originally defined as 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the north pole through Paris, France.
The rotation of the Earth creates the equatorial bulge so that the equatorial diameter is 43 km larger than the pole to pole diameter. The largest local deviations in the rocky surface of the Earth are Mount Everest (8,848 m above local sea level) and the Mariana Trench (10,911 m below local sea level). Hence compared to a perfect ellipsoid, the Earth has a tolerance of about one part in about 584, or 0.17%, which is less than the 0.22% tolerance allowed in billiard balls. Because of the bulge, the feature farthest from the center of the Earth is actually Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.
The mass of the Earth is approximately 5.98×1024 kg. It is composed mostly of iron (32.1%), oxygen (30.1%), silicon (15.1%), magnesium (13.9%), sulfur (2.9%), nickel (1.8%), calcium (1.5%), and aluminium (1.4%); with the remaining 1.2% consisting of trace amounts of other elements. Due to mass segregation, the core region is believed to be primarily composed of iron (88.8%), with smaller amounts of nickel (5.8%), sulfur (4.5%), and less than 1% trace elements.
The geochemist F. W. Clarke calculated that a little more than 47% of the Earth’s crust consists of oxygen. The more common rock constituents of the Earth’s crust are nearly all oxides; chlorine, sulfur and fluorine are the only important exceptions to this and their total amount in any rock is usually much less than 1%. The principal oxides are silica, alumina, iron oxides, lime, magnesia, potash and soda. The silica functions principally as an acid, forming silicates, and all the commonest minerals of igneous rocks are of this nature. From a computation based on 1,672 analyses of all kinds of rocks, Clarke deduced that 99.22% were composed of 11 oxides (see the table at right.) All the other constituents occur only in very small quantities.
The interior of the Earth, like that of the other terrestrial planets, is chemically divided into layers. The Earth has an outer silicate solid crust, a highly viscous mantle, a liquid outer core that is much less viscous than the mantle, and a solid inner core. The crust is separated from the mantle by the Mohorovičić discontinuity, and the thickness of the crust varies: averaging 6 km under the oceans and 30–50 km on the continents.
The internal heat of the planet is probably produced by the radioactive decay of potassium-40, uranium-238 and thorium-232 isotopes. All three have half-life decay periods of more than a billion years. At the center of the planet, the temperature may be up to 7,000 K and the pressure could reach 360 GPa. A portion of the core’s thermal energy is transported toward the crust by Mantle plumes; a form of convection consisting of upwellings of higher-temperature rock. These plumes can produce hotspots and flood basalts.
According to plate tectonics theory, the outermost part of the Earth’s interior is made up of two layers: the lithosphere, comprising the crust, and the solidified uppermost part of the mantle. Below the lithosphere lies the atmosphere, which forms the inner part of the upper mantle. The atmosphere behaves like a superheated material that is in a semi-fluidic, plastic-like state.
The lithosphere essentially floats on the atmosphere and is broken up into what are called tectonic plates. These plates are rigid segments that move in relation to one another at one of three types of plate boundaries: convergent, divergent and transform. The last occurs where two plates move laterally relative to each other, creating a strike-slip fault. Earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation can occur along these plate boundaries.
Notable minor plates include the Indian Plate, the Arabian Plate, the Caribbean Plate, the Nazca Plate off the west coast of South America and the Scotia Plate in the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Australian Plate actually fused with Indian Plate between 50 and 55 million years ago. The fastest-moving plates are the oceanic plates, with the Cocos Plate advancing at a rate of 75 mm/yr and the Pacific Plate moving 52–69 mm/yr. At the other extreme, the slowest-moving plate is the Eurasian Plate, progressing at a typical rate of about 21 mm/yr.
The Earth’s terrain varies greatly from place to place. About 70.8% of the surface is covered by water, with much of the continental shelf below sea level. The submerged surface has mountainous features, including a globe-spanning mid-ocean ridge system, as well as undersea volcanoes, oceanic trenches, submarine canyons, oceanic plateaus and abyssal plains. The remaining 29.2% not covered by water consists of mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other geomorphologies.
The planetary surface undergoes reshaping over geological time periods due to the effects of tectonics and erosion. The surface features built up or deformed through plate tectonics are subject to steady weathering from precipitation, thermal cycles, and chemical effects. Glaciation, coastal erosion, the build-up of coral reefs, and large meteorite impacts also act to reshape the landscape.
As the tectonic plates migrate across the planet, the ocean floor is subducted under the leading edges. At the same time, upwelling of mantle material create a divergent boundary along mid-ocean ridges. The combination of these processes continually recycles the oceanic crustal material. Most of the ocean floor is less than 100 million years in age. The oldest oceanic crust is located in the Western Pacific, and has an estimated age of about 200 million years. By comparison, the oldest fossils found on land have an age of about 3 billion years.
The continental crust consists of lower density material such as the igneous rocks granite and andesite. Less common is basalt, a denser volcanic rock that is the primary constituent of the ocean floors. Sedimentary rock is formed from the accumulation of sediment that becomes compacted together. Nearly 75% of the continental surfaces are covered by sedimentary rocks, although they form only about 5% of the crust. The third form of rock material found on Earth is metamorphic rock, which is created from the transformation of pre-existing rock types through high pressures, high temperatures, or both. The most abundant silicate minerals on the Earth’s surface include quartz, the feldspars, amphibole, mica, pyroxene and olivine. Common carbonate minerals include calcite (found in limestone), aragonite and dolomite.
The pedosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth that is composed of soil and subject to soil formation processes. It exists at the interface of the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Currently the total arable land is 13.31% of the land surface, with only 4.71% supporting permanent crops.Close to 40% of the Earth’s land surface is presently used for cropland and pasture, or an estimated 1.3×107 km² of cropland and 3.4×107 km² of pastureland.
The elevation of the land surface of the Earth varies from the low point of −418 m at the Dead Sea, to a 2005-estimated maximum altitude of 8,848 m at the top of Mount Everest. The mean height of land above sea level is 840 m.
The abundance of water on Earth’s surface is a unique feature that distinguishes the “Blue Planet” from others in the solar system. The Earth’s hydrosphere consists chiefly of the oceans, but technically includes all water surfaces in the world, including inland seas, lakes, rivers, and underground waters down to a depth of 2,000 m. The deepest underwater location is Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean with a depth of −10,911.4 m. The average depth of the oceans is 3,800 m, more than four times the average height of the continents.
The mass of the oceans is approximately 1.35×1018 metric tons, or about 1/4400 of the total mass of the Earth, and occupies a volume of 1.386×109 km³. If all of the land on Earth were spread evenly, water would rise to an altitude of more than 2.7 km. About 97.5% of the water is saline, while the remaining 2.5% is fresh water. The majority of the fresh water, about 68.7%, is currently in the form of ice.
About 3.5% of the total mass of the oceans consists of salt. Most of this salt was released from volcanic activity or extracted from cool, igneous rocks. The oceans are also a reservoir of dissolved atmospheric gases, which are essential for the survival of many aquatic life forms. Sea water has an important influence on the world’s climate, with the oceans acting as a large heat reservoir. Shifts in the oceanic temperature distribution can cause significant weather shifts, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.
The atmospheric pressure on the surface of the Earth averages 101.325 kPa, with a scale height of about 8.5 km. It is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with trace amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gaseous molecules. The height of the troposphere varies with latitude, ranging between 8 km at the poles to 17 km at the equator, with some variation due to weather and seasonal factors.
Earth’s biosphere has significantly altered its atmosphere. Oxygenic photosynthesis evolved 2.7 billion years ago, forming the primarily nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere that exists today. This change enabled the proliferation of aerobic organisms as well as the formation of the ozone layer which, together with Earth’s magnetic field, blocks ultraviolet solar radiation, permitting life on land. Other atmospheric functions important to life on Earth include transporting water vapor, providing useful gases, causing small meteors to burn up before they strike the surface, and moderating temperature. This last phenomenon is known as the greenhouse effect: trace molecules within the atmosphere serve to capture thermal energy emitted from the ground, thereby raising the average temperature. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane and ozone are the primary greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Without this heat-retention effect, the average surface temperature would be −18 °C and life would likely not exist.
Weather and Climate
The Earth’s atmosphere has no definite boundary, slowly becoming thinner and fading into outer space. Three-quarters of the atmosphere’s mass is contained within the first 11 km of the planet’s surface. This lowest layer is called the troposphere. Energy from the Sun heats this layer, and the surface below, causing expansion of the air. This lower density air then rises, and is replaced by cooler, higher density air. The result is atmospheric circulation that drives the weather and climate through redistribution of heat energy.
The primary atmospheric circulation bands consist of the trade winds in the equatorial region below 30° latitude and the westerlies in the mid-latitudes between 30° and 60°. Ocean currents are also important factors in determining climate, particularly the thermohaline circulation that distributes heat energy from the equatorial oceans to the polar regions.
Water vapor generated through surface evaporation is transported by circulatory patterns in the atmosphere. When atmospheric conditions permit an uplift of warm, humid air, this water condenses and settles to the surface as precipitation. Most of the water is then transported back to lower elevations by river systems, usually returning to the oceans or being deposited into lakes. This water cycle is a vital mechanism for supporting life on land, and is a primary factor in the erosion of surface features over geological periods. Precipitation patterns vary widely, ranging from several meters of water per year to less than a millimeter. Atmospheric circulation, topological features and temperature differences determine the average precipitation that falls in each region.
The Earth can be sub-divided into specific latitudinal belts of approximately homogeneous climate. Ranging from the equator to the polar regions, these are the tropical (or equatorial), subtropical, temperate and polar climates. Climate can also be classified based on the temperature and precipitation, with the climate regions characterized by fairly uniform air masses. The commonly-used Köppen climate classification system (as modified by Wladimir Köppen’s student Rudolph Geiger) has five broad groups (humid tropics, arid, humid middle latitudes, continental and cold polar), which are further divided into more specific subtypes.
Above the troposphere, the atmosphere is usually divided into the stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere. Each of these layers has a different lapse rate, defining the rate of change in temperature with height. Beyond these, the exosphere thins out into the magnetosphere (where the Earth’s magnetic fields interact with the solar wind). An important part of the atmosphere for life on Earth is the ozone layer, a component of the stratosphere that partially shields the surface from ultraviolet light. The Kármán line, defined as 100 km above the Earth’s surface, is a working definition for the boundary between atmosphere and space.
Due to thermal energy, some of the molecules at the outer edge of the Earth’s atmosphere have their velocity increased to the point where they can escape from the planet’s gravity. This results in a slow but steady leakage of the atmosphere into space. Because unfixed hydrogen has a low molecular weight, it can achieve escape velocity more readily and it leaks into outer space at a greater rate.82 For this reason, the Earth’s current environment is oxidizing, rather than reducing, with consequences for the chemical nature of life which developed on the planet. The oxygen-rich atmosphere also preserves much of the surviving hydrogen by locking it up in water molecules.
The Earth’s magnetic field is shaped roughly as a magnetic dipole, with the poles currently located proximate to the planet’s geographic poles. According to dynamo theory, the field is generated within the molten outer core region where heat creates convection motions of conducting materials, generating electric currents. These in turn produce the Earth’s magnetic field. The convection movements in the core are chaotic in nature, and periodically change alignment. This results in field reversals at irregular intervals averaging a few times every million years. The most recent reversal occurred approximately 700,000 years ago.
The field forms the magnetosphere, which deflects particles in the solar wind. The sunward edge of the bow shock is located at about 13 times the radius of the Earth. The collision between the magnetic field and the solar wind forms the Van Allen radiation belts, a pair of concentric, torus-shaped regions of energetic charged particles. When the plasma enters the Earth’s atmosphere at the magnetic poles, it forms the aurora.
Orbit and Rotation
Relative to the background stars, it takes the Earth, on average, 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.091 seconds (one sidereal day) to rotate around the axis that connects the north and the south poles from west to east. From Earth, the main apparent motion of celestial bodies in the sky (except that of meteors within the atmosphere and low-orbiting satellites) is to the west at a rate of 15°/h = 15’/min. This is equivalent to an apparent diameter of the Sun or Moon every two minutes. (The apparent sizes of the Sun and the Moon are approximately the same.)
Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of about 150 million kilometers every 365.2564 mean solar days (1 sidereal year). From Earth, this gives an apparent movement of the Sun with respect to the stars at a rate of about 1°/day (or a Sun or Moon diameter every 12 hours) eastward. Because of this motion, on average it takes 24 hours—a solar day—for Earth to complete a full rotation about its axis so that the Sun returns to the meridian. The orbital speed of the Earth averages about 30 km/s (108,000 km/h), which is fast enough to cover the planet’s diameter (about 12,600 km) in seven minutes, and the distance to the Moon (384,000 km) in four hours.
The Moon revolves with the Earth around a common barycenter every 27.32 days relative to the background stars. When combined with the Earth–Moon system’s common revolution around the Sun, the period of the synodic month, from new moon to new moon, is 29.53 days. Viewed from the celestial north pole, the motion of Earth, the Moon and their axial rotations are all counter-clockwise. The orbital and axial planes are not precisely aligned: Earth’s axis is tilted some 23.5 degrees from the perpendicular to the Earth–Sun plane (which causes the seasons); and the Earth–Moon plane is tilted about 5 degrees against the Earth-Sun plane (without this tilt, there would be an eclipse every two weeks, alternating between lunar eclipses and solar eclipses).
Because of the axial tilt of the Earth, the position of the Sun in the sky (as seen by an observer on the surface) varies over the course of the year. For an observer at a northern latitude, when the northern pole is tilted toward the Sun the day lasts longer and the Sun climbs higher in the sky. This results in warmer average temperatures from the increase in solar radiation reaching the surface. When the northern pole is tilted away from the Sun, the reverse is true and the climate is generally cooler. Above the arctic circle, an extreme case is reached where there is no daylight at all for part of the year. (This is called a polar night.)
This variation in the climate (because of the direction of the Earth’s axial tilt) results in the seasons. By astronomical convention, the four seasons are determined by the solstices—the point in the orbit of maximum axial tilt toward or away from the Sun—and the equinoxes, when the direction of the tilt and the direction to the Sun are perpendicular. Winter solstice occurs on about December 21, summer solstice is near June 21, spring equinox is around March 20 and autumnal equinox is about September 23. The axial tilt in the southern hemisphere is exactly the opposite of the direction in the northern hemisphere. Thus the seasonal effects in the south are reversed.
The angle of the Earth’s tilt is relatively stable over long periods of time. However, the tilt does undergo a slight, irregular motion (known as nutation) with a main period of 18.6 years. The orientation (rather than the angle) of the Earth’s axis also changes over time, precessing around in a complete circle over each 25,800 year cycle; this precession is the reason for the difference between a sidereal year and a tropical year. Both of these motions are caused by the varying attraction of the Sun and Moon on the Earth’s equatorial bulge. From the perspective of the Earth, the poles also migrate a few meters across the surface. This polar motion has multiple, cyclical components, which collectively are termed quasiperiodic motion. In addition to an annual component to this motion, there is a 14-month cycle called the Chandler wobble. The rotational velocity of the Earth also varies in a phenomenon known as length of day variation.
In modern times, Earth’s perihelion occurs around January 3, and the aphelion around July 4 (for other eras, see precession and Milankovitch cycles). The changing Earth-Sun distance results in an increase of about 6.9%90 in solar energy reaching the Earth at perihelion relative to aphelion. Since the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun at about the same time that the Earth reaches the closest approach to the Sun, the southern hemisphere receives slightly more energy from the Sun than does the northern over the course of a year. However, this effect is much less significant than the total energy change due to the axial tilt, and most of the excess energy is absorbed by the higher proportion of water in the southern hemisphere.
The Hill sphere (gravitational sphere of influence) of the Earth is about 1.5 Gm (or 1,500,000 kilometers) in radius. This is maximum distance at which the Earth’s gravitational influence is stronger than the more distant Sun and planets. Objects must orbit the Earth within this radius, or they can become unbound by the gravitational perturbation of the Sun.
Earth, along with the Solar System, is situated in the Milky Way galaxy, orbiting about 28,000 light years from the center of the galaxy, and about 20 light years above the galaxy’s equatorial plane in the Orion spiral arm.
A planet that can sustain life is termed habitable, even if life did not originate there. The Earth provides the (currently understood) requisite conditions of liquid water, an environment where complex organic molecules can assemble, and sufficient energy to sustain metabolism. The distance of the Earth from the Sun, as well as its orbital eccentricity, rate of rotation, axial tilt, geological history, sustaining atmosphere and protective magnetic field all contribute to the conditions necessary to originate and sustain life on this planet.
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