The origin of the Earth Earth science for schools by Moorland School

The origin of the Earth

The age of the Earth was once, and still is, a matter great debate. In 1650 Archbishop Ussher used the Bible to calculate that the Earth was created in 4004BC. Later on in the mid-nineteenth century Charles Darwin believed that the Earth must be extremely old because he recognised that natural selection and evolution required vast amounts of time.

It wasn't until the discovery of radioactivity that scientists began to put a timescale on the history of the Earth. Rocks often contain heavy radioactive elements which decay over long periods of time, the decay is unaffected by the physical and chemical conditions and different elements decay at different rates (These rates are slow and half-lifes of several hundred million years are not uncommon)

Throughout this century the race has been on to discover the oldest rocks in the world. The oldest volcanic rock found so far has been dated at 3.75 billion years old, but this is not the whole story. Meteorites created at the same time as the Earth hit us all the time, radioactive dating shows that they are about 4.55 billion years old.

THE EARLY ATMOSPHERE

The present composition of the atmosphere is: 21% OXYGEN
78% NITROGEN
0.04% CARBON DIOXIDE
~0.9% ARGON

The atmosphere wasn't like this when the Earth was created over 4 billion years ago.

THE FIRST BILLION YEARS

The Earth's surface was originally molten, as it cooled the volcanoes belched out massive amounts of CARBON DIOXIDE, STEAM, AMMONIA and METHANE. There was NO OXYGEN. The STEAM condensed to form water which then produced shallow seas.

Evidence points to bacteria flourishing  3.8 billion years ago so this means that life got under way about 700 million years after the Earth was created. Such early forms of life existed in the shallow oceans close to thermal vents, these vents were a source of heat and minerals.

THE NEXT BILLION YEARS

These primitive life forms then took the next evolutionary step and started to PHOTOSYNTHESISE (using sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water to food energy and oxygen). This was an important turning point in Earth history because the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was being converted to oxygen.

These green plants went on producing oxygen (and removing the CO2).
Most of the carbon from the carbon dioxide in the air became locked up in sedimentary rocks as carbonates and fossil fuels. Carbon dioxide also dissolved into the oceans.
The ammonia and methane in the atmosphere reacted with the oxygen.
Nitrogen gas was released, partly from the reaction between ammonia and oxygen, but mainly from living organisms such as denitrifying bacteria. (remember that nitrogen is a very unreactive gas and it has built up slowly).

THE LAST 2 BILLION YEARS OR SO

As soon as the oxygen was produced by photosynthesis it was taken out again by reacting with other elements (such as iron).This continued until about 2.1 billion years ago when the concentration of oxygen increased markedly. As oxygen levels built up and then . . . . . .

VIPThe ozone layer was formed which started to filter out harmful ultraviolet rays. This allowed the evolution of new living organisms in the shallow seas.

GO TO THE EARTH ORIGIN TEST

Click here for an animated history of the Earth.
Click here for the Museum of Paleontology: History of life on Earth .
Click here for a history behind the discovery of plate tectonics.

Back to the Earth Science zone        Forward to Earth Structure

• The Rock Cycle 
• Plate Tectonics
• Earth Structure
• Earth Origin
• Volcanoes
• Earth's Atmosphere
• Fossil Fuels
• Polymers
• home

Moorland School
Clitheroe,
Lancashire
BB7 2AJ
England
email