Earth means many things to the people who live on it. To a farmer, earth is rich soil.
To a road builder, earth means mountains of hard rock. For a sailor, earth is water as far as the eye can see. A pilot's view of earth may include part of an ocean, a mountain, and patches of farmland. An astronaut speeding through space sees the earth's round shape and the outline of lands and oceans. Each of these different views helps describe the earth but none really tells what the earth is. The earth is a huge sphere (ball) covered with water, rock, and soil, and surrounded by air. It is one of nine planets that travel through space around the sun. The sun is a star-one of billions of stars that make up a galaxy called the Milky Way. The Milky Way and billions of other galaxies make up the universe.
The planet earth is only a tiny part of the universe, but it is the home of human beings and many other living things. Animals and plants live almost everywhere on the earth's surface. They can live on the earth because it is just the right distance from the sun. Living things need the sun's warmth and light for life. If the earth were too close to the sun, it would be too hot for living things. If the earth were too far from the sun, it would be too cold for anything to live. Most living things--both plants and animals--also must have water to live. The earth has plenty. Water covers most of the earth's surface. A thin layer of rock called the crust forms the earth's surface. All life on the earth is found on this crust or in the water that covers about 70 percent of it. Beneath the crust is hot rock. A ball of metal lies at the center of the earth. The earth is always moving. It spins like a top and also travels around the sun at the same time. We use these two motions of the earth to measure the length of days and years. One day is the time it takes the earth to spin around once. One year is the time it takes the earth to travel once around the sun. The earth, like some of the other planets, has a ball-shaped moon traveling around it. The other planets that have moons all have two or more, except Pluto, which only has one. The study of the earth is called geology, and scientists who study the earth are geologists. This article deals with the planet earth as it is studied in geology. For information on the earth as the home of human beings, see the article on WORLD in World Book. EARTH/The earth in the universe The earth as a planet. The earth ranks fifth in size among the planets. It has a diameter of about 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers). The diameter of Jupiter, the largest planet, is about 11 times that of the earth. The diameter of Pluto, the smallest planet, is less than one-fifth the diameter of the earth. The earth is about 93 million miles (150 million kilometers) from the sun. Only two planets--Mercury and Venus--are closer to the sun. Scientists believe these planets have
surface temperatures of about 800 to 860 °F (427 to 460 °C). The average temperature of the earth's surface is 59 °F (15 °C). All the other planets except Mars are very cold, with temperatures ranging from -236 to -369 °F (-149 to -223 °C). The highest daytime temperature recorded on Mars was -24 °F (-31 °C) in summer. In winter, the lowest recorded nighttime temperature was -191 °F (-124 °C). Only the atmosphere of the earth contains enough oxygen to support animal life. The atmosphere of Mars consists chiefly of carbon dioxide, with only a trace of oxygen. The atmosphere of Venus is also made up primarily of carbon dioxide. Mercury has very little atmosphere. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune all have atmospheres that include hydrogen, helium, and methane, a gas that makes up most of the natural gas found on the earth. Pluto appears to have an atmosphere composed chiefly of methane. How the earth moves. The earth has three motions. It (1) spins like a top, (2) travels around the sun, and (3) moves through the Milky Way with the rest of the solar system. The earth spins around its axis, an imaginary line that connects the North and South poles. The innermost part of the earth, called the inner core, spins slightly more rapidly than the remainder of the planet, as described in the section Inside the earth later in this article. The earth's spinning motion makes the sun appear to move from east to west, and causes day and night on the earth. The "day" side of the earth faces the sun, and the "night" side faces away from the sun. As the earth spins eastward, some parts of the earth move from the night side to the day side. People who live in these regions see the sun "come up" in the east. Other parts of the earth move from the day side to the night side. People living there see the sun "set" in the west. It takes 23 hours 56 minutes 4.091 seconds for the earth--except the inner core--to spin around once. This length of time is called a sidereal day. See DAY. The earth travels 595 million miles (958 million kilometers) around the sun in 365 days 6 hours 9 minutes 9.54 seconds. This length of time is called a sidereal year. During this period, the earth travels at an average speed of 66,600 miles (107,200 kilometers) an hour. As the earth moves around the sun, the night sky changes slowly. Some groups of stars are visible in the night sky, and other groups disappear into the sunlit day sky. See YEAR. The path of the earth around the sun is called the earth's orbit. The orbit lies on an imaginary flat surface that cuts through the sun. This surface is the earth's orbital plane. The earth's axis does not stick straight up from the orbital plane. It tilts about 231/2 degrees from the straight-up position. This tilt and the earth's motion around the sun cause the change of seasons. For example, the northern half of the earth tilts toward the sun in summer. In winter, the northern half of the earth tilts away from the sun. See SEASON.
The whole Milky Way spins around like a giant wheel. The solar system is about threefifths of the way from the center to the edge of the Galaxy. It revolves around the center of the Galaxy at a speed of about 155 miles (250 kilometers) per second. The earth and its moon. The earth has one moon. Pluto also has one moon, and Mercury and Venus have none. All the other planets have two or more moons. The earth's moon has a diameter of about 2,160 miles (3,476 kilometers)--about a fourth of the earth's diameter. The sun's gravity acts on the earth and the moon as if they were a single body with its center about 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) below the earth's surface. This spot is the earth-moon barycenter. It is the point of balance between the heavy earth and the lighter moon. The earth and the moon circle around the barycenter as they travel around the sun. The path of the barycenter around the sun is a smooth curve. The earth circles the barycenter and so follows a "wobbly" path as it orbits around the sun. EARTH/Outside and inside the earth The earth's shape and size. The earth may be thought of as a ball with the North Pole at the top and the South Pole at the bottom. Halfway between the poles is an imaginary circle around the earth called the equator. The earth is not perfectly round. It is slightly flattened at the poles. The diameter of the earth measured from pole to pole is shorter than the diameter at the equator. At the poles, the diameter is 7,899.83 miles (12,713.54 kilometers). This distance is 26.58 miles (42.78 kilometers) shorter than the diameter at the equator--7,926.41 miles (12,756.32 kilometers). Similarly, the distance around the earth is shorter at the poles than at the equator. At the poles, the earth measures 24,859.82 miles (40,008.00 kilometers) around. At the equator, it measures 24,901.55 miles (40,075.16 kilometers) around. It takes almost two days for a jet airplane to fly around the earth. An astronaut in space circles the earth in about 90 minutes. The equator does not mark the earth's "fattest" part. The distance around the earth is greatest along a circle slightly south of the equator. The earth's shape is somewhat like that of a pear, which has its fattest part just below its "middle." But this bulge is so small that the earth still looks like a perfectly round ball. The earth's atmosphere. Air surrounds the earth and extends as far as 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) above the surface. This air is called the atmosphere. Nitrogen makes up about 78 percent of the atmosphere, and oxygen makes up about 21 percent. The remaining 1 percent consists mainly of argon and small amounts of other gases. Air also contains water vapor and particles of dust. Clouds float in the lowest part of the atmosphere, called the troposphere. Wind, storms, and other weather features all take place in the troposphere. Other parts of the atmosphere are above the troposphere. The air gets thinner the farther it is from the earth and fades into space about 600 miles (1,000 kilometers) above the earth. See AIR.
The earth's surface is 71 percent water--almost all of it in the oceans. Land makes up 29 percent. The oceans have an average depth of 12,200 feet (3,730 meters). The deepest known part of any ocean is an area in the Mariana Trench, a long, narrow depression under the Pacific Ocean southwest of Guam. Its bottom lies 36,198 feet (11,033 meters) below the surface. The earth's land is an average height of 2,757 feet (840 meters) above sea level. The highest land is the top of Mount Everest in Asia, 29,035 feet (8,850 meters) above sea level. The lowest land is the Dead Sea shore in Asia, about 1,310 feet (399 meters) below sea level. All bodies of water and ice--as well as water vapor in the atmosphere--make up the earth's hydrosphere. The waters of the hydrosphere are important in many ways. Animals and plants need water to live. Plants use water to make food, and are eaten by human beings and animals. Water also wears away rocks and slowly turns them into soil that is necessary for growing crops. Oceans and other large bodies of water also help control the earth's weather and climate. The temperature of water does not change as fast as that of land. Wind blowing over a large body of water can keep land from becoming extremely hot or extremely cold. The largest bodies of land are called continents. Their surfaces vary from low, green valleys to high, rocky mountains where almost nothing grows. Antarctica, the continent at the South Pole, is almost completely buried under ice and snow. Near the equator, thick forests cover hot and rainy parts of Africa and South America. Temperatures at the earth's surface range from the highest ever recorded, 136 °F (58 °C) at Al Aziziyah, Libya, to the lowest, -128.6 °F (-89.6 °C) at Vostok Station in Antarctica. All the earth's animals and plants live on the earth's surface or close to the surface-underground, underwater, or in the atmosphere. The region where life is found is called the earth's biosphere. The earth's crust. Continents and ocean basins (lands beneath the oceans) are part of a rocky "skin" that surrounds the main body of the earth. This skin is called the earth's crust. The average thickness of the crust varies from about 5 miles (8 kilometers) under the oceans to about 25 miles (40 kilometers) under the continents. Temperatures within the deepest parts of the crust may reach 1600 °F (870 °C)--hot enough to melt rocks. The crust is made up of three kinds of rock: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Igneous rocks are formed when melted rock deep inside the crust cools and hardens--or erupts at the surface as lava. Sedimentary rocks develop from materials that once were part of older rocks or of plants or animals. These materials were worn away from the land. They then collected in low places, layer upon layer, and hardened into rock. Many sedimentary rocks contain shells, bones, and other remains of living things. Such remains, or the impressions of remains in sedimentary rocks, are called fossils. Metamorphic rocks are formed deep in the crust when igneous and sedimentary rocks are changed by heat and the weight of the crust pressing on them. Rock formation is a slow process that has been occurring throughout geologic time.
All rocks on the earth's surface are made of minerals, the most common solid materials found on the earth. Minerals are themselves made up of basic chemical substances called elements. Rocks in the earth's crust consist mostly of two elements--silicon and oxygen. The next most common elements in the crust are aluminum, iron, calcium, sodium, and magnesium--in that order. The earth's crust consists of the continental crust and the oceanic crust. The continental crust makes up the continents. It is thick, and it consists largely of granite, a type of hard, coarsely crystalline rock. The oceanic crust forms the ocean floors. It is thin, and it is made up of several kinds of igneous rocks, including a hard, black, finely crystalline rock called basalt. The bottom of the earth's entire crust is called the Mohorovicic discontinuity or Moho. Inside the earth. Beneath the crust, the earth is a sphere of hot rock and metal. By studying the records of earthquake waves, scientists have learned that the inside of the earth is divided into three parts: the mantle, the outer core, and the inner core. The mantle is a thick layer of rock below the crust. It goes down about 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers). The rock in the mantle is made of silicon, oxygen, aluminum, iron, and magnesium. The uppermost part of the mantle has a temperature of about 1600 °F (870 °C). The temperature gradually increases to about 8000 °F (4400 °C) in the deepest part of the mantle. The outer core begins about 1,800 miles (2,900 kilometers) below the earth's surface. Scientists believe the outer core is about 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers) thick and consists mainly of melted iron, combined with a small amount of some other elements, most likely oxygen or sulfur. Its temperature ranges from about 8000 °F (4400 °C) in the uppermost parts to about 11,000 °F (6100 °C) in the deepest parts. The ball-shaped inner core lies within the outer core and makes up the center of the earth. The boundary between the outer and inner cores is about 3,200 miles (5,150 kilometers) below the earth's surface. The center of the inner core is about 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) below this boundary, or about 4,000 miles (6,400 kilometers) below the earth's surface. Scientists believe the inner core consists mainly of solid iron, combined with a small amount of some other elements, most likely oxygen or sulfur. The temperature there may be as high as 13,000 °F (7000 °C). The inner core rotates more rapidly than the remainder of the planet. Scientists estimate that, each year, the inner core spins about 1° farther than the mantle and crust. Thus, during a period of about 400 years, the inner core rotates around the earth's axis one more time than the surface does. The earth's gravity is the force that causes objects to fall when they are dropped. All bodies in the universe attract each other by means of the force of gravity. The earth and the other planets travel around the sun because gravity pulls them toward it. On the earth,
gravity works to change the land's surface. For example, it makes rivers flow downhill and carries soil and rock to low places on the surface and underwater. The force of gravity varies slightly on the earth. It is stronger at the poles than at the equator because the poles are closer to the earth's center. For the same reason, gravity is stronger at sea level than on mountaintops. Gravity increases above sections of the crust with large amounts of heavy rocks. See GRAVITATION. The gravitational pull of the sun and the moon cause the ocean level on the earth to rise and fall twice a day in tides. The earth's crust rises and falls in a similar way, but this motion is extremely slight. See TIDE. The earth's magnetism. The earth spins around an imaginary line that connects the geographic North Pole and the South Pole. Near each of these poles, the earth also has a magnetic pole. The earth's magnetic poles act like the ends of a bar magnet. These poles are the farthest points on the earth in the directions of magnetic north and south. The north magnetic pole is near Ellef Ringnes Island in northern Canada, about 870 miles (1,400 kilometers) from the North Pole. The south magnetic pole is off the coast of Wilkes Land, Antarctica, about 1,700 miles (2,740 kilometers) from the South Pole. Studies of ancient rocks have shown that the magnetic poles have traded places many times. During some periods, the north magnetic pole became located at the south magnetic pole, and the south magnetic pole became located at the north magnetic pole. Scientists do not understand the causes of these changes. The magnetism of the earth is similar to that which surrounds a coil of wire when electricity flows through it. Scientists believe the earth's magnetism comes from circulation of molten rock in the earth's outer core. The earth's magnetic force operates in the magnetosphere, a region in space shaped somewhat like a teardrop. The magnetosphere acts on bits of matter called electrons and protons that move through space. The Van Allen belts are parts of the magnetosphere that contain large numbers of particles. The magnetosphere normally shields the earth from these particles. However, when disturbances on the sun throw off many particles, some of them reach the earth's atmosphere near the magnetic poles and cause a glow (see AURORA). EARTH/How the earth changes The earth changes continuously. Some changes, such as the wearing away of the Grand Canyon, take millions of years. Others, including earthquakes, happen in a few minutes. Rocks tell the story of these changes. When geologists discover seashells in rock high on a mountain, they know the mountain was once a lowland, covered by the sea. Four main kinds of changes affect the earth's surface: (1) weathering, (2) erosion, (3) mass movement, and (4) changes in the earth's crust.
Weathering is the breaking up of rocks by such agents as water, ice, chemicals, growing plants, and changing temperature. Soil is an important product of weathering. Soil consists of bits of weathered rock mixed with living things and the remains. Geologists speak of two types of weathering: (1) physical weathering, which is also called mechanical weathering, and (2) chemical weathering. Physical weathering breaks rock into pieces. One of the main causes of physical weathering is the formation of ice in cracks within rocks. First, water soaks into the cracks. Then, if the temperature falls low enough, the water near the rock's surface freezes and seals in the water that is deep in the cracks. As the rest of the water freezes, it expands in the cracks and may push hard enough to split the rock. Similarly, tree roots may grow through cracks in rocks and cause the rocks to split. Chemical weathering affects the substances that make up rocks and soil. One of the main causes of chemical weathering is the dissolving action of water. Rain, streams, and seawater dissolve minerals from rocks, causing the rocks to crumble. For example, water dissolves the mineral feldspar from granite, leaving grains of quartz, a mineral that forms sand. Erosion is a combination of weathering and the movement of weathered material from one place to another. Eroded material generally moves from high places to low places on the earth's surface. For example, erosion wears away rock from mountainsides and carries it down into valleys. Water, glaciers, and wind are three important transporting agents of erosion. Erosion by water combines the weathering action of water with water's ability to move pieces of rock. Rainwater drains from the land into streams that flow downhill. The moving water cuts into the land as it wears away soil and rock. The faster the stream flows, the more it wears away the land around it. Bits of rock picked up by the stream add to the grinding action. Soft rock wears away first, and then hard rock. Sometimes this action leaves towering masses of hard rock standing alone on a plain. The rock remains long after the disappearance of the water that wore away soft surrounding rock. The Grand Canyon of the Colorado River is a spectacular example of water's eroding power. There, after millions of years, the river has cut 1 mile (1.6 kilometers) deep into the earth. When rivers reach the sea, they leave behind the materials they picked up while flowing over the land. At the mouths of some rivers, this material forms a triangular-shaped deposit called a delta. At the mouths of other rivers, the materials are swept into the ocean. All along the seashore, water gradually changes the shape of the land. Waves and tides wear away the rocky shore and create sand bars, beaches, cliffs, and headlands. Water moving underground also changes the land. Spouts of water called geysers shoot out of the earth and carry dissolved minerals to the surface. Underground water dissolves limestone and other rock, and forms caves deep in the ground.
Erosion by glaciers has shaped and leveled large areas. The northern Midwestern plains of the United States were formed hundreds of thousands of years ago when huge glaciers slid over the land and smoothed it out. Today, glaciers cover all of Antarctica and most of Greenland. In mountainous areas throughout the world, glaciers flow among rocky peaks like frozen rivers. Mountain glaciers form when fallen snow builds up and becomes so thickly packed that it turns into ice. Many glaciers are more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) thick. Gravity pulls a glacier downhill. The thick, heavy ice scrapes away any soil and weathered rock in its path and digs U-shaped valleys in the mountains. It grinds away rock, sometimes polishing it smooth and at other times leaving deep scratches. Pieces of rock become frozen inside the ice and add to the grinding action. When the glacier melts, it drops the rock. Water from the melting ice then spreads out the loose material. Erosion by wind involves the movement of dust and particles of sand. Wind also carries ashes from volcanoes great distances before dropping them. During dry seasons, strong winds pick up large quantities of rock and soil and blow them away. In deserts and on some beaches, wind-blown sand forms hills called dunes. Some dunes move little by little because the wind blows sand from one side to the other. Some dunes cover and destroy forests. Sand particles driven by wind also scrape and wear away rock surfaces. Mass movement is the slipping of large amounts of rock and soil, as occurs in a landslide or a mud slide. Most landslides and other forms of rapid mass movement take place along steep-sided hills and mountains. Slow movement, such as the gradual downhill creep of soil, takes place unnoticed on gently sloping land. Weathering and erosion help loosen large chunks of earth and start them sliding downhill. Earthquakes also sometimes cause sections of hills and mountains to break off and slide down. Mass movement may produce a variety of effects. For example, a landslide may fall across a river, damming the water and causing it to form a lake. The slipping of soil down the sides of a river valley gradually widens the valley and makes the sides slope more gently. Changes in the earth's crust can be explained by the theory of plate tectonics. According to this theory, the earth's crust and upper mantle consist of about 30 rigid plates of various sizes. A slow, continuous movement of these plates folds and reshapes the earth's crust and builds mountains. It also causes earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. But many movements of the land occur so slowly that they are unseen or hardly noticed. For more information, see the section The shaping of the continents. EARTH/How the earth began Exploration of the planets by space probes has expanded our understanding of the solar system. Modern theories about the earth's origin look at how the earth fits into the solar system, the Galaxy, and the universe as a whole. Most scientists agree that the earth was probably formed at the same time as the rest of the solar system.
The earth's age. The earth is probably at least 41/2 billion years old. The oldest rocks ever discovered are about 4.3 billion years old. Scientists learn the age of rocks by measuring the amount of radioactive isotopes in them. A radioactive isotope gives off invisible radiation and changes into a different element. For example, uranium gives off radiation and slowly changes into lead. Scientists know the time it takes for uranium to change into lead. They can find a rock's age by comparing the amount of uranium in it to the amount of lead in it. See RADIOGEOLOGY. The birth of the solar system. Most scientists believe that the solar system developed from a huge spiraling nebula (cloud of gas and dust-sized pieces of rock and metal). The sun itself may have been formed from the central part of this nebula. As the nebula whirled around the sun, it slowly flattened out. Sections of the cloud began to spin like eddies (whirlpools) in a stream. Gas and dust collected near the centers of these eddies. The collections of gas and dust grew by attracting nearby particles of matter. These collections slowly developed into the spinning planets that now travel around the sun. Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher, proposed a nebular theory for the origin of the solar system in 1755. A French astronomer, Pierre Simon Laplace, refined Kant's theory in 1796. Laplace suggested that the original nebula was much larger than the present solar system, and left behind eddies of matter as it became smaller. This theory assumes that the earth was first a gas and then a liquid, and finally cooled enough to have a solid crust. In 1905, Thomas Chamberlin, an American geologist, and Forest Moulton, an American astronomer, proposed the planetesimal theory. According to this theory, a rapidly moving star passed close to the sun but did not collide with it. The gravity of the passing star pulled long, threadlike "arms" of gas from the sun. Eddies swirled within the arms of gas. The gas cooled and formed solid particles called planetesimals. The planetesimals gradually collected in the centers of the eddies, and formed planets. The planetesimal theory assumes that the earth was made of solid particles from the beginning. Meteorites that have fallen to the earth each day may be evidence that the earth is still growing by the gradual collection of solid particles. Two English scientists, Sir James Jeans and Harold Jeffreys, proposed the tidal or gaseous theory in 1919. Like the planetesimal theory, this theory begins with arms of hot gas pulled from the sun by the gravity of a passing star. The gas gathers in eddies which turn into liquid balls. Each ball slowly cools, and a hard crust forms around it. The tidal theory assumes that the earth was first a gas and then a liquid before it developed a solid crust. In the 1930's, the English astronomer R. A. Lyttleton proposed the double star theory. Our galaxy contains many two-star combinations called double stars. Lyttleton assumed that the sun and a "companion" star once formed a double star. The companion star exploded into a cloud of gas which was "captured" by the gravity of the sun. The planets developed from this cloud in much the same way as described in the tidal theory.
Many scientists support condensation theories that begin with a single exploding star. These theories were developed during the 1940's and 1950's. They assume that a star exploded and that most of the exploded material escaped into space. A small part of the material remained behind to form a nebula that began to rotate and contract. The sun formed from the central part of this nebula. In orbits at varying distances from the sun, smaller masses of dust and gases condensed to form the planets. The earth's early development. Scientists theorize that the earth began as a waterless mass of rock surrounded by a cloud of gas. Radioactive materials in the rock and increasing pressure in the earth's interior gradually produced enough heat to melt the interior of the earth. The heavy materials, such as iron, then sank. The light silicates (rocks made of silicon and oxygen) rose to the earth's surface and formed the earliest crust. The heating of the earth's interior also caused other chemicals inside the earth to rise to the surface. Some of these chemicals formed water, and others formed the gases of the atmosphere. Over millions of years, the water slowly collected in low places of the crust and formed the oceans. As land developed on the earth, rain water and rivers dissolved salts and other substances from rocks and carried them to the oceans, making the oceans salty. The earth's earliest atmosphere may have contained hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia, similar to the present atmosphere of Jupiter. Or it may have contained a large amount of carbon dioxide, as does the atmosphere of Venus. The earth's earliest atmosphere probably did not contain much free oxygen. The oxygen in the atmosphere comes mainly from plants that use carbon dioxide and give off oxygen through the process of photosynthesis. The amount of oxygen increased in the atmosphere of the early earth as plants developed and became more plentiful. The shaping of the continents. Earth scientists theorize that the continents once formed part of a single giant land mass, which was called Pangaea. The world's single ocean, which was called Panthalassa, surrounded Pangaea. About 200 million years ago, Pangaea began to break apart. It split into two land masses called Gondwanaland and Laurasia. Gondwanaland then broke apart, forming the continents of Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and South America, and the Indian subcontinent. Laurasia split into Eurasia and North America. As the continental plates split and drifted apart, new oceanic crust formed between them. The movement of the continents to their present positions took place over millions of years. The theory of plate tectonics explains both continental drift (the movement of the continents) and sea-floor spreading (the formation of new oceanic crust). This theory also helps explain the location of mountains and volcanoes and the occurrence of earthquakes. According to the theory of plate tectonics, the outer shell of the earth, called the lithosphere, is divided into about 30 rigid plates. Each plate consists of crust and a portion of the upper part of the mantle. The plates move slowly on a layer of very hot
rock in the mantle called the asthenosphere. As the plates move, they carry the continents and the ocean floor with them. The plates move in three different ways: (1) away from each other, (2) toward each other, or (3) past each other. Sea-floor spreading occurs where plates move apart. Mid-ocean ridges on the ocean floor contain a cracklike central valley where molten rock from the mantle rises to form new oceanic crust. If plates move away from each other in one place, they must move toward each other somewhere else. Where two plates collide, one plate may pile up against the other, forming mountains. For example, the Himalaya was formed when the plate carrying India collided with the plate carrying Eurasia. One of the colliding plates may be forced down into the mantle under the other plate. This forms a deep ocean trench. Heat within the earth may melt some of the plate material and send it to the surface again, creating a volcano. Some plates slide past one another. The boundary between two such plates is called a transform fault. The motion of the two plates sliding produces strain on the rocks on either side of the fault. An earthquake results when the strain builds up and causes the rocks to break and shift. For example, many earthquakes have occurred along the San Andreas Fault in California. This fault forms part of the boundary between the Pacific Plate and the North American Plate. See PLATE TECTONICS; EARTHQUAKE. EARTH/History of the earth The history of the earth is recorded in the rocks of the earth's crust. Rocks have been forming, wearing away, and re-forming ever since the earth took shape. The products of weathering and erosion are called sediment. Sediment accumulates in layers known as strata. Strata contain clues that tell geologists what the earth was like in the past. These clues include the composition of the sediment, the way the strata were laid down, and the kinds of fossils in the rock. Geologists base their explanations of the clues in rocks on their observations of the processes occurring on the earth today. They believe that agents shaping the earth's surface today have been working throughout the earth's history. They also believe that the fundamental laws of chemistry, physics, and biology operate today in the same way as they did in the past. This idea, called the principle of uniformitarianism, is sometimes stated, "The present is the key to the past." An illustration of the principle of uniformitarianism is the observation of ripples forming in sand on a beach, in a stream, or on the bottom of a lake. The ripples form because the sand is being moved along by flowing currents of water. If a slab of rock has ripple marks on its surface, geologists assume that the rock was once sand moved by a current of water. Geologists can even tell which way the current once flowed by the shape of the ripples in the rock.
Many rocks contain fossils that reveal the history of life on earth. A fossil may be an animal's body, a tooth, or a piece of bone. It may simply be an impression of a plant or an animal made in a rock when the rock was soft sediment. Fossils help scientists learn which kinds of plants and animals lived at different times in the earth's history. Scientists who study prehistoric life are called paleontologists. Fossils help geologists figure out the ages of rock strata and the times at which animals and plants lived. Fossils of the simplest life forms are found in the oldest strata. The youngest strata contain fossils of animals and plants much like those living today. See EVOLUTION. Fossils also provide clues to changes that have taken place on the earth. For example, paleontologists sometimes find fossil sea shells in strata high in a mountain, far from an ocean. These discoveries indicate that the strata formed a muddy ocean bottom long before the rocks were lifted to form a mountain. Rocks contain only an incomplete history of the earth. Many rocks--together with their geological records--are destroyed by weathering and erosion on the earth's surface or changed by heat and pressure deep in the crust. In addition, geological clues in rocks help describe conditions on the earth only at the time the rocks formed. Geologists have learned the story of the earth's development by piecing together clues from rocks of many ages. But the complete history of the earth will probably never be known. The known history of the earth is divided into three very long stretches of time called eons. Starting with the earliest, the eons are Archean, Proterozoic, and Phanerozoic. The first two eons, which together lasted nearly 4 billion years, are grouped into a unit called the Precambrian. The Phanerozoic Eon, when life became abundant, is divided into three eras. They are, from oldest to youngest: Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. Eras are divided into periods, and periods are divided into epochs. These divisions and subdivisions are named on the basis of various stages in the development of life as indicated by fossils. As a result, the lengths of eras, periods, and epochs are not equal. A chart showing an outline of the earth's history by using the various time divisions is called a geological time scale. On such a chart, the earth's earliest history is at the bottom, and its recent history at the top. This arrangement resembles the way rock strata are formed, with the newest on top of the oldest. A geological time scale appears in the Earth article in the print version of The World Book Encyclopedia. The earth's earliest history. The Archean and Proterozoic eons make up almost the first 4 billion years of the earth's earliest history. This length of time covers about 80 percent of the earth's total history. It is often called Precambrian Time. During the early part of the Archean Eon, the earth had its beginning. It is thought to have been formed from a cloud of dust and gas that contracted and condensed to form a solid sphere. After millions of years, a rock crust finally formed. Geological evidence shows that the crust repeatedly melted and hardened. Continents took shape and began to
grow. The oceans and atmosphere also were formed during the early part of the Archean Eon. Archean rocks include such metamorphic rocks as schist and gneiss. They were formed from sandstone, shale, lava, and volcanic ash that was buried and then subjected to heat and pressure deep in the earth's crust. Among the Archean rocks are great masses of granite that were produced where molten rock was formed in the crust during periods of mountain building. The mountains themselves have been worn away, leaving only their bases in the oldest parts of the continents, called the shield areas. Rocks of the Archean Eon contain the earliest fossils, which are about 31/2 billion years old. These fossils are very primitive bacteria, including blue-green algae, also called cyanobacteria. Life remained on this primitive level throughout the Archean Eon. More complex plants evolved during the Proterozoic Eon. Fossils of the first animals appear in rocks about 600 million years old. These animals include worms, jellyfish, corals, and other primitive invertebrates (animals without backbones). In southern Canada, Proterozoic rocks, including sandstones, shales, limestones, lava, and volcanic ash, form strata more than 80,000 feet (24,000 meters) thick. These rocks contain large amounts of iron ore. During Proterozoic mountain-building periods, molten rock rose through the earth's crust and hardened among the rocks there. This molten rock contained copper, nickel, gold, silver, and uranium and created the rich mineral resources for which the shield areas are famous. The Paleozoic Era began about 544 million years ago and ended 248 million years ago. It includes six periods. These periods are, from oldest to youngest: Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian. The Carboniferous Period in North America has two subdivisions, the Mississippian and Pennsylvanian periods. Land plants developed from the green algae during the Silurian Period, and they became abundant during the Devonian Period. These first land plants include scale trees, scouring rushes, and ferns. They reproduced by means of tiny bodies called spores, rather than by forming seeds. During the Pennsylvanian Period, there was a great variety of plants. Some grew 100 feet (30 meters) high. Swamps covered much of the land. The huge plants that grew in these swamps were later formed into coal deposits. The first true seed plants, the seed ferns and conifers (cone-bearers), are found as fossils in strata formed during the Pennsylvanian Period. The major groups of invertebrates during the early Paleozoic Era include corals, bryozoans (moss animals), brachiopods (lamp shells), trilobites (shelled sea animals), and graptolites (tiny, colony-forming animals). Animals of the later Paleozoic Era include
corals, bryozoans, brachiopods, and sea lilies. The variety and number of fish in the Devonian Period were so great that the period is usually called the Age of Fish. Lungfish were probably the first air-breathing animals with backbones. Amphibians were the first air-breathing animals with backbones to walk on land. Two long, sinking areas called geosynclines made up an important part of the Paleozoic geography of North America. The Appalachian geosyncline in the east and the Cordilleran geosyncline in the west were sinking areas that received large amounts of sediments from the surrounding lands. The Appalachian geosyncline disappeared near the end of the Paleozoic Era. At that time, the Appalachian Mountains were built as a result of the collision of the North American Plate with the Eurasian, African, and South American plates to form Pangaea. This super continent also included India, Australia, and Antarctica. Many times during the Paleozoic Era, the seas that flooded the Appalachian and Cordilleran geosynclines would overflow to cover the low, flat shield areas of the continent. The greatest of these floods occurred during the Ordovician Period, when about 70 percent of the continent was underwater. The shallow seas created by the floods were good places for large numbers of living organisms to develop. The Mesozoic Era began 248 million years ago and ended 65 million years ago. It had three periods. These periods are, from oldest to youngest: Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous. Fossil plants of the Mesozoic Era represent two distinct groups, gymnosperms and angiosperms. Gymnosperms have naked seeds, and most are cone-bearing. They include conifers, ginkgoes, and cycads. These gymnosperms evolved in the late Paleozoic Era and were dominant into the early Cretaceous Period. Angiosperms have covered seeds and are flowering plants. They became the dominant plant group during the Cretaceous Period and continue to be so today. Many organisms lived in the warm seas of the Mesozoic Era. Some of these were floating microorganisms, including marine algae and protozoans. These organisms produced the main ingredient of the sedimentary rock called chalk. The Cretaceous Period was named for creta, the Latin word for chalk. Sand dollars, snails, clams, and ammonites (shelled squid) developed during the Mesozoic Era. In addition, numerous kinds of fish, amphibians, and reptiles flourished. Dinosaurs, a group of giant reptiles, ruled the land. Dinosaurs lived only during the Mesozoic Era. These reptiles died out completely at the end of the era. The first warmblooded mammals appeared during the late Triassic Period, and the first birds appeared during the Jurassic Period. The Mesozoic Era began with most of North America exposed as land. The sea flooded only the Cordilleran geosyncline in the west. During the Mesozoic Era, the seas overflowed the continent and covered the shield areas. This shallow flooding again
provided good conditions for the development of living organisms. It again resulted in deposits of sediment where oil and natural gas could form. During the Triassic Period, Pangaea broke apart, and the continents we know today were formed. In eastern North America, the Atlantic Ocean began to form. During the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods, crustal plates collided and generated large quantities of molten rock that rose up to form what is now the Sierra Nevada in California. Mountain building affected all of western North America and led to the creation of the Rocky Mountains. The Cenozoic Era began 65 million years ago and is still going on. It covers the Tertiary Period, which lasted until 2 million years ago, and the Quaternary Period, which includes the present time. The Tertiary Period is divided into five epochs: Paleocene, Eocene, Oligocene, Miocene, and Pliocene. The Quaternary Period consists of the Pleistocene Epoch and the Holocene Epoch. According to earth scientists, a series of ice ages that extended through the Pleistocene Epoch will continue. The Alps, Andes, and Himalaya were mountain ranges formed in the Cenozoic Era. In western North America, many volcanoes erupted and lava covered much of what is now Oregon and Washington. Many times during the Pleistocene Epoch, glaciers covered much of the earth and then melted. As the ice of these glaciers pushed across the land, human beings and animals moved ahead of it to find food and places to live. The wide variety of plants and animals that we know today came into existence during the Cenozoic Era. Small mammals that first appeared during the Mesozoic Era lived during the Paleocene Epoch. During the Eocene Epoch, ancestors of the horse, rhinoceros, and camel roamed Europe and North America. These animals were much smaller than they are today. By the Oligocene Epoch, dogs and cats had appeared, along with three-toed horses about as large as sheep. The mammals grew larger and in greater variety as prairies spread over the land during the Miocene Epoch. By the Pliocene Epoch, many kinds of mammals had grown to giant size. Elephantlike mammoths and mastodons and giant ground sloths roamed the prairies and forests. These animals died out at the end of the Pleistocene Epoch. The earliest fossils of humanlike creatures are contained in rocks of the Pliocene Epoch. Humanity's years on the earth are only a brief moment among the billions of years during which the earth has developed. Contributor: Sue Ellen Hirschfeld, Ph.D., Professor of Geological Sciences, California State University, Hayward. Questions What two elements make up most of the rocks in the earth's crust?
When did the first bird live on the earth? Which motion of the earth causes day and night? Who first suggested a nebular theory about the birth of the solar system? What gas makes up most of the earth's atmosphere? What are three important transporting agents of erosion? How does the earth rank in size among the planets? What part of the earth is believed to be made of melted iron and nickel? During what geological period did the first land plants appear on the earth? What is the biosphere?
Additional resources Level I Farndon, John. Dictionary of the Earth. Dorling Kindersley, 1995. Parker, Steve. Our Planet Earth. Facts on File, 1994. Silver, Donald M. Earth. Random Hse., 1989. Van Rose, Susanna. The Earth Atlas. Dorling Kindersley, 1994. Level II MacDougall, J. D. A Short History of Planet Earth. Wiley, 1996. Osborne, Roger, and others, eds. The Historical Atlas of the Earth. Henry Holt, 1996. Vogel, Shawna. Naked Earth: The New Geophysics. Dutton, 1995. Westbroek, Pieter. Life as a Geological Force. 1991. Reprint. Norton, 1992. ---- end of article ----