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Chapter II

Origin and Structure of the Earth: Earth and Earth System

Earth is characterized by its blue waters, rocky brown and green land masses with
white clouds set against a black background. It is the third planet from the Sun and few
hundred kilometers larger than planet Venus in terms of diameter. Also, it is the fifth largest
planet in the solar system. It is the only known planet that can support life. Our home planet
is special because 70% of its surface is covered by water.
It is made up of erratic, complex and interactive systems that make it a constantly
changing planet. Earth Science (also known as geoscience), is a comprehensive term used for
all sciences related to earth geology, meteorology, oceanography etc.
Air, water, land and life are the four major systems of Earth. Each helps shape the
structure of the planet. A system is defined as a group of independent parts that work together
as a whole.

The Earth’s System

The planet includes all the physical and living elements on its surface. All these
elements are connected to each other and form a complex a whole. They intermingle with
each other within a defined boundary. Thus, our planet has an integrated yet complex social-
environmental system.
The biophysical components of the Earth System are often referred to as spheres and
are subdivided into four: geosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere and biosphere. These four
regulate the different functions on Earth such as the climate system, ecological services generated by
the living biosphere, including food production, and natural resources like fossil fuels and minerals.
In the 19th century, geographer Alexander Von Humboldt postulated the basic concept of
earth system by interpreting its nature. In the 20th century, Vladimir Vernadsky saw the function of
the biosphere as a geological force which in return promoted the diversity of life. In the mid-1960s,
James Lovelock first postulated the regulatory role of the biosphere. This role is known as the Gaia
hypothesis. In the 1970 Lynn Margulis, an American evolutionary theorist further developed this.

1. The Geosphere
The geosphere makes up the solid portion of the Earth, its structure and land. The planet’s
inner core which extends to the crust, is predominantly classified as the lithosphere; the upper mantle
and the crust. The lithosphere is the area that mostly affects the earth system.
Geosphere includes the non-living land features. Geosphere came from a Latin name “Geo”
which means ground. Solid rock does not mean that geosphere is still because it is constantly moving.
Our planet’s surface is covered by a thin layer called crust.

The Earth’s Crust

The Earth’s crust has a thin layer measuring 40km deep composed of solid rocks and minerals
with temperature of 22 °C. The crust is made up of large rocks. It is divided into two forms.

Two Forms of Crust

Oceanic crust – is composed of the elements iron, oxygen, magnesium and aluminum.
Continental crust – is made up of granite, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks.

Going beyond the Earth’s crust is the mantle which is mostly solid rocks and minerals and
marked by malleable areas of semi-solid magma. It represents about 85% of the total weight and mass
of our planet. It is believed that the first 50 miles of the mantle is composed of a very hard, rigid rock.
The next 150 miles is said to be super-heated solid rock. The next several hundred miles is assumed to
be composed of solid sturdy rock materials. The knowledge about the upper mantle was derived from
our experiences during earthquakes through its waves, heat flow, magnetic studies, gravity studies and
through many laboratory rocks and mineral experiments. It is divided in to lower and inner mantle.

Upper Mantle
The upper mantle extends from the crust to a depth of about 670 kilometers below the Earth’s
surface. It is mostly solid and its malleable region contribute to tectonic activities. The Earth’s crust
and the brittle upper portion of the mantle form the lithosphere. The latter makes up the plates as
explained by the plate tectonic theory. It is the solid, outer part of the planet, with a depth of 100
kilometers. Also, it is both the coolest and the most rigid of the Earth’s layers. It is composed of iron,
oxygen, silicon, magnesium, and aluminum.

Lower Mantle
The lower mantle extends from 660 kilometers up to 2700 kilometers below the Earth’s
surface. Its temperature is about 3,000 °C which makes it much hotter and denser than the upper
mantle. It is mostly solid rocks and composed of the elements iron, oxygen, magnesium and

Traveling beyond the Earth’s mantle is the core. The planet Earth has a ball-like core which is
extremely hot and dense. Earth’s core is the center of our planet which lies beneath the cool, brittle
crust and the mostly-solid mantle. It is found about 2,900 kilometers below the Earth’s surface with a
radius of about 3,458 kilometers. In comparison with the mineral rich crust and the mantle, the Earth’s
core is entirely made up of metal alloy such as iron and nickel. Other elements found in the Earth’s
core are siderophiles.

Siderophiles – these are the elements that dissolve in iron and are classified as “precious metals”.
Siderophiles also include the elements gold, platinum and cobalt. Sulfur is another key element in the
Earth’s core. The Earth’s core is divided in to outer and inner core.

Outer Core
The outer core is the second largest layer and second to the last layer of our planet. It is about
2,200 kilometers thick and is composed entirely of supper heated liquid molten lava of liquid iron and
nickel. The NiFe alloy of the outer core is extremely hot and its temperature range is between 4,500°
to 5,500° Celsius. The liquid metal of the outer core has very low viscosity, which makes it easily
deformed and malleable. In addition, the churning metal action of the outer core as its moves around
the inner core creates and sustains the planet’s magnetic field.

Inner Core
The final layer of the Earth is the inner core which is an exceedingly hot, dense huge metal of
mostly iron 2500 km wide. The temperature of the inner core ranges from 5,000°C to 6,000°C which
is enough to make metal melt. It has a strong pressure around it making the metal stay solid. With this
unusual set of circumstances, some scientists tend to assume that the inner core is not totally solid but
rather as a plasma behaving as a solid. The Earth’s inner core rotates easterly like the surface making
its rotation slightly different from the rest of the Earth.

2. The Hydrosphere
The hydrosphere is composed of all the waters on or near the Earth surface. This includes
water on the surface like the oceans, rivers, and lakes. It may also be the water in the underground, in
wells and aquifers and may exist even as a moisture in the air which is visible as clouds and fogs.
The Earth’s hydrosphere can be in a form of liquid, vapor and ice such as glaciers, ice caps
and icebergs. This frozen part is called Cryosphere. Mostly ninety seven (97%) percent of the Earth’s
water is in the form of oceans (salty) and the rest is fresh water (non-salty). Three-quarters of this
fresh water is solid and exists in the ice sheets.
Water moves through the hydrosphere in a cycle called the Water Cycle. Water droplets as
they coagulate form clouds, then fall to the Earth in the form of rain or snow. This water collects in
rivers, lakes and oceans. As heat rises, water in it evaporates in the atmosphere to start the cycle all
over again.

3. The Atmosphere
The Earth’s atmosphere is not just merely the air that we breathe but also a blanket of gas that
surrounds our planet up to the edge of space. This thin layer of gas that envelops our planet is
necessary to sustain life because it contains gases essential for humans and animals to breathe. It
enables plants to make their own food, traps heat to keep us warm, protects us from harmful radiation
from the space and drives ocean currents that spread heat which regulates our climate. The
greenhouse gases help keep our planet’s temperature to a level conducive to life.
The atmosphere includes air, precipitation, clouds and aerosols. They are tiny particles
suspended in the air. It contains mixture of gases such as oxygen and nitrogen that makes up 99% of
the volume in air. The remaining part of the atmosphere is composed of traces gas such as argon while
others are carbon dioxide and ozone which are present in minute amounts.

The parts of the atmosphere are as follows:

a) Troposphere
This part of the atmosphere starts at the Earth’s surface and extends 8 to14.5 kilometers high.
It is considered the densest among the other parts of the atmosphere. Almost all weather types are in
this region.

b) Stratosphere
Above the troposphere is the stratosphere. It extends up to 50 kilometers high. It is in this
region where we can find the ozone layer which absorbs and scatters the solar ultraviolet radiation.

c) Mesosphere
This region is above the stratosphere and extends to 85 kilometers. Meteors usually burn up in
this region as they approach our planet.

d) Thermosphere
It extends up to 600 kilometers above the mesosphere. It is where aurora and satellites occur.

e) Ionosphere
The ionosphere is the part of our atmosphere where abundant layers of electron, ionized
atoms and molecules occur. It extends from about 48 kilometers above the surface to the edge of
space up to 965 km. This region grows and shrinks and is dependent on solar conditions. It is
subdivided into the several sub-regions. The ionosphere is a critical link in the chain of the sun-earth
interactions. This region makes radio communications possible.

f) Exosphere
This is the upper limit of our atmosphere. It extends from the top of the thermosphere up to
10,000 km (6,200 miles).

4. The Biosphere
The biosphere is termed as the “zone of life”. It is the part of the Earth where life exists. It
could occupy the oceans, surfaces of the land and can also be in the atmosphere. It extends from the
deepest root systems of trees, to the dark environment of ocean trenches, to lush rainforests and high
mountaintops. The biosphere measures about 20 kilometers from top to bottom where almost all life
exists between 500 meters below the ocean’s surface to about 6 kilometers above sea level.

It has been said that the biosphere existed for about 3.5 billion years. Prokaryotes are said to
be the earliest life forms which survived without oxygen. These are unicellular microorganisms that
lack a distinct nucleus and membrane-bound organelle such as ancient prokaryotes bacteria and