An oxygen-rich and protective atmosphere, moderate temperatures, abundant water, and a varied chemical composition enable Earth to support life, the only planet known to harbor life. The planet is composed of rock and metal, which are present in molten form beneath its surface. The Apollo 17 spacecraft took this snapshot in 1972 of the Arabian Peninsula, the African continent, and Antarctica (most of the white area near the bottom).
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Earth (planet), one of nine planets in the solar system, the only planet known to harbor life, and the “home” of human beings. From space Earth resembles a big blue marble with swirling white clouds floating above blue oceans. About 71 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by water, which is essential to life. The rest is land, mostly in the form of continents that rise above the oceans.
Earth’s surface is surrounded by a layer of gases known as the atmosphere, which extends upward from the surface, slowly thinning out into space. Below the surface is a hot interior of rocky material and two core layers composed of the metals nickel and iron in solid and liquid form.
Unlike the other planets, Earth has a unique set of characteristics ideally suited to supporting life as we know it. It is neither too hot, like Mercury, the closest planet to the Sun, nor too cold, like distant Mars and the even more distant outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and tiny Pluto. Earth’s atmosphere includes just the right amount of gases that trap heat from the Sun, resulting in a moderate climate suitable for water to exist in liquid form. The atmosphere also helps block radiation from the Sun that would be harmful to life. Earth’s atmosphere distinguishes it from the planet Venus, which is otherwise much like Earth. Venus is about the same size and mass as Earth and is also neither too near nor too far from the Sun. But because Venus has too much heat-trapping carbon dioxide in its atmosphere, its surface is extremely hot—462°C (864°F)—hot enough to melt lead and too hot for life to exist.Although Earth is the only planet known to have life, scientists do not rule out the possibility that life may once have existed on other planets or their moons, or may exist today in primitive form. Mars, for example, has many features that resemble river channels, indicating that liquid water once flowed on its surface. If so, life may also have evolved there, and evidence for it may one day be found in fossil form. Water still exists on Mars, but it is frozen in polar ice caps, in permafrost, and possibly in rocks below the surface.
Earth from the Moon
In the late 1960s, people saw for the first time what Earth looked like from space. This famous photo of Earth was taken by astronauts on the Apollo 8 mission as they orbited the Moon in 1968.
For thousands of years, human beings could only wonder about Earth and the other observable planets in the solar system. Many early ideas—for example, that the Earth was a sphere and that it traveled around the Sun—were based on brilliant reasoning. However, it was only with the development of the scientific method and scientific instruments, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, that humans began to gather data that could be used to verify theories about Earth and the rest of the solar system. By studying fossils found in rock layers, for example, scientists realized that the Earth was much older than previously believed. And with the use of telescopes, new planets such as Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto were discovered.
In the second half of the 20th century, more advances in the study of Earth and the solar system occurred due to the development of rockets that could send spacecraft beyond Earth. Human beings were able to study and observe Earth from space with satellites equipped with scientific instruments. Astronauts landed on the Moon and gathered ancient rocks that revealed much about the early solar system. During this remarkable advancement in human history, humans also sent unmanned spacecraft to the other planets and their moons. Spacecraft have now visited all of the planets except Pluto. The study of other planets and moons has provided new insights about Earth, just as the study of the Sun and other stars like it has helped shape new theories about how Earth and the rest of the solar system formed.
As a result of this recent space exploration, we now know that Earth is one of the most geologically active of all the planets and moons in the solar system. Earth is constantly changing. Over long periods of time land is built up and worn away, oceans are formed and re-formed, and continents move around, break up, and merge.
Life itself contributes to changes on Earth, especially in the way living things can alter Earth’s atmosphere. For example, Earth at one time had the same amount of carbon dioxide in its atmosphere as Venus now has, but early forms of life helped remove this carbon dioxide over millions of years. These life forms also added oxygen to Earth’s atmosphere and made it possible for animal life to evolve on land.
A variety of scientific fields have broadened our knowledge about Earth, including biogeography, climatology, geology, geophysics, hydrology, meteorology, oceanography, and zoogeography. Collectively, these fields are known as Earth science. By studying Earth’s atmosphere, its surface, and its interior and by studying the Sun and the rest of the solar system, scientists have learned much about how Earth came into existence, how it changed, and why it continues to change.
EARTH, THE SOLAR SYSTEM, AND THE GALAXY
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Earth is the third planet from the Sun, after Mercury and Venus. The average distance between Earth and the Sun is 150 million km (93 million mi). Earth and all the other planets in the solar system revolve, or orbit, around the Sun due to the force of gravitation. The Earth travels at a velocity of about 107,000 km/h (about 67,000 mph) as it orbits the Sun. All but one of the planets orbit the Sun in the same plane—that is, if an imaginary line were extended from the center of the Sun to the outer regions of the solar system, the orbital paths of the planets would intersect that line. The exception is Pluto, which has an eccentric (unusual) orbit.
Earth’s orbital path is not quite a perfect circle but instead is slightly elliptical (oval-shaped). For example, at maximum distance Earth is about 152 million km (about 95 million mi) from the Sun; at minimum distance Earth is about 147 million km (about 91 million mi) from the Sun. If Earth orbited the Sun in a perfect circle, it would always be the same distance from the Sun.The solar system, in turn, is part of the Milky Way Galaxy, a collection of billions of stars bound together by gravity. The Milky Way has armlike discs of stars that spiral out from its center. The solar system is located in one of these spiral arms, known as the Orion arm, which is about two-thirds of the way from the center of the Galaxy. In most parts of the Northern Hemisphere, this disc of stars is visible on a summer night as a dense band of light known as the Milky Way.
Milky Way Galaxy
Our own solar system exists within one of the spiral arms of the disk-shaped galaxy called the Milky Way. This false-color image looks toward the center of the Milky Way, located 30,000 light-years away. Bright star clusters are visible along with darker areas of dust and gas.
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Earth is the fifth largest planet in the solar system. Its diameter, measured around the equator, is 12,756 km (7,926 mi). Earth is not a perfect sphere but is slightly flattened at the poles. Its polar diameter, measured from the North Pole to the South Pole, is somewhat less than the equatorial diameter because of this flattening. Although Earth is the largest of the four planets—Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars—that make up the inner solar system (the planets closest to the Sun), it is small compared with the giant planets of the outer solar system—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. For example, the largest planet, Jupiter, has a diameter at its equator of 143,000 km (89,000 mi), 11 times greater than that of Earth. A famous atmospheric feature on Jupiter, the Great Red Spot, is so large that three Earths would fit inside it.
Earth has one natural satellite, the Moon. The Moon orbits the Earth, completing one revolution in an elliptical path in 27 days 7 hr 43 min 11.5 sec. The Moon orbits the Earth because of the force of Earth’s gravity. However, the Moon also exerts a gravitational force on the Earth. Evidence for the Moon’s gravitational influence can be seen in the ocean tides. A popular theory suggests that the Moon split off from Earth more than 4 billion years ago when a large meteorite or small planet struck the Earth.
As Earth revolves around the Sun, it rotates, or spins, on its axis, an imaginary line that runs between the North and South poles. The period of one complete rotation is defined as a day and takes 23 hr 56 min 4.1 sec. The period of one revolution around the Sun is defined as a year, or 365.2422 solar days, or 365 days 5 hr 48 min 46 sec. Earth also moves along with the Milky Way Galaxy as the Galaxy rotates and moves through space. It takes more than 200 million years for the stars in the Milky Way to complete one revolution around the Galaxy’s center.
Earth’s axis of rotation is inclined (tilted) 23.5° relative to its plane of revolution around the Sun. This inclination of the axis creates the seasons and causes the height of the Sun in the sky at noon to increase and decrease as the seasons change. The Northern Hemisphere receives the most energy from the Sun when it is tilted toward the Sun. This orientation corresponds to summer in the Northern Hemisphere and winter in the Southern Hemisphere. The Southern Hemisphere receives maximum energy when it is tilted toward the Sun, corresponding to summer in the Southern Hemisphere and winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Fall and spring occur in between these orientations.
The atmosphere is a layer of different gases that extends from Earth’s surface to the exosphere, the outer limit of the atmosphere, about 9,600 km (6,000 mi) above the surface. Near Earth’s surface, the atmosphere consists almost entirely of nitrogen (78 percent) and oxygen (21 percent). The remaining 1 percent of atmospheric gases consists of argon (0.9 percent); carbon dioxide (0.03 percent); varying amounts of water vapor; and trace amounts of hydrogen, nitrous oxide, ozone, methane, carbon monoxide, helium, neon, krypton, and xenon.
Layers of the Atmosphere
Divisions of the Atmosphere
Without our atmosphere, there would be no life on Earth. A relatively thin envelope, the atmosphere consists of layers of gases that support life and provide protection from harmful radiation.
© Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.The layers of the atmosphere are the troposphere, the stratosphere, the mesosphere, the thermosphere, and the exosphere. The troposphere is the layer in which weather occurs and extends from the surface to about 16 km (about 10 mi) above sea level at the equator. Above the troposphere is the stratosphere, which has an upper boundary of about 50 km (about 30 mi) above sea level. The layer from 50 to 90 km (30 to 60 mi) is called the mesosphere. At an altitude of about 90 km, temperatures begin to rise. The layer that begins at this altitude is called the thermosphere because of the high temperatures that can be reached in this layer (about 1200°C, or about 2200°F). The region beyond the thermosphere is called the exosphere. The thermosphere and the exosphere overlap with another region of the atmosphere known as the ionosphere, a layer or layers of ionized air extending from almost 60 km (about 50 mi) above Earth’s surface to altitudes of 1,000 km (600 mi) and more.
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Earth’s atmosphere and the way it interacts with the oceans and radiation from the Sun are responsible for the planet’s climate and weather. The atmosphere plays a key role in supporting life. Almost all life on Earth uses atmospheric oxygen for energy in a process known as cellular respiration, which is essential to life. The atmosphere also helps moderate Earth’s climate by trapping radiation from the Sun that is reflected from Earth’s surface. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere act as “greenhouse gases.” Like the glass in a greenhouse, they trap infrared, or heat, radiation from the Sun in the lower atmosphere and thereby help warm Earth’s surface. Without this greenhouse effect, heat radiation would escape into space, and Earth would be too cold to support most forms of life.
Other gases in the atmosphere are also essential to life. The trace amount of ozone found in Earth’s stratosphere blocks harmful ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. Without the ozone layer, life as we know it could not survive on land. Earth’s atmosphere is also an important part of a phenomenon known as the water cycle or the hydrologic cycle. See also Atmosphere.
The Atmosphere and the Water Cycle
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The water cycle simply means that Earth’s water is continually recycled between the oceans, the atmosphere, and the land. All of the water that exists on Earth today has been used and reused for billions of years. Very little water has been created or lost during this period of time. Water is constantly moving on Earth’s surface and changing back and forth between ice, liquid water, and water vapor.
The water cycle begins when the Sun heats the water in the oceans and causes it to evaporate and enter the atmosphere as water vapor. Some of this water vapor falls as precipitation directly back into the oceans, completing a short cycle. Some of the water vapor, however, reaches land, where it may fall as snow or rain. Melted snow or rain enters rivers or lakes on the land. Due to the force of gravity, the water in the rivers eventually empties back into the oceans. Melted snow or rain also may enter the ground. Groundwater may be stored for hundreds or thousands of years, but it will eventually reach the surface as springs or small pools known as seeps. Even snow that forms glacial ice or becomes part of the polar caps and is kept out of the cycle for thousands of years eventually melts or is warmed by the Sun and turned into water vapor, entering the atmosphere and falling again as precipitation. All water that falls on land eventually returns to the ocean, completing the water cycle.
Earth’s surface is the outermost layer of the planet. It includes the hydrosphere, the crust, and the biosphere.
The hydrosphere consists of the bodies of water that cover 71 percent of Earth’s surface. The largest of these are the oceans, which contain over 97 percent of all water on Earth. Glaciers and the polar ice caps contain just over 2 percent of Earth’s water in the form of solid ice. Only about 0.6 percent is under the surface as groundwater. Nevertheless, groundwater is 36 times more plentiful than water found in lakes, inland seas, rivers, and in the atmosphere as water vapor. Only 0.017 percent of all the water on Earth is found in lakes and rivers. And a mere 0.001 percent is found in the atmosphere as water vapor. Most of the water in glaciers, lakes, inland seas, rivers, and groundwater is fresh and can be used for drinking and agriculture. Dissolved salts compose about 3.5 percent of the water in the oceans, however, making it unsuitable for drinking or agriculture unless it is treated to remove the salts.
The crust consists of the continents, other land areas, and the basins, or floors, of the oceans. The dry land of Earth’s surface is called the continental crust. It is about 15 to 75 km (9 to 47 mi) thick. The oceanic crust is thinner than the continental crust. Its average thickness is 5 to 10 km (3 to 6 mi). The crust has a definite boundary called the Mohorovičić discontinuity, or simply the Moho. The boundary separates the crust from the underlying mantle, which is much thicker and is part of Earth’s interior.
Oceanic crust and continental crust differ in the type of rocks they contain. There are three main types of rocks: igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic. Igneous rocks form when molten rock, called magma, cools and solidifies. Sedimentary rocks are usually created by the breakdown of igneous rocks. They tend to form in layers as small particles of other rocks or as the mineralized remains of dead animals and plants that have fused together over time. The remains of dead animals and plants occasionally become mineralized in sedimentary rock and are recognizable as fossils. Metamorphic rocks form when sedimentary or igneous rocks are altered by heat and pressure deep underground.
Oceanic crust consists of dark, dense igneous rocks, such as basalt and gabbro. Continental crust consists of lighter-colored, less dense igneous rocks, such as granite and diorite. Continental crust also includes metamorphic rocks and sedimentary rocks.
The biosphere includes all the areas of Earth capable of supporting life. The biosphere ranges from about 10 km (about 6 mi) into the atmosphere to the deepest ocean floor. For a long time, scientists believed that all life depended on energy from the Sun and consequently could only exist where sunlight penetrated. In the 1970s, however, scientists discovered various forms of life around hydrothermal vents on the floor of the Pacific Ocean where no sunlight penetrated. They learned that primitive bacteria formed the basis of this living community and that the bacteria derived their energy from a process called chemosynthesis that did not depend on sunlight. Some scientists believe that the biosphere may extend relatively deep into Earth’s crust. They have recovered what they believe are primitive bacteria from deeply drilled holes below the surface.
Changes to Earth’s Surface
Earth’s surface has been constantly changing ever since the planet formed. Most of these changes have been gradual, taking place over millions of years. Nevertheless, these gradual changes have resulted in radical modifications, involving the formation, erosion, and re-formation of mountain ranges, the movement of continents, the creation of huge supercontinents, and the breakup of supercontinents into smaller continents.
The weathering and erosion that result from the water cycle are among the principal factors responsible for changes to Earth’s surface. Another principal factor is the movement of Earth’s continents and seafloors and the buildup of mountain ranges due to a phenomenon known as plate tectonics. Heat is the basis for all of these changes. Heat in Earth’s interior is believed to be responsible for continental movement, mountain building, and the creation of new seafloor in ocean basins. Heat from the Sun is responsible for the evaporation of ocean water and the resulting precipitation that causes weathering and erosion. In effect, heat in Earth’s interior helps build up Earth’s surface while heat from the Sun helps wear down the surface.
Weathering is the breakdown of rock at and near the surface of Earth. Most rocks originally formed in a hot, high-pressure environment below the surface where there was little exposure to water. Once the rocks reached Earth’s surface, however, they were subjected to temperature changes and exposed to water. When rocks are subjected to these kinds of surface conditions, the minerals they contain tend to change. These changes constitute the process of weathering. There are two types of weathering: physical weathering and chemical weathering.
Physical weathering involves a decrease in the size of rock material. Freezing and thawing of water in rock cavities, for example, splits rock into small pieces because water expands when it freezes.
Chemical weathering involves a chemical change in the composition of rock. For example, feldspar, a common mineral in granite and other rocks, reacts with water to form clay minerals, resulting in a new substance with totally different properties than the parent feldspar. Chemical weathering is of significance to humans because it creates the clay minerals that are important components of soil, the basis of agriculture. Chemical weathering also causes the release of dissolved forms of sodium, calcium, potassium, magnesium, and other chemical elements into surface water and groundwater. These elements are carried by surface water and groundwater to the sea and are the sources of dissolved salts in the sea.
Glaciers erode the Earth’s surface through processes such as abrasion, crushing, and fracturing of the material in the glacier’s path. Glaciers move by growing or shrinking, depending on the climate. Moving glaciers erode and transport large quantities of rocks, sand, and other particles along their path. The icy path shown here is a moraine formed by a glacier in Switzerland.
Paolo Koch/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Erosion is the process that removes loose and weathered rock and carries it to a new site. Water, wind, and glacial ice combined with the force of gravity can cause erosion.
Erosion by running water is by far the most common process of erosion. It takes place over a longer period of time than other forms of erosion. When water from rain or melted snow moves downhill, it can carry loose rock or soil with it. Erosion by running water forms the familiar gullies and V-shaped valleys that cut into most landscapes. The force of the running water removes loose particles formed by weathering. In the process, gullies and valleys are lengthened, widened, and deepened. Often, water overflows the banks of the gullies or river channels, resulting in floods. Each new flood carries more material away to increase the size of the valley. Meanwhile, weathering loosens more and more material so the process continues.
Erosion by glacial ice is less common, but it can cause the greatest landscape changes in the shortest amount of time. Glacial ice forms in a region where snow fails to melt in the spring and summer and instead builds up as ice. For major glaciers to form, this lack of snowmelt has to occur for a number of years in areas with high precipitation. As ice accumulates and thickens, it flows as a solid mass. As it flows, it has a tremendous capacity to erode soil and even solid rock. Ice is a major factor in shaping some landscapes, especially mountainous regions. Glacial ice provides much of the spectacular scenery in these regions. Features such as horns (sharp mountain peaks), arêtes (sharp ridges), glacially formed lakes, and U-shaped valleys are all the result of glacial erosion.
Wind is an important cause of erosion only in arid (dry) regions. Wind carries sand and dust, which can scour even solid rock.
Many factors determine the rate and kind of erosion that occurs in a given area. The climate of an area determines the distribution, amount, and kind of precipitation that the area receives and thus the type and rate of weathering. An area with an arid climate erodes differently than an area with a humid climate. The elevation of an area also plays a role by determining the potential energy of running water. The higher the elevation the more energetically water will flow due to the force of gravity. The type of bedrock in an area (sandstone, granite, or shale) can determine the shapes of valleys and slopes, and the depth of streams.
A landscape’s geologic age—that is, how long current conditions of weathering and erosion have affected the area—determines its overall appearance. Relatively young landscapes tend to be more rugged and angular in appearance. Older landscapes tend to have more rounded slopes and hills. The oldest landscapes tend to be low-lying with broad, open river valleys and low, rounded hills. The overall effect of the wearing down of an area is to level the land; the tendency is toward the reduction of all land surfaces to sea level.
Opposing this tendency toward leveling is a force responsible for raising mountains and plateaus and for creating new landmasses. These changes to Earth’s surface occur in the outermost solid portion of Earth, known as the lithosphere. The lithosphere consists of the crust and another region known as the upper mantle and is approximately 65 to 100 km (40 to 60 mi) thick. Compared with the interior of the Earth, however, this region is relatively thin. The lithosphere is thinner in proportion to the whole Earth than the skin of an apple is to the whole apple.
Scientists believe that the lithosphere is broken into a series of plates, or segments. According to the theory of plate tectonics, these plates move around on Earth’s surface over long periods of time. Tectonics comes from the Greek word, tektonikos, which means “builder.”
According to the theory, the lithosphere is divided into large and small plates. The largest plates include the Pacific plate, the North American plate, the Eurasian plate, the Antarctic plate, the Indo-Australian plate, and the African plate. Smaller plates include the Cocos plate, the Nazca plate, the Philippine plate, and the Caribbean plate. Plate sizes vary a great deal. The Cocos plate is 2,000 km (1,000 mi) wide, while the Pacific plate is nearly 14,000 km (nearly 9,000 mi) wide.
These plates move in three different ways in relation to each other. They pull apart or move away from each other, they collide or move against each other, or they slide past each other as they move sideways. The movement of these plates helps explain many geological events, such as earthquakes and volcanic eruptions as well as mountain building and the formation of the oceans and continents.
When Plates Pull Apart
Mid-ocean ridges occur along boundaries between plates of Earth’s outer shell where new seafloor is created as the plates spread apart. As plates move apart under the ocean, molten rock, or magma, wells up from deep below the surface of the seafloor. Some of the magma that ascends to the seafloor produces enormous volcanic eruptions. The rest solidifies on the edges of the plates as they spread apart, creating new rocky seafloor material.
When the plates pull apart, two types of phenomena occur depending on whether the movement takes place in the oceans or on land. When plates pull apart on land, deep valleys known as rift valleys form. An example of a rift valley is the Great Rift Valley that extends from Syria in the Middle East to Mozambique in Africa. When plates pull apart in the oceans, long, sinuous chains of volcanic mountains called mid-ocean ridges form, and new seafloor is created at the site of these ridges. Rift valleys are also present along the crests of the mid-ocean ridges.
Most scientists believe that gravity and heat from the interior of the Earth cause the plates to move apart and to create new seafloor. According to this explanation, molten rock known as magma rises from Earth’s interior to form hot spots beneath the ocean floor. As two oceanic plates pull apart from each other in the middle of the oceans, a crack, or rupture, appears and forms the mid-ocean ridges. These ridges exist in all the world’s ocean basins and resemble the seams of a baseball. The molten rock rises through these cracks and creates new seafloor.
When Plates Collide
The outer layer of the Earth, the lithosphere, is broken into about 20 pieces, called tectonic plates. These plates slowly slide around on the asthenosphere below, periodically colliding with each other.
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When plates collide or push against each other, regions called convergent plate margins form. Along these margins, one plate is usually forced to dive below the other. As that plate dives, it triggers the melting of the surrounding lithosphere and a region just below it known as the asthenosphere. These pockets of molten crust rise behind the margin through the overlying plate, creating curved chains of volcanoes known as arcs. This process is called subduction.If one plate consists of oceanic crust and the other consists of continental crust, the denser oceanic crust will dive below the continental crust. If both plates are oceanic crust, then either may be subducted. If both are continental crust, subduction can continue for a while but will eventually end because continental crust is not dense enough to be forced very far into the upper mantle.
Mount Everest, the world’s highest mountain at 8,850 m (29,035 ft), is located in the Himalayas. The Himalayas form the highest mountain system in the world, with more than 30 peaks towering 7,600 m (25,000 ft) or more.
Keren Su/Tony Stone Images
The results of this subduction process are readily visible on a map showing that 80 percent of the world’s volcanoes rim the Pacific Ocean where plates are colliding against each other. The subduction zone created by the collision of two oceanic plates—the Pacific plate and the Philippine plate—can also create a trench. Such a trench resulted in the formation of the deepest point on Earth, the Mariana Trench, which is estimated to be 11,033 m (36,198 ft) below sea level.
On the other hand, when two continental plates collide, mountain building occurs. The collision of the Indo-Australian plate with the Eurasian plate has produced the Himalayan Mountains. This collision resulted in the highest point of Earth, Mount Everest, which is 8,850 m (29,035 ft) above sea level.
When Plates Slide Past Each Other
San Andreas Fault, California
The San Andreas Fault, unlike most faults that stay below the ocean, emerges from the Pacific Ocean and traverses hundreds of miles of land. It runs through California for about 1,000 km (about 600 mi) from Point Arena to the Imperial Valley. The fault marks the boundary between the North American and Pacific tectonic plates; earthquakes are caused by these plates sliding together.
Francois Gohier/Photo Researchers, Inc.
Finally, some of Earth’s plates neither collide nor pull apart but instead slide past each other. These regions are called transform margins. Few volcanoes occur in these areas because neither plate is forced down into Earth’s interior and little melting occurs. Earthquakes, however, are abundant as the two rigid plates slide past each other. The San Andreas Fault in California is a well-known example of a transform margin.
The movement of plates occurs at a slow pace, at an average rate of only 2.5 cm (1 in) per year. But over millions of years this gradual movement results in radical changes. Current plate movement is making the Pacific Ocean and Mediterranean Sea smaller, the Atlantic Ocean larger, and the Himalayan Mountains higher.
Internal Structure of the Earth
Earth is made up of a series of layers that formed early in the planet’s history, as heavier material gravitated toward the center and lighter material floated to the surface. The dense, solid, inner core of iron is surrounded by a liquid, iron, outer core. The lower mantle consists of molten rock, which is surrounded by partially molten rock in the asthenosphere and solid rock in the upper mantle and crust. Between some of the layers, there are chemical or structural changes that form discontinuities. Lighter elements, such as silicon, aluminum, calcium, potassium, sodium, and oxygen, compose the outer crust.
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The interior of Earth plays an important role in plate tectonics. Scientists believe it is also responsible for Earth’s magnetic field. This field is vital to life because it shields the planet’s surface from harmful cosmic rays and from a steady stream of energetic particles from the Sun known as the solar wind.
Composition of the Interior
Earth’s interior consists of the mantle and the core. The mantle and core make up by far the largest part of Earth’s mass. The distance from the base of the crust to the center of the core is about 6,400 km (about 4,000 mi).
Scientists have learned about Earth’s interior by studying rocks that formed in the interior and rose to the surface. The study of meteorites, which are believed to be made of the same material that formed the Earth and its interior, has also offered clues about Earth’s interior. Finally, seismic waves generated by earthquakes provide geophysicists with information about the composition of the interior. The sudden movement of rocks during an earthquake causes vibrations that transmit energy through the Earth in the form of waves. The way these waves travel through the interior of Earth reveals the nature of materials inside the planet.
The mantle consists of three parts: the lower part of the lithosphere, the region below it known as the asthenosphere, and the region below the asthenosphere called the lower mantle. The entire mantle extends from the base of the crust to a depth of about 2,900 km (about 1,800 mi). Scientists believe the asthenosphere is made up of mushy plastic-like rock with pockets of molten rock. The term asthenosphere is derived from Greek and means “weak layer.” The asthenosphere’s soft, plastic quality allows plates in the lithosphere above it to shift and slide on top of the asthenosphere. This shifting of the lithosphere’s plates is the source of most tectonic activity. The asthenosphere is also the source of the basaltic magma that makes up much of the oceanic crust and rises through volcanic vents on the ocean floor.
The mantle consists of mostly solid iron-magnesium silicate rock mixed with many other minor components including radioactive elements. However, even this solid rock can flow like a “sticky” liquid when it is subjected to enough heat and pressure.
The core is divided into two parts, the outer core and the inner core. The outer core is about 2,260 km (about 1,404 mi) thick. The outer core is a liquid region composed mostly of iron, with smaller amounts of nickel and sulfur in liquid form. The inner core is about 1,220 km (about 758 mi) thick. The inner core is solid and is composed of iron, nickel, and sulfur in solid form. Because the inner core is surrounded by a liquid region, it can rotate independently. Recent scientific studies indicate that the inner core may actually rotate faster than the rest of the planet, making one full extra spin over a period of 700 to 1,200 years. The inner core and the outer core also contain a small percentage of radioactive material. The existence of radioactive material is one of the sources of heat in Earth’s interior because as radioactive material decays, it gives off heat. Temperatures in the inner core may be as high as 6650°C (12,000°F).
The Core and Earth’s Magnetism
Earth’s Magnetic Field
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Scientists believe that Earth’s liquid iron core is instrumental in creating a magnetic field that surrounds Earth and shields the planet from harmful cosmic rays and the Sun’s solar wind. The idea that Earth is like a giant magnet was first proposed in 1600 by English physician and natural philosopher William Gilbert. Gilbert proposed the idea to explain why the magnetized needle in a compass points north. According to Gilbert, Earth’s magnetic field creates a magnetic north pole and a magnetic south pole. The magnetic poles do not correspond to the geographic North and South poles, however. Moreover, the magnetic poles wander and are not always in the same place. The north magnetic pole is currently close to Ellef Ringnes Island in the Queen Elizabeth Islands near the boundary of Canada’s Northwest Territories with Nunavut. The south magnetic pole lies just off the coast of Wilkes Land, Antarctica.Not only do the magnetic poles wander, but they also reverse their polarity—that is, the north magnetic pole becomes the south magnetic pole and vice versa. Magnetic reversals have occurred at least 170 times over the past 100 million years. The reversals occur on average about every 200,000 years and take place gradually over a period of several thousand years. Scientists still do not understand why these magnetic reversals occur but think they may be related to Earth’s rotation and changes in the flow of liquid iron in the outer core.
The aurora borealis, commonly known as the northern lights, creates a spectacular light show near Fairbanks, Alaska. Auroras, most frequently seen in the far northern and far southern regions of the globe, are common sights in the Alaskan sky. Luminous displays visible to the naked eye only at night, auroras occur when charged particles from the Sun interact with gases in Earth’s atmosphere.
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Some scientists theorize that the flow of liquid iron in the outer core sets up electrical currents that produce Earth’s magnetic field. Known as the dynamo theory, this theory appears to be the best explanation yet for the origin of the magnetic field. Earth’s magnetic field operates in a region above Earth’s surface known as the magnetosphere. The magnetosphere is shaped somewhat like a teardrop with a long tail that trails away from the Earth due to the force of the solar wind.
Inside the magnetosphere are the Van Allen radiation belts, named for the American physicist James A. Van Allen who discovered them in 1958. The Van Allen belts are regions where charged particles from the Sun and from cosmic rays are trapped and sent into spiral paths along the lines of Earth’s magnetic field. The radiation belts thereby shield Earth’s surface from these highly energetic particles. Occasionally, however, due to extremely strong magnetic fields on the Sun’s surface, which are visible as sunspots, a brief burst of highly energetic particles streams along with the solar wind. Because Earth’s magnetic field lines converge and are closest to the surface at the poles, some of these energetic particles sneak through and interact with Earth’s atmosphere, creating the phenomenon known as an aurora.
Origin of Earth
Most scientists believe that the Earth, Sun, and all of the other planets and moons in the solar system formed about 4.6 billion years ago from a giant cloud of gas and dust known as the solar nebula. The gas and dust in this solar nebula originated in a star that ended its life in a violent explosion known as a supernova. The solar nebula consisted principally of hydrogen, the lightest element, but the nebula was also seeded with a smaller percentage of heavier elements, such as carbon and oxygen. All of the chemical elements we know were originally made in the star that became a supernova. Our bodies are made of these same chemical elements. Therefore, all of the elements in our solar system, including all of the elements in our bodies, originally came from this star-seeded solar nebula.
Due to the force of gravity tiny clumps of gas and dust began to form in the early solar nebula. As these clumps came together and grew larger, they caused the solar nebula to contract in on itself. The contraction caused the cloud of gas and dust to flatten in the shape of a disc. As the clumps continued to contract, they became very dense and hot. Eventually the atoms of hydrogen became so dense that they began to fuse in the innermost part of the cloud, and these nuclear reactions gave birth to the Sun. The fusion of hydrogen atoms in the Sun is the source of its energy.
Many scientists favor the planetesimal theory for how the Earth and other planets formed out of this solar nebula. This theory helps explain why the inner planets became rocky while the outer planets, except for Pluto, are made up mostly of gases. The theory also explains why all of the planets orbit the Sun in the same plane.
According to this theory, temperatures decreased with increasing distance from the center of the solar nebula. In the inner region, where Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars formed, temperatures were low enough that certain heavier elements, such as iron and the other heavy compounds that make up rock, could condense out—that is, could change from a gas to a solid or liquid. Due to the force of gravity, small clumps of this rocky material eventually came together with the dust in the original solar nebula to form protoplanets or planetesimals (small rocky bodies). These planetesimals collided, broke apart, and re-formed until they became the four inner rocky planets. The inner region, however, was still too hot for other light elements, such as hydrogen and helium, to be retained. These elements could only exist in the outermost part of the disc, where temperatures were lower. As a result two of the outer planets—Jupiter and Saturn—are mostly made of hydrogen and helium, which are also the dominant elements in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune.
The Early Earth
The Early Earth
Life originated on Earth about four billion years ago, when oceans dotted with volcanic islands covered most of Earth’s surface and continents were very small. The air was hot and contained almost no breathable oxygen. The Moon was much closer to Earth, and a day was less than 15 hours long. Meteorites fell more frequently, and there was more volcanic activity than there is today.
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Within the planetesimal Earth, heavier matter sank to the center and lighter matter rose toward the surface. Most scientists believe that Earth was never truly molten and that this transfer of matter took place in the solid state. Much of the matter that went toward the center contained radioactive material, an important source of Earth’s internal heat. As heavier material moved inward, lighter material moved outward, the planet became layered, and the layers of the core and mantle were formed. This process is called differentiation.
Not long after they formed, more than 4 billion years ago, the Earth and the Moon underwent a period when they were bombarded by meteorites, the rocky debris left over from the formation of the solar system. The impact craters created during this period of heavy bombardment are still visible on the Moon’s surface, which is unchanged. Earth’s craters, however, were long ago erased by weathering, erosion, and mountain building. Because the Moon has no atmosphere, its surface has not been subjected to weathering or erosion. Thus, the evidence of meteorite bombardment remains.
Energy released from the meteorite impacts created extremely high temperatures on Earth that melted the outer part of the planet and created the crust. By 4 billion years ago, both the oceanic and continental crust had formed, and the oldest rocks were created. These rocks are known as the Acasta Gneiss and are found in Canada’s Northwest Territories. Due to the meteorite bombardment, the early Earth was too hot for liquid water to exist and so it was impossible for life to exist.
Sedimentary rocks, such as this fossil-bearing limestone, can help geologists determine geologic time. Because the bottom layers were deposited first, the oldest fossils are found in the bottom layers of sedimentary rocks. The accumulation of shells or shell fragments and other fossils in limestone provides geologists with a record of the evolution of the animals that used to live in the ancient oceans.
Carolina Biological Supply/Phototake NYCGeologists divide the history of the Earth into three eons: the Archean Eon, which lasted from around 4 billion to 2.5 billion years ago; the Proterozoic Eon, which lasted from 2.5 billion to 543 million years ago; and the Phanerozoic Eon, which lasted from 543 million years ago to the present. Each eon is subdivided into different eras. For example, the Phanerozoic Eon includes the Paleozoic Era, the Mesozoic Era, and the Cenozoic Era. In turn, eras are further divided into periods. For example, the Paleozoic Era includes the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian Periods.
Geologic Time Scale
© Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.The Archean Eon is subdivided into four eras, the Eoarchean, the Paleoarchean, the Mesoarchean, and the Neoarchean. The beginning of the Archean is generally dated as the age of the oldest terrestrial rocks, which are about 4 billion years old. The Archean Eon ended 2.5 billion years ago when the Proterozoic Eon began. The Proterozoic Eon is subdivided into three eras: the Paleoproterozoic Era, the Mesoproterozoic Era, and the Neoproterozoic Era. The Proterozoic Eon lasted from 2.5 billion years ago to 543 million years ago when the Phanerozoic Eon began. The Phanerozoic Eon is subdivided into three eras: the Paleozoic Era from 543 million to 248 million years ago, the Mesozoic Era from 248 million to 65 million years ago, and the Cenozoic Era from 65 million years ago to the present.
Fossils preserved in rock strata provide scientists with clues to evolutionary history. This stratigraphic column is based on paleontological evidence and shows the order in which organisms appeared in the fossil-rich Paleozoic era. Each layer represents a particular time frame and shows a representative organism that flourished during that time. Although fossils are rarely found in the idealized and localized fashion shown here, they are often in more or less chronological order. Generally, the oldest fossils appear in lower layers, and the most recent fossils at the top, so that placement may be used as an aid in dating the specimens.
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Geologists base these divisions on the study and dating of rock layers or strata, including the fossilized remains of plants and animals found in those layers. Until the late 1800s scientists could only determine the relative ages of rock strata. They knew that in general the top layers of rock were the youngest and formed most recently, while deeper layers of rock were older. The field of stratigraphy shed much light on the relative ages of rock layers.
The study of fossils also enabled geologists to determine the relative ages of different rock layers. The fossil record helped scientists determine how organisms evolved or when they became extinct. By studying rock layers around the world, geologists and paleontologists saw that the remains of certain animal and plant species occurred in the same layers, but were absent or altered in other layers. They soon developed a fossil index that also helped determine the relative ages of rock layers.
Beginning in the 1890s, scientists learned that radioactive elements in rock decay at a known rate. By studying this radioactive decay, they could determine an absolute age for rock layers. This type of dating, known as radiometric dating, confirmed the relative ages determined through stratigraphy and the fossil index and assigned absolute ages to the various strata. As a result scientists were able to assemble Earth’s geologic time scale from the Archean Eon to the present. See also Geologic Time.
Cyanobacteria (formerly blue-green algae) are among the most ancient organisms on earth. These photosynthetic organisms can be single-celled, connected in afilamentous form as shown here, or arranged in simple colonies. Cyanobacteria are capable of enduring a wide variety of environmental conditions ranging from freshwater and marine habitats to snowfields and glaciers. They are capable of surviving and flourishing even at extremely high temperatures.
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The Precambrian is a time span that includes the Archean and Proterozoic eons and began about 4 billion years ago. The Precambrian marks the first formation of continents, the oceans, the atmosphere, and life. The Precambrian represents the oldest chapter in Earth’s history that can still be studied. Very little remains of Earth from the period of 4.6 billion to about 4 billion years ago due to the melting of rock caused by the early period of meteorite bombardment. Rocks dating from the Precambrian, however, have been found in Africa, Antarctica, Australia, Brazil, Canada, and Scandinavia. Some zircon mineral grains deposited in Australian rock layers have been dated to 4.2 billion years.
The Precambrian is also the longest chapter in Earth’s history, spanning a period of about 3.5 billion years. During this timeframe, the atmosphere and the oceans formed from gases that escaped from the hot interior of the planet as a result of widespread volcanic eruptions. The early atmosphere consisted primarily of nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor. As Earth continued to cool, the water vapor condensed out and fell as precipitation to form the oceans. Some scientists believe that much of Earth’s water vapor originally came from comets containing frozen water that struck Earth during the period of meteorite bombardment.
By studying 2-billion-year-old rocks found in northwestern Canada, as well as 2.5-billion-year-old rocks in China, scientists have found evidence that plate tectonics began shaping Earth’s surface as early as the middle Precambrian. About a billion years ago, the Earth’s plates were centered around the South Pole and formed a supercontinent called Rodinia. Slowly, pieces of this supercontinent broke away from the central continent and traveled north, forming smaller continents.
Life originated during the Precambrian. The earliest fossil evidence of life consists of prokaryotes, one-celled organisms that lacked a nucleus and reproduced by dividing, a process known as asexual reproduction. Asexual division meant that a prokaryote’s hereditary material was copied unchanged. The first prokaryotes were bacteria known as archaebacteria. Scientists believe they came into existence perhaps as early as 3.8 billion years ago, but certainly by about 3.5 billion years ago, and were anaerobic—that is, they did not require oxygen to produce energy. Free oxygen barely existed in the atmosphere of the early Earth.
Archaebacteria were followed about 3.46 billion years ago by another type of prokaryote known as cyanobacteria or blue-green algae. These cyanobacteria gradually introduced oxygen in the atmosphere as a result of photosynthesis. In shallow tropical waters, cyanobacteria formed mats that grew into humps called stromatolites. Fossilized stromatolites have been found in rocks in the Pilbara region of western Australia that are more than 3.4 billion years old and in rocks of the Gunflint Chert region of northwest Lake Superior that are about 2.1 billion years old.
For billions of years, life existed only in the simple form of prokaryotes. Prokaryotes were followed by the relatively more advanced eukaryotes, organisms that have a nucleus in their cells and that reproduce by combining or sharing their heredity makeup rather than by simply dividing. Sexual reproduction marked a milestone in life on Earth because it created the possibility of hereditary variation and enabled organisms to adapt more easily to a changing environment. The very latest part of Precambrian time some 560 million to 545 million years ago saw the appearance of an intriguing group of fossil organisms known as the Ediacaran fauna. First discovered in the northern Flinders Range region of Australia in the mid-1940s and subsequently found in many locations throughout the world, these strange fossils appear to be the precursors of many of the fossil groups that were to explode in Earth's oceans in the Paleozoic Era. See also Evolution; Natural Selection.
The Earliest Animals
The earliest known animals on Earth were a bizarre collection of life forms that emerged just prior to and during the Cambrian Period, some of which were exquisitely preserved in fossil beds in various parts of the world. Some of the more extraordinary creatures (depicted in this artist's conception) were the formidable predator Anomalocaris (foreground upper right) about to make a meal of Waptia, which it holds in its extended claws. Just below Anomalocaris and slightly to its left is Opabinia using its long, trunklike snout to grasp Burgessochaeta, a bristle worm. The fernlike objects (left and center) are actually animals, as are the primitive sponges (center foreground) that resemble a saguaro cactus. The depictions of these fernlike animals are based on a group of fossils known as the Ediacaran fossils and date from about 550 million years ago.
At the start of the Paleozoic Era about 543 million years ago, an enormous expansion in the diversity and complexity of life occurred. This event took place in the Cambrian Period and is called the Cambrian explosion. Nothing like it has happened since. Almost all of the major groups of animals we know today made their first appearance during the Cambrian explosion. Almost all of the different “body plans” found in animals today—that is, the way an animal’s body is designed, with heads, legs, rear ends, claws, tentacles, or antennae—also originated during this period.
Fishes first appeared during the Paleozoic Era, and multicellular plants began growing on the land. Other land animals, such as scorpions, insects, and amphibians, also originated during this time. Just as new forms of life were being created, however, other forms of life were going out of existence. Natural selection meant that some species were able to flourish, while others failed. In fact, mass extinctions of animal and plant species were commonplace.
Most of the early complex life forms of the Cambrian explosion lived in the sea. The creation of warm, shallow seas, along with the buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere, may have aided this explosion of life forms. The shallow seas were created by the breakup of the supercontinent Rodinia. During the Ordovician, Silurian, and Devonian periods, which followed the Cambrian Period and lasted from 490 million to 354 million years ago, some of the continental pieces that had broken off Rodinia collided. These collisions resulted in larger continental masses in equatorial regions and in the Northern Hemisphere. The collisions built a number of mountain ranges, including parts of the Appalachian Mountains in North America and the Caledonian Mountains of northern Europe.
Toward the close of the Paleozoic Era, two large continental masses, Gondwanaland to the south and Laurasia to the north, faced each other across the equator. Their slow but eventful collision during the Permian Period of the Paleozoic Era, which lasted from 290 million to 248 million years ago, assembled the supercontinent Pangaea and resulted in some of the grandest mountains in the history of Earth. These mountains included other parts of the Appalachians and the Ural Mountains of Asia. At the close of the Paleozoic Era, Pangaea represented over 90 percent of all the continental landmasses. Pangaea straddled the equator with a huge mouthlike opening that faced east. This opening was the Tethys Ocean, which closed as India moved northward creating the Himalayas. The last remnants of the Tethys Ocean can be seen in today’s Mediterranean Sea.
The Paleozoic came to an end with a major extinction event, when perhaps as many as 90 percent of all plant and animal species died out. The reason is not known for sure, but many scientists believe that huge volcanic outpourings of lavas in central Siberia, coupled with an asteroid impact, were joint contributing factors.
Extent of Pleistocene Epoch Glaciation
During the Pleistocene epoch of the Quaternary Ice Age, glaciers (represented on map in white) covered much of the Earth’s northern hemisphere. Ice Ages consist of glacial periods and warmer interglacial periods. Although the Pleistocene, the Earth’s most recent glacial event, ended 10,000 years ago, many scientists believe that the Earth remains in an interglacial state of the Quaternary Ice Age.
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The Cenozoic Era, beginning about 65 million years ago, is the period when mammals became the dominant form of life on land. Human beings first appeared in the later stages of the Cenozoic Era. In short, the modern world as we know it, with its characteristic geographical features and its animals and plants, came into being. All of the continents that we know today took shape during this era.
A single catastrophic event may have been responsible for this relatively abrupt change from the Age of Reptiles to the Age of Mammals. Most scientists now believe that a huge asteroid or comet struck the Earth at the end of the Mesozoic and the beginning of the Cenozoic eras, causing the extinction of many forms of life, including the dinosaurs. Evidence of this collision came with the discovery of a large impact crater off the coast of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula and the worldwide finding of iridium, a metallic element rare on Earth but abundant in meteorites, in rock layers dated from the end of the Cretaceous Period. The extinction of the dinosaurs opened the way for mammals to become the dominant land animals.The Cenozoic Era is divided into the Tertiary and the Quaternary periods. The Tertiary Period lasted from about 65 million to about 1.8 million years ago. The Quaternary Period began about 1.8 million years ago and continues to the present day. These periods are further subdivided into epochs, such as the Pleistocene, from 1.8 million to 10,000 years ago, and the Holocene, from 10,000 years ago to the present.
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Early in the Tertiary Period, Pangaea was completely disassembled, and the modern continents were all clearly outlined. India and other continental masses began colliding with southern Asia to form the Himalayas. Africa and a series of smaller microcontinents began colliding with southern Europe to form the Alps. The Tethys Ocean was nearly closed and began to resemble today’s Mediterranean Sea. As the Tethys continued to narrow, the Atlantic continued to open, becoming an ever-wider ocean. Iceland appeared as a new island in later Tertiary time, and its active volcanism today indicates that seafloor spreading is still causing the country to grow.
Late in the Tertiary Period, about 6 million years ago, humans began to evolve in Africa. These early humans began to migrate to other parts of the world between 2 million and 1.7 million years ago.
The Quaternary Period marks the onset of the great ice ages. Many times, perhaps at least once every 100,000 years on average, vast glaciers 3 km (2 mi) thick invaded much of North America, Europe, and parts of Asia. The glaciers eroded considerable amounts of material that stood in their paths, gouging out U-shaped valleys. Anatomically modern human beings, known as Homo sapiens, became the dominant form of life in the Quaternary Period. Most anthropologists (scientists who study human life and culture) believe that anatomically modern humans originated only recently in Earth’s 4.6-billion-year history, within the past 200,000 years. See also Human Evolution.
With the rise of human civilization about 8,000 years ago and especially since the Industrial Revolution in the mid-1700s, human beings began to alter the surface, water, and atmosphere of Earth. In doing so, they have become active geological agents, not unlike other forces of change that influence the planet. As a result, Earth’s immediate future depends to a great extent on the behavior of humans. For example, the widespread use of fossil fuels is releasing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and threatens to warm the planet’s surface. This global warming could melt glaciers and the polar ice caps, which could flood coastlines around the world and many island nations. In effect, the carbon dioxide that was removed from Earth’s early atmosphere by the oceans and by primitive plant and animal life, and subsequently buried as fossilized remains in sedimentary rock, is being released back into the atmosphere and is threatening the existence of living things. See also Global Warming.
Even without human intervention, Earth will continue to change because it is geologically active. Many scientists believe that some of these changes can be predicted. For example, based on studies of the rate that the seafloor is spreading in the Red Sea, some geologists predict that in 200 million years the Red Sea will be the same size as the Atlantic Ocean is today. Other scientists predict that the continent of Asia will break apart millions of years from now, and as it does, Lake Baikal in Siberia will become a vast ocean, separating two landmasses that once made up the Asian continent.
In the far, far distant future, however, scientists believe that Earth will become an uninhabitable planet, scorched by the Sun. Knowing the rate at which nuclear fusion occurs in the Sun and knowing the Sun’s mass, astrophysicists (scientists who study stars) have calculated that the Sun will become brighter and hotter about 3 billion years from now, when it will be hot enough to boil Earth’s oceans away. Based on studies of how other Sun-like stars have evolved, scientists predict that the Sun will become a red giant, a star with a very large, hot atmosphere, about 7 billion years from now. As a red giant the Sun’s outer atmosphere will expand until it engulfs the planet Mercury. The Sun will then be 2,000 times brighter than it is now and so hot it will melt Earth’s rocks. Earth will end its existence as a burnt cinder. See also Sun.
Three billion years is the life span of millions of human generations, however. Perhaps by then, humans will have learned how to journey beyond the solar system to colonize other planets in the Milky Way Galaxy and find another place to call “home.”
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Alan V. Morgan