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The evolution of the earth’s early atmosphere.

By
Dr. Nitish Priyadarshi
Department of Environment and Water Management,
J. N. College,
Ranchi University, Ranchi
India.
Email: rch_nitishp@sancharnet.in

The Earth's atmosphere (or air) is a layer of gases surrounding the planet Earth that is
retained by the Earth's gravity. It has a mass of about five quadrillion metric tons. Dry air
contains roughly (by volume) 78.08% nitrogen, 20.95% oxygen, 0.93% argon, 0.038%
carbon dioxide, and trace amounts of other gases. Air also contains a variable amount of
water vapor, on average around 1%. The atmosphere protects life on Earth by absorbing
ultraviolet solar radiation, warming the surface through heat retention (greenhouse
effect), and reducing temperature extremes between day and night.

The solid earth accumulated about 4700 m.y. ago from a cloud of cosmic particles and
gaseous materials and as they collected gravitationally a hot planetary nucleus formed.
This nucleus eventually became the present core as the mantle and crust consolidated. An
atmosphere probably existed even in these early stages of the first billion years of earth’s
history, though it was apparently transitory. Judging from the atmospheres of the major
planets, Jupiter and Saturn, which retain light elements by virtue of their large
gravitational attraction, hydrogen and helium would have been abundant in earth’s
primordial atmosphere. These elements were derived in part from the original gaseous
material of the cosmic cloud, but volcanic outgassing during lithification of the crust
probably continued as well. Neon and argon and some of the lighter gases such as xenon
probably also existed in the early atmosphere.

The first atmosphere of the earth, then, contained hydrogen, helium, neon, argon and
various other lighter and inert gases, none of which is abundant in the present
atmosphere. Most of these on liberation to the air now either escape earth’s gravitational
pull because of their low densities or are bound up in minerals by chemically reacting
with them. It is likely that the primitive atmosphere did not linger long but was dissipated
through these processes.

A little reflection tells us that earth’s present atmosphere necessarily evolved from one
that was different. We know no primary source for the free molecular oxygen that
comprises one –fifth of our present atmosphere. Compared with solar abundances, our
atmosphere has only traces of hydrogen and helium but a disproportionate amount of
nitrogen.

An important clue to the origin of our ancestral atmosphere is found in the abundances of
so-called noble gases – elements that, unlike oxygen, do not (or rarely) combine with
others because they have the stable configuration of 8 (or 2 in the case of helium) in their
outermost shell of electrons. As they do not ordinarily lose, gain, or share electrons with
other elements, variations in their abundance imply different sources. Had earth inherited
its atmosphere directly from the solar nebula, the gaseous elements neon, argon, krypton,
xenon, and radon should be present in approximately solar abundances, allowing for the
addition of radiogenic isotopes. That is not the case. It has been repeatedly noted over the
past half-century that all the noble gases are grossly depleted in the earth’s atmosphere
compared with solar and cosmic abundances. They are depleted, in fact, by several to
many orders of magnitude. This means either that earth accumulated without an
atmosphere of nebular proportions or that any initial atmosphere escaped its gravity field
in some subsequent episode of heating that accelerated even the heavy noble gases to
escape velocities.
The most significant development following sufficient cooling and consolidation of the
surface rocks was liberation of abundant water along with CO2 , N2, and H2 S by volcanic
outgassing. Water vapor is dissociated in the upper atmosphere by ultraviolet light to
yield oxygen and hydrogen. This process constituted the sole source of free oxygen of the
early atmosphere, and the build up to significant oxygen concentrations occupied the long
interval between at least 3400 and about 2000 m.y. ago. Further, oxygen of the early high
atmosphere was photochemically converted to ozone as at present, and with time, ozone
concentration led to the development of a screen to ultraviolet light. Lastly, accumulation
of water molecules in the atmosphere caused extensive precipitation and hence the
initiation of the oceans at some time prior to 3760 m.y. ago, when the oldest known
sedimentary rocks were deposited.

Other concept regarding evolution of early oxygen in atmosphere:

If earth’s primitive atmosphere resulted from volcanic outgassing, we have a problem,


because volcanoes do not emit free oxygen. Where did the very significant percentage of
oxygen in our present atmosphere (20 percent) come from?

The major source of oxygen is green plants. Plants did not just adapt to their
environment, they actually influenced it, dramatically altering the composition of the
entire planet’s atmosphere by using carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen. This is a good
example of how earth operates as a giant system in which living things interact with their
environment.

How did plants come to alter the atmosphere? The key is the way in which plants create
their own food. They employ photosynthesis, in which they use light energy to synthesize
food sugars from carbon dioxide and water. The process releases a waste gas, oxygen.
Those of us in the animal kingdom rely on oxygen to metabolize our food, and we in turn
exhale carbon dioxide as a waste gas. The plant use this carbon dioxide for more
photosynthesis, and so on, in a continuing system.

The first life-forms on earth, probably bacteria, did not need oxygen. Their life processes
were geared to the earlier, oxygen less atmosphere. Even today, many anaerobic thrive in
environments that lack free oxygen. Later, primitive plants evolved that used
photosynthesis and released oxygen. Slowly, the oxygen content of earth’s atmosphere
increased. The Precambrian rock record suggests that much of the first free oxygen did
not remain free because it combined with (oxidized) other substances dissolved in water,
especially iron. Iron has tremendous affinity for oxygen, and the two elements combine to
form iron oxides (rust) at any opportunity. To this day, the majority of oxygen produced
over time is locked up in the ancient "banded rock" and "red bed" formations.

Then, once the available iron satisfied its need for oxygen, substantial quantities of
oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere. By the beginning of the Paleozoic era, about 4
billion years into earth’s existence, the fossil record reveals abundant ocean- dwelling
organisms that require oxygen to live.

Once oxygen had been produced, ultraviolet light split the molecules, producing the
ozone UV shield as a by-product. Only at this point did life move out of the oceans and
respiration evolved.

Hence, the composition of earth’s atmosphere has evolved together with its life-forms,
from an oxygen less envelop to today’s oxygen-rich environment.

Sources:

Cloud,P. 1988. Oasis in space, earth history from the beginning. W.W. Norton &
Company, New York.

Frakes, L. A. 1979. Climates throughout geologic times. Elsevier, New York.

Tarbuck, E.J. and Lutgens, F.K. 1994. Earth Science. Prentice Hall, New Jersey.

http://knowledgerush.com/kr/encyclopedia/Earth's_atmosphere/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earth's_atmosphere