Earth is the third planet from the Sun, and the densest and fifth-largest of the eight planets in the Solar System. It is also the largest of the Solar System’s four terrestrial planets. It is sometimes referred to as the world, the Blue Planet, or by its Latin name, Terra.
Earth formed 4.54 billion years ago, and life appeared on its surface within one billion years. The planet is home to millions of species, including humans. Earth’s biosphere has significantly altered the atmosphere and other abiotic conditions on the planet, enabling the proliferation of aerobic organisms as well as the formation of the ozone layer which, together with Earth’s magnetic field, blocks harmful solar radiation, permitting life on land. The physical properties of the Earth, as well as its geological history and orbit, have allowed life to persist during this period. Estimates on how much longer the planet will to be able to continue to support life range from a mere 500 million years, to as long as 2.3 billion years.
Earth’s outer surface is divided into several rigid segments, or tectonic plates, that migrate across the surface over periods of many millions of years. About 71% of the surface is covered by salt water oceans, with the remainder consisting of continents and islands which together have many lakes and other sources of water that contribute to the hydrosphere. Earth’s poles are mostly covered with solid ice (Antarctic ice sheet) or sea ice (Arctic ice cap). The planet’s interior remains active, with a thick layer of relatively solid mantle, a liquid outer core that generates a magnetic field, and a solid iron inner core.
Earth interacts with other objects in space, especially the Sun and the Moon. At present, Earth orbits the Sun once every 366.26 times it rotates about its own axis, which is equal to 365.26 solar days, or one sidereal year. The Earth’s axis of rotation is tilted 23.4° away from the perpendicular of its orbital plane, producing seasonal variations on the planet’s surface with a period of one tropical year (365.24 solar days). Earth’s only known natural satellite, the Moon, which began orbiting it about 4.53 billion years ago, provides ocean tides, stabilizes the axial tilt, and gradually slows the planet’s rotation. Between approximately 3.8 billion and 4.1 billion years ago, numerous asteroid impacts during the Late Heavy Bombardment caused significant changes to the greater surface environment.
Both the mineral resources of the planet and the products of the biosphere contribute resources that are used to support a global human population. These inhabitants are grouped into about 200 independent sovereign states, which interact through diplomacy, travel, trade, and military action. Human cultures have developed many views of the planet, including personification as a deity, a belief in a flat Earth or in the Earth as the center of the universe, and a modern perspective of the world as an integrated environment that requires stewardship.
The earliest Solar System material is dated to 4.5672 ± 0.0006 billion years ago; therefore, it is inferred that the Solar System, including the Earth, must have formed around this time. By about 4.54 billion years ago (within an uncertainty of 1%) the Earth and the other planets in the Solar System had formed by accretion from the solar nebula—a disk of gas and dust left over from the formation of the Sun—in which particles of solid matter clumped together via gravity to gradually create ever larger bodies. This assembly of the Earth through accretion was thus largely completed within 10–20 million years. Initially molten, the outer layer of the planet Earth cooled to form a solid crust when water began accumulating in the atmosphere. The Moon formed shortly thereafter, 4.53 billion years ago.
The current consensus model for the formation of the Moon is the giant impact hypothesis, in which the Moon was created when a Mars-sized object (sometimes called Theia) with about 10% of the Earth’s mass impacted the Earth in a glancing blow. In this model, some of this object’s mass would have merged with the Earth and a portion would have been ejected into space, but enough material would have been sent into orbit to coalesce into the Moon.
Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere of the Earth. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice and liquid water delivered by asteroids and the larger proto-planets, comets, and trans-Neptunian objects produced the oceans. The newly formed Sun was only 70% of its present luminosity, yet evidence shows that the early oceans remained liquid—a contradiction dubbed the faint young Sun paradox. A combination of greenhouse gases and higher levels of solar activity served to raise the Earth’s surface temperature, preventing the oceans from freezing over. By 3.5 billion years ago, the Earth’s magnetic field was established, which helped prevent the atmosphere from being stripped away by the solar wind.
Two major models have been proposed for the rate of continental growth: steady growth to the present-day and rapid growth early in Earth history. Current research shows that the second option is most likely, with rapid initial growth of continental crust followed by a long-term steady continental area. On time scales lasting hundreds of millions of years, the surface continually reshaped as continents formed and broke up. The continents migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750 million years ago (Ma), one of the earliest known supercontinents, Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia, 600–540 Ma, then finally Pangaea, which broke apart 180 Ma.
The atmospheric pressure on the surface of the Earth averages 101.325 kPa, with a scale height of about 8.5 km. It is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with trace amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gaseous molecules. The height of the troposphere varies with latitude, ranging between 8 km at the poles to 17 km at the equator, with some variation resulting from weather and seasonal factors.
Earth’s biosphere has significantly altered its atmosphere. Oxygenic photosynthesis evolved 2.7 billion years ago, forming the primarily nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere of today. This change enabled the proliferation of aerobic organisms as well as the formation of the ozone layer which blocks ultraviolet solar radiation, permitting life on land. Other atmospheric functions important to life on Earth include transporting water vapor, providing useful gases, causing small meteors to burn up before they strike the surface, and moderating temperature. This last phenomenon is known as the greenhouse effect: trace molecules within the atmosphere serve to capture thermal energy emitted from the ground, thereby raising the average temperature. Water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane and ozone are the primary greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere. Without this heat-retention effect, the average surface would be −18 °C, in contrast to the current +15 °C, and life would likely not exist.
|Earth’s Main Plates|
|Plate name||Area 106 km2|
|North American Plate||75.9|
|South American Plate||43.6|
The mass of the Earth is approximately 5.98×1024 kg. It is composed mostly of iron (32.1%), oxygen (30.1%), silicon (15.1%), magnesium (13.9%), sulfur (2.9%), nickel (1.8%), calcium (1.5%), and aluminium (1.4%); with the remaining 1.2% consisting of trace amounts of other elements. Due to mass segregation, the core region is believed to be primarily composed of iron (88.8%), with smaller amounts of nickel (5.8%), sulfur (4.5%), and less than 1% trace elements.
The geochemist F. W. Clarke calculated that a little more than 47% of the Earth’s crust consists of oxygen. The more common rock constituents of the Earth’s crust are nearly all oxides; chlorine, sulfur and fluorine are the only important exceptions to this and their total amount in any rock is usually much less than 1%. The principal oxides are silica, alumina, iron oxides, lime, magnesia, potash and soda. The silica functions principally as an acid, forming silicates, and all the commonest minerals of igneous rocks are of this nature. From a computation based on 1,672 analyses of all kinds of rocks, Clarke deduced that 99.22% were composed of 11 oxides (see the table at right), with the other constituents occurring in minute quantities.
The interior of the Earth, like that of the other terrestrial planets, is divided into layers by their chemical or physical (rheological) properties, but unlike the other terrestrial planets, it has a distinct outer and inner core. The outer layer of the Earth is a chemically distinct silicate solid crust, which is underlain by a highly viscous solid mantle. The crust is separated from the mantle by the Mohorovičić discontinuity, and the thickness of the crust varies: averaging 6 km under the oceans and 30–50 km on the continents. The crust and the cold, rigid, top of the upper mantle are collectively known as the lithosphere, and it is of the lithosphere that the tectonic plates are comprised. Beneath the lithosphere is the asthenosphere, a relatively low-viscosity layer on which the lithosphere rides. Important changes in crystal structure within the mantle occur at 410 and 660 kilometers below the surface, spanning a transition zone that separates the upper and lower mantle. Beneath the mantle, an extremely low viscosity liquid outer core lies above a solid inner core. The inner core may rotate at a slightly higher angular velocity than the remainder of the planet, advancing by 0.1–0.5° per year.
The Earth’s terrain varies greatly from place to place. About 70.8% of the surface is covered by water, with much of the continental shelf below sea level. This equates to 148.94 million sq km (57.51 million sq mi). The submerged surface has mountainous features, including a globe-spanning mid-ocean ridge system, as well as undersea volcanoes, oceanic trenches, submarine canyons, oceanic plateaus and abyssal plains. The remaining 29.2% not covered by water consists of mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other geomorphologies.
The planetary surface undergoes reshaping over geological time periods because of tectonics and erosion. The surface features built up or deformed through plate tectonics are subject to steady weathering from precipitation, thermal cycles, and chemical effects. Glaciation, coastal erosion, the build-up of coral reefs, and large meteorite impacts also act to reshape the landscape.
The continental crust consists of lower density material such as the igneous rocks granite and andesite. Less common is basalt, a denser volcanic rock that is the primary constituent of the ocean floors. Sedimentary rock is formed from the accumulation of sediment that becomes compacted together. Nearly 75% of the continental surfaces are covered by sedimentary rocks, although they form only about 5% of the crust. The third form of rock material found on Earth is metamorphic rock, which is created from the transformation of pre-existing rock types through high pressures, high temperatures, or both. The most abundant silicate minerals on the Earth’s surface include quartz, the feldspars, amphibole, mica, pyroxene and olivine. Common carbonate minerals include calcite (found in limestone) and dolomite.
The pedosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth that is composed of soil and subject to soil formation processes. It exists at the interface of the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Currently the total arable land is 13.31% of the land surface, with only 4.71% supporting permanent crops. Close to 40% of the Earth’s land surface is presently used for cropland and pasture, or an estimated 1.3×107 km2 of cropland and 3.4×107 km2 of pastureland.
The elevation of the land surface of the Earth varies from the low point of −418 m at the Dead Sea, to a 2005-estimated maximum altitude of 8,848 m at the top of Mount Everest. The mean height of land above sea level is 840 m.