Geological history of Earth

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Geologic time represented in a diagram called a geological clock, showing the relative lengths of the eons of Earth's history and noting major events Geologic Clock with events and periods.svg
Geologic time represented in a diagram called a geological clock, showing the relative lengths of the eons of Earth's history and noting major events

The geological history of Earth follows the major events in Earth's past based on the geological time scale, a system of chronological measurement based on the study of the planet's rock layers (stratigraphy). Earth formed about 4.54 billion years ago by accretion from the solar nebula, a disk-shaped mass of dust and gas left over from the formation of the Sun, which also created the rest of the Solar System.

Chronological dating, or simply dating, is the process of attributing to an object or event a date in the past, allowing such object or event to be located in a previously established chronology. This usually requires what is commonly known as a "dating method". Several dating methods exist, depending on different criteria and techniques, and some very well known examples of disciplines using such techniques are, for example, history, archaeology, geology, paleontology, astronomy and even forensic science, since in the latter it is sometimes necessary to investigate the moment in the past in which the death of a cadaver occurred.

Stratigraphy The study of rock layers and their formation

Stratigraphy is a branch of geology concerned with the study of rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification). It is primarily used in the study of sedimentary and layered volcanic rocks. Stratigraphy has two related subfields: lithostratigraphy and biostratigraphy.

Age of the Earth Scientific dating of the age of the Earth

The age of the Earth is estimated to be 4.54 ± 0.05 billion years (4.54 × 109 years ± 1%). This age may represent the age of the Earth's accretion, of core formation, or of the material from which the Earth formed. This dating is based on evidence from radiometric age-dating of meteorite material and is consistent with the radiometric ages of the oldest-known terrestrial and lunar samples.

Contents

Earth was initially molten due to extreme volcanism and frequent collisions with other bodies. Eventually, the outer layer of the planet cooled to form a solid crust when water began accumulating in the atmosphere. The Moon formed soon afterwards, possibly as a result of the impact of a planetoid with the Earth. Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice delivered from comets, produced the oceans.

Volcanism phenomena and processes associated with the action of volcanos, geysers and fumaroles

Volcanism is the phenomenon of eruption of molten rock (magma) onto the surface of the Earth or a solid-surface planet or moon, where lava, pyroclastics and volcanic gases erupt through a break in the surface called a vent. It includes all phenomena resulting from and causing magma within the crust or mantle of the body, to rise through the crust and form volcanic rocks on the surface.

Crust (geology) The outermost solid shell of a rocky planet, dwarf planet, or natural satellite

In geology, the crust is the outermost solid shell of a rocky planet, dwarf planet, or natural satellite. It is usually distinguished from the underlying mantle by its chemical makeup; however, in the case of icy satellites, it may be distinguished based on its phase.

Moon Earths natural satellite

The Moon is an astronomical body that orbits the Earth as its only permanent natural satellite. It is the fifth-largest satellite in the Solar System, and the largest among planetary satellites relative to the size of the planet that it orbits. The Moon is, after Jupiter's satellite Io, the second-densest satellite in the Solar System among those whose densities are known.

As the surface continually reshaped itself over hundreds of millions of years, continents formed and broke apart. They migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750  million years ago, the earliest-known supercontinent Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia, 600 to 540 million years ago , then finally Pangaea, which broke apart 200  million years ago.

Plate tectonics The scientific theory that describes the large-scale motions of Earths lithosphere

Plate tectonics is a scientific theory describing the large-scale motion of seven large plates and the movements of a larger number of smaller plates of the Earth's lithosphere, since tectonic processes began on Earth between 3.3 and 3.5 billion years ago. The model builds on the concept of continental drift, an idea developed during the first decades of the 20th century. The geoscientific community accepted plate-tectonic theory after seafloor spreading was validated in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Supercontinent Landmass comprising more than one continental core, or craton

In geology, a supercontinent is the assembly of most or all of Earth's continental blocks or cratons to form a single large landmass. However, many earth scientists use a different definition: "a clustering of nearly all continents", which leaves room for interpretation and is easier to apply to Precambrian times.

Rodinia Hypothetical neoproterozoic supercontinent from between about a billion to about three quarters of a billion years ago

Rodinia was a Neoproterozoic supercontinent that assembled 1.1–0.9 billion years ago and broke up 750–633 million years ago. Valentine & Moores 1970 were probably the first to recognise a Precambrian supercontinent, which they named 'Pangaea I'. It was renamed 'Rodinia' by McMenamin & McMenamin 1990 who also were the first to produce a reconstruction and propose a temporal framework for the supercontinent.

The present pattern of ice ages began about 40  million years ago, then intensified at the end of the Pliocene. The polar regions have since undergone repeated cycles of glaciation and thaw, repeating every 40,000–100,000 years. The last glacial period of the current ice age ended about 10,000 years ago.

Ice age Period of long-term reduction in temperature of Earths surface and atmosphere

An ice age is a long period of reduction in the temperature of the Earth's surface and atmosphere, resulting in the presence or expansion of continental and polar ice sheets and alpine glaciers. Earth's climate alternates between ice ages and greenhouse periods, during which there are no glaciers on the planet. Earth is currently in the Quaternary glaciation, known in popular terminology as the Ice Age. Individual pulses of cold climate within an ice age are termed "glacial periods", and intermittent warm periods within an ice age are called "interglacials" or "interstadials", with both climatic pulses part of the Quaternary or other periods in Earth's history.

The Pliocene Epoch is the epoch in the geologic timescale that extends from 5.333 million to 2.58 million years BP. It is the second and youngest epoch of the Neogene Period in the Cenozoic Era. The Pliocene follows the Miocene Epoch and is followed by the Pleistocene Epoch. Prior to the 2009 revision of the geologic time scale, which placed the four most recent major glaciations entirely within the Pleistocene, the Pliocene also included the Gelasian stage, which lasted from 2.588 to 1.806 million years ago, and is now included in the Pleistocene.

Precambrian

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The Precambrian includes approximately 90% of geologic time. It extends from 4.6 billion years ago to the beginning of the Cambrian Period (about 541 Ma). It includes three eons, the Hadean, Archean, and Proterozoic.

Major volcanic events altering the Earth's environment and causing extinctions may have occurred 10 times in the past 3 billion years. [1]

Hadean Eon

Artist's conception of a protoplanetary disc Protoplanetary-disk.jpg
Artist's conception of a protoplanetary disc

During Hadean time (4.64 Ga), the Solar System was forming, probably within a large cloud of gas and dust around the sun, called an accretion disc from which Earth formed 4,500  million years ago. [2] The Hadean Eon is not formally recognized, but it essentially marks the era before we have adequate record of significant solid rocks. The oldest dated zircons date from about 4,400  million years ago. [3] [4] [5]

Earth was initially molten due to extreme volcanism and frequent collisions with other bodies. Eventually, the outer layer of the planet cooled to form a solid crust when water began accumulating in the atmosphere. The Moon formed soon afterwards, possibly as a result of the impact of a large planetoid with the Earth. [6] [7] Some of this object's mass merged with the Earth, significantly altering its internal composition, and a portion was ejected into space. Some of the material survived to form an orbiting moon. More recent potassium isotopic studies suggest that the Moon was formed by a smaller, high-energy, high-angular-momentum giant impact cleaving off a significant portion of the Earth. [8] Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice delivered from comets, produced the oceans. [9]

During the Hadean the Late Heavy Bombardment occurred (approximately 4,100 to 3,800 million years ago ) during which a large number of impact craters are believed to have formed on the Moon, and by inference on Earth, Mercury, Venus and Mars as well.

Archean Eon

The Earth of the early Archean ( 4,000 to 2,500 million years ago ) may have had a different tectonic style. During this time, the Earth's crust cooled enough that rocks and continental plates began to form. Some scientists think because the Earth was hotter, that plate tectonic activity was more vigorous than it is today, resulting in a much greater rate of recycling of crustal material. This may have prevented cratonisation and continent formation until the mantle cooled and convection slowed down. Others argue that the subcontinental lithospheric mantle is too buoyant to subduct and that the lack of Archean rocks is a function of erosion and subsequent tectonic events.

In contrast to the Proterozoic, Archean rocks are often heavily metamorphized deep-water sediments, such as graywackes, mudstones, volcanic sediments and banded iron formations. Greenstone belts are typical Archean formations, consisting of alternating high- and low-grade metamorphic rocks. The high-grade rocks were derived from volcanic island arcs, while the low-grade metamorphic rocks represent deep-sea sediments eroded from the neighboring island rocks and deposited in a forearc basin. In short, greenstone belts represent sutured protocontinents. [10]

The Earth's magnetic field was established 3.5 billion years ago. The solar wind flux was about 100 times the value of the modern Sun, so the presence of the magnetic field helped prevent the planet's atmosphere from being stripped away, which is what probably happened to the atmosphere of Mars. However, the field strength was lower than at present and the magnetosphere was about half the modern radius. [11]

Proterozoic Eon

The geologic record of the Proterozoic ( 2,500 to 541 million years ago ) is more complete than that for the preceding Archean. In contrast to the deep-water deposits of the Archean, the Proterozoic features many strata that were laid down in extensive shallow epicontinental seas; furthermore, many of these rocks are less metamorphosed than Archean-age ones, and plenty are unaltered. [12] Study of these rocks show that the eon featured massive, rapid continental accretion (unique to the Proterozoic), supercontinent cycles, and wholly modern orogenic activity. [13] Roughly 750  million years ago, [14] the earliest-known supercontinent Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia, 600–540 Ma. [4] [15]

The first-known glaciations occurred during the Proterozoic, one began shortly after the beginning of the eon, while there were at least four during the Neoproterozoic, climaxing with the Snowball Earth of the Varangian glaciation. [16]

Phanerozoic Eon

The Phanerozoic Eon is the current eon in the geologic timescale. It covers roughly 541 million years. During this period continents drifted about, eventually collected into a single landmass known as Pangea and then split up into the current continental landmasses.

The Phanerozoic is divided into three eras – the Paleozoic, the Mesozoic and the Cenozoic.

Most of biological evolution occurred during this time period.

Paleozoic Era

The Paleozoic spanned from roughly 542 to 251 million years ago (Ma) [4] and is subdivided into six geologic periods; from oldest to youngest they are the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous and Permian. Geologically, the Paleozoic starts shortly after the breakup of a supercontinent called Pannotia and at the end of a global ice age. Throughout the early Paleozoic, the Earth's landmass was broken up into a substantial number of relatively small continents. Toward the end of the era the continents gathered together into a supercontinent called Pangaea, which included most of the Earth's land area.

Cambrian Period

The Cambrian is a major division of the geologic timescale that begins about 541.0 ± 1.0 Ma. [4] Cambrian continents are thought to have resulted from the breakup of a Neoproterozoic supercontinent called Pannotia. The waters of the Cambrian period appear to have been widespread and shallow. Continental drift rates may have been anomalously high. Laurentia, Baltica and Siberia remained independent continents following the break-up of the supercontinent of Pannotia. Gondwana started to drift toward the South Pole. Panthalassa covered most of the southern hemisphere, and minor oceans included the Proto-Tethys Ocean, Iapetus Ocean and Khanty Ocean.

Ordovician period

The Ordovician period started at a major extinction event called the Cambrian–Ordovician extinction event some time about 485.4 ± 1.9 Ma. [4] During the Ordovician the southern continents were collected into a single continent called Gondwana. Gondwana started the period in the equatorial latitudes and, as the period progressed, drifted toward the South Pole. Early in the Ordovician the continents Laurentia, Siberia and Baltica were still independent continents (since the break-up of the supercontinent Pannotia earlier), but Baltica began to move toward Laurentia later in the period, causing the Iapetus Ocean to shrink between them. Also, Avalonia broke free from Gondwana and began to head north toward Laurentia. The Rheic Ocean was formed as a result of this. By the end of the period, Gondwana had neared or approached the pole and was largely glaciated.

The Ordovician came to a close in a series of extinction events that, taken together, comprise the second-largest of the five major extinction events in Earth's history in terms of percentage of genera that became extinct. The only larger one was the Permian-Triassic extinction event. The extinctions occurred approximately 447 to 444 million years ago [4] and mark the boundary between the Ordovician and the following Silurian Period.

The most-commonly accepted theory is that these events were triggered by the onset of an ice age, in the Hirnantian faunal stage that ended the long, stable greenhouse conditions typical of the Ordovician. The ice age was probably not as long-lasting as once thought; study of oxygen isotopes in fossil brachiopods shows that it was probably no longer than 0.5 to 1.5 million years. [17] The event was preceded by a fall in atmospheric carbon dioxide (from 7000ppm to 4400ppm) which selectively affected the shallow seas where most organisms lived. As the southern supercontinent Gondwana drifted over the South Pole, ice caps formed on it. Evidence of these ice caps have been detected in Upper Ordovician rock strata of North Africa and then-adjacent northeastern South America, which were south-polar locations at the time.

Silurian Period

The Silurian is a major division of the geologic timescale that started about 443.8 ± 1.5 Ma. [4] During the Silurian, Gondwana continued a slow southward drift to high southern latitudes, but there is evidence that the Silurian ice caps were less extensive than those of the late Ordovician glaciation. The melting of ice caps and glaciers contributed to a rise in sea levels, recognizable from the fact that Silurian sediments overlie eroded Ordovician sediments, forming an unconformity. Other cratons and continent fragments drifted together near the equator, starting the formation of a second supercontinent known as Euramerica. The vast ocean of Panthalassa covered most of the northern hemisphere. Other minor oceans include Proto-Tethys, Paleo-Tethys, Rheic Ocean, a seaway of Iapetus Ocean (now in between Avalonia and Laurentia), and newly formed Ural Ocean.

Devonian Period

The Devonian spanned roughly from 419 to 359 Ma. [4] The period was a time of great tectonic activity, as Laurasia and Gondwana drew closer together. The continent Euramerica (or Laurussia) was created in the early Devonian by the collision of Laurentia and Baltica, which rotated into the natural dry zone along the Tropic of Capricorn. In these near-deserts, the Old Red Sandstone sedimentary beds formed, made red by the oxidized iron (hematite) characteristic of drought conditions. Near the equator Pangaea began to consolidate from the plates containing North America and Europe, further raising the northern Appalachian Mountains and forming the Caledonian Mountains in Great Britain and Scandinavia. The southern continents remained tied together in the supercontinent of Gondwana. The remainder of modern Eurasia lay in the Northern Hemisphere. Sea levels were high worldwide, and much of the land lay submerged under shallow seas. The deep, enormous Panthalassa (the "universal ocean") covered the rest of the planet. Other minor oceans were Paleo-Tethys, Proto-Tethys, Rheic Ocean and Ural Ocean (which was closed during the collision with Siberia and Baltica).

Carboniferous Period

The Carboniferous extends from about 358.9 ± 0.4 to about 298.9 ± 0.15 Ma. [4]

A global drop in sea level at the end of the Devonian reversed early in the Carboniferous; this created the widespread epicontinental seas and carbonate deposition of the Mississippian. There was also a drop in south polar temperatures; southern Gondwana was glaciated throughout the period, though it is uncertain if the ice sheets were a holdover from the Devonian or not. These conditions apparently had little effect in the deep tropics, where lush coal swamps flourished within 30 degrees of the northernmost glaciers. A mid-Carboniferous drop in sea-level precipitated a major marine extinction, one that hit crinoids and ammonites especially hard. This sea-level drop and the associated unconformity in North America separate the Mississippian Period from the Pennsylvanian period. [18]

The Carboniferous was a time of active mountain building, as the supercontinent Pangea came together. The southern continents remained tied together in the supercontinent Gondwana, which collided with North America-Europe (Laurussia) along the present line of eastern North America. This continental collision resulted in the Hercynian orogeny in Europe, and the Alleghenian orogeny in North America; it also extended the newly uplifted Appalachians southwestward as the Ouachita Mountains. [19] In the same time frame, much of present eastern Eurasian plate welded itself to Europe along the line of the Ural mountains. There were two major oceans in the Carboniferous the Panthalassa and Paleo-Tethys. Other minor oceans were shrinking and eventually closed the Rheic Ocean (closed by the assembly of South and North America), the small, shallow Ural Ocean (which was closed by the collision of Baltica, and Siberia continents, creating the Ural Mountains) and Proto-Tethys Ocean.

Pangaea separation animation Pangea animation 03.gif
Pangaea separation animation

Permian Period

The Permian extends from about 298.9 ± 0.15 to 252.17 ± 0.06 Ma. [4]

During the Permian all the Earth's major land masses, except portions of East Asia, were collected into a single supercontinent known as Pangaea. Pangaea straddled the equator and extended toward the poles, with a corresponding effect on ocean currents in the single great ocean ( Panthalassa , the universal sea), and the Paleo-Tethys Ocean, a large ocean that was between Asia and Gondwana. The Cimmeria continent rifted away from Gondwana and drifted north to Laurasia, causing the Paleo-Tethys to shrink. A new ocean was growing on its southern end, the Tethys Ocean, an ocean that would dominate much of the Mesozoic Era. Large continental landmasses create climates with extreme variations of heat and cold ("continental climate") and monsoon conditions with highly seasonal rainfall patterns. Deserts seem to have been widespread on Pangaea.

Mesozoic Era

Plate tectonics- 249 million years ago 249 global.png
Plate tectonics- 249  million years ago
Plate tectonics- 290 million years ago 290 global.png
Plate tectonics- 290  million years ago

The Mesozoic extended roughly from 252 to 66 million years ago . [4]

After the vigorous convergent plate mountain-building of the late Paleozoic, Mesozoic tectonic deformation was comparatively mild. Nevertheless, the era featured the dramatic rifting of the supercontinent Pangaea. Pangaea gradually split into a northern continent, Laurasia, and a southern continent, Gondwana. This created the passive continental margin that characterizes most of the Atlantic coastline (such as along the U.S. East Coast) today.

Triassic Period

The Triassic Period extends from about 252.17 ± 0.06 to 201.3 ± 0.2 Ma. [4] During the Triassic, almost all the Earth's land mass was concentrated into a single supercontinent centered more or less on the equator, called Pangaea ("all the land"). This took the form of a giant "Pac-Man" with an east-facing "mouth" constituting the Tethys sea, a vast gulf that opened farther westward in the mid-Triassic, at the expense of the shrinking Paleo-Tethys Ocean, an ocean that existed during the Paleozoic.

The remainder was the world-ocean known as Panthalassa ("all the sea"). All the deep-ocean sediments laid down during the Triassic have disappeared through subduction of oceanic plates; thus, very little is known of the Triassic open ocean. The supercontinent Pangaea was rifting during the Triassicespecially late in the periodbut had not yet separated. The first nonmarine sediments in the rift that marks the initial break-up of Pangeawhich separated New Jersey from Morocco are of Late Triassic age; in the U.S., these thick sediments comprise the Newark Supergroup. [20] Because of the limited shoreline of one super-continental mass, Triassic marine deposits are globally relatively rare; despite their prominence in Western Europe, where the Triassic was first studied. In North America, for example, marine deposits are limited to a few exposures in the west. Thus Triassic stratigraphy is mostly based on organisms living in lagoons and hypersaline environments, such as Estheria crustaceans and terrestrial vertebrates. [21]

Jurassic Period

The Jurassic Period extends from about 201.3 ± 0.2 to 145.0 Ma. [4] During the early Jurassic, the supercontinent Pangaea broke up into the northern supercontinent Laurasia and the southern supercontinent Gondwana; the Gulf of Mexico opened in the new rift between North America and what is now Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula. The Jurassic North Atlantic Ocean was relatively narrow, while the South Atlantic did not open until the following Cretaceous Period, when Gondwana itself rifted apart. [22] The Tethys Sea closed, and the Neotethys basin appeared. Climates were warm, with no evidence of glaciation. As in the Triassic, there was apparently no land near either pole, and no extensive ice caps existed. The Jurassic geological record is good in western Europe, where extensive marine sequences indicate a time when much of the continent was submerged under shallow tropical seas; famous locales include the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site and the renowned late Jurassic lagerstätten of Holzmaden and Solnhofen. [23] In contrast, the North American Jurassic record is the poorest of the Mesozoic, with few outcrops at the surface. [24] Though the epicontinental Sundance Sea left marine deposits in parts of the northern plains of the United States and Canada during the late Jurassic, most exposed sediments from this period are continental, such as the alluvial deposits of the Morrison Formation. The first of several massive batholiths were emplaced in the northern Cordillera beginning in the mid-Jurassic, marking the Nevadan orogeny. [25] Important Jurassic exposures are also found in Russia, India, South America, Japan, Australasia and the United Kingdom.

Cretaceous Period

Plate tectonics- 100 Ma, Cretaceous period 100 global.png
Plate tectonics- 100 Ma, Cretaceous period

The Cretaceous Period extends from circa 145  million years ago to 66  million years ago. [4]

During the Cretaceous, the late Paleozoic-early Mesozoic supercontinent of Pangaea completed its breakup into present day continents, although their positions were substantially different at the time. As the Atlantic Ocean widened, the convergent-margin orogenies that had begun during the Jurassic continued in the North American Cordillera, as the Nevadan orogeny was followed by the Sevier and Laramide orogenies. Though Gondwana was still intact in the beginning of the Cretaceous, Gondwana itself broke up as South America, Antarctica and Australia rifted away from Africa (though India and Madagascar remained attached to each other); thus, the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans were newly formed. Such active rifting lifted great undersea mountain chains along the welts, raising eustatic sea levels worldwide.

To the north of Africa the Tethys Sea continued to narrow. Broad shallow seas advanced across central North America (the Western Interior Seaway) and Europe, then receded late in the period, leaving thick marine deposits sandwiched between coal beds. At the peak of the Cretaceous transgression, one-third of Earth's present land area was submerged. [26] The Cretaceous is justly famous for its chalk; indeed, more chalk formed in the Cretaceous than in any other period in the Phanerozoic. [27] Mid-ocean ridge activity—or rather, the circulation of seawater through the enlarged ridges—enriched the oceans in calcium; this made the oceans more saturated, as well as increased the bioavailability of the element for calcareous nanoplankton. [28] These widespread carbonates and other sedimentary deposits make the Cretaceous rock record especially fine. Famous formations from North America include the rich marine fossils of Kansas's Smoky Hill Chalk Member and the terrestrial fauna of the late Cretaceous Hell Creek Formation. Other important Cretaceous exposures occur in Europe and China. In the area that is now India, massive lava beds called the Deccan Traps were laid down in the very late Cretaceous and early Paleocene.

Cenozoic Era

The Cenozoic Era covers the 66 million years since the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event up to and including the present day. By the end of the Mesozoic era, the continents had rifted into nearly their present form. Laurasia became North America and Eurasia, while Gondwana split into South America, Africa, Australia, Antarctica and the Indian subcontinent, which collided with the Asian plate. This impact gave rise to the Himalayas. The Tethys Sea, which had separated the northern continents from Africa and India, began to close up, forming the Mediterranean sea.

Paleogene Period

The Paleogene (alternatively Palaeogene) Period is a unit of geologic time that began 66 and ended 23.03 Ma [4] and comprises the first part of the Cenozoic Era. This period consists of the Paleocene, Eocene and Oligocene Epochs.

Paleocene Epoch

The Paleocene, lasted from 66  million years ago to 56  million years ago. [4]

In many ways, the Paleocene continued processes that had begun during the late Cretaceous Period. During the Paleocene, the continents continued to drift toward their present positions. Supercontinent Laurasia had not yet separated into three continents. Europe and Greenland were still connected. North America and Asia were still intermittently joined by a land bridge, while Greenland and North America were beginning to separate. [29] The Laramide orogeny of the late Cretaceous continued to uplift the Rocky Mountains in the American west, which ended in the succeeding epoch. South and North America remained separated by equatorial seas (they joined during the Neogene); the components of the former southern supercontinent Gondwana continued to split apart, with Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia pulling away from each other. Africa was heading north toward Europe, slowly closing the Tethys Ocean, and India began its migration to Asia that would lead to a tectonic collision and the formation of the Himalayas.

Eocene Epoch

During the Eocene ( 56  million years ago - 33.9  million years ago), [4] the continents continued to drift toward their present positions. At the beginning of the period, Australia and Antarctica remained connected, and warm equatorial currents mixed with colder Antarctic waters, distributing the heat around the world and keeping global temperatures high. But when Australia split from the southern continent around 45 Ma, the warm equatorial currents were deflected away from Antarctica, and an isolated cold water channel developed between the two continents. The Antarctic region cooled down, and the ocean surrounding Antarctica began to freeze, sending cold water and ice floes north, reinforcing the cooling. The present pattern of ice ages began about 40  million years ago.[ citation needed ]

The northern supercontinent of Laurasia began to break up, as Europe, Greenland and North America drifted apart. In western North America, mountain building started in the Eocene, and huge lakes formed in the high flat basins among uplifts. In Europe, the Tethys Sea finally vanished, while the uplift of the Alps isolated its final remnant, the Mediterranean, and created another shallow sea with island archipelagos to the north. Though the North Atlantic was opening, a land connection appears to have remained between North America and Europe since the faunas of the two regions are very similar. India continued its journey away from Africa and began its collision with Asia, creating the Himalayan orogeny.

Oligocene Epoch

The Oligocene Epoch extends from about 34  million years ago to 23  million years ago. [4] During the Oligocene the continents continued to drift toward their present positions.

Antarctica continued to become more isolated and finally developed a permanent ice cap. Mountain building in western North America continued, and the Alps started to rise in Europe as the African plate continued to push north into the Eurasian plate, isolating the remnants of Tethys Sea. A brief marine incursion marks the early Oligocene in Europe. There appears to have been a land bridge in the early Oligocene between North America and Europe since the faunas of the two regions are very similar. During the Oligocene, South America was finally detached from Antarctica and drifted north toward North America. It also allowed the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to flow, rapidly cooling the continent.

Neogene Period

The Neogene Period is a unit of geologic time starting 23.03 Ma. [4] and ends at 2.588 Ma. The Neogene Period follows the Paleogene Period. The Neogene consists of the Miocene and Pliocene and is followed by the Quaternary Period.

Miocene Epoch

The Miocene extends from about 23.03 to 5.333 Ma. [4]

During the Miocene continents continued to drift toward their present positions. Of the modern geologic features, only the land bridge between South America and North America was absent, the subduction zone along the Pacific Ocean margin of South America caused the rise of the Andes and the southward extension of the Meso-American peninsula. India continued to collide with Asia. The Tethys Seaway continued to shrink and then disappeared as Africa collided with Eurasia in the Turkish-Arabian region between 19 and 12 Ma (ICS 2004). Subsequent uplift of mountains in the western Mediterranean region and a global fall in sea levels combined to cause a temporary drying up of the Mediterranean Sea resulting in the Messinian salinity crisis near the end of the Miocene.

Pliocene Epoch

The Pliocene extends from 5.333  million years ago to 2.588  million years ago. [4] During the Pliocene continents continued to drift toward their present positions, moving from positions possibly as far as 250 kilometres (155 mi) from their present locations to positions only 70 km from their current locations.

South America became linked to North America through the Isthmus of Panama during the Pliocene, bringing a nearly complete end to South America's distinctive marsupial faunas. The formation of the Isthmus had major consequences on global temperatures, since warm equatorial ocean currents were cut off and an Atlantic cooling cycle began, with cold Arctic and Antarctic waters dropping temperatures in the now-isolated Atlantic Ocean. Africa's collision with Europe formed the Mediterranean Sea, cutting off the remnants of the Tethys Ocean. Sea level changes exposed the land-bridge between Alaska and Asia. Near the end of the Pliocene, about 2.58  million years ago (the start of the Quaternary Period), the current ice age began. The polar regions have since undergone repeated cycles of glaciation and thaw, repeating every 40,000–100,000 years.

Quaternary Period

Pleistocene Epoch

The Pleistocene extends from 2.588  million years ago to 11,700 years before present. [4] The modern continents were essentially at their present positions during the Pleistocene, the plates upon which they sit probably having moved no more than 100 kilometres (62 mi) relative to each other since the beginning of the period.

Holocene Epoch
Current Earth - without water, elevation greatly exaggerated (click/enlarge to "spin" 3D-globe). Earth dry elevation.stl
Current Earth - without water, elevation greatly exaggerated (click/enlarge to "spin" 3D-globe).

The Holocene Epoch began approximately 11,700 calendar years before present [4] and continues to the present. During the Holocene, continental motions have been less than a kilometer.

The last glacial period of the current ice age ended about 10,000 years ago. [30] Ice melt caused world sea levels to rise about 35 metres (115 ft) in the early part of the Holocene. In addition, many areas above about 40 degrees north latitude had been depressed by the weight of the Pleistocene glaciers and rose as much as 180 metres (591 ft) over the late Pleistocene and Holocene, and are still rising today. The sea level rise and temporary land depression allowed temporary marine incursions into areas that are now far from the sea. Holocene marine fossils are known from Vermont, Quebec, Ontario and Michigan. Other than higher latitude temporary marine incursions associated with glacial depression, Holocene fossils are found primarily in lakebed, floodplain and cave deposits. Holocene marine deposits along low-latitude coastlines are rare because the rise in sea levels during the period exceeds any likely upthrusting of non-glacial origin. Post-glacial rebound in Scandinavia resulted in the emergence of coastal areas around the Baltic Sea, including much of Finland. The region continues to rise, still causing weak earthquakes across Northern Europe. The equivalent event in North America was the rebound of Hudson Bay, as it shrank from its larger, immediate post-glacial Tyrrell Sea phase, to near its present boundaries.

See also

Related Research Articles

The PaleozoicEra is the earliest of three geologic eras of the Phanerozoic Eon. It is the longest of the Phanerozoic eras, lasting from 541 to 251.902 million years ago, and is subdivided into six geologic periods : the Cambrian, Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian. The Paleozoic comes after the Neoproterozoic Era of the Proterozoic Eon and is followed by the Mesozoic Era.

The Phanerozoic Eon is the current geologic eon in the geologic time scale, and the one during which abundant animal and plant life has existed. It covers 541 million years to the present, and began with the Cambrian Period when animals first developed hard shells preserved in the fossil record. Its name was derived from the Ancient Greek words φανερός and ζωή, meaning visible life, since it was once believed that life began in the Cambrian, the first period of this eon. The term "Phanerozoic" was coined in 1930 by the American geologist George Halcott Chadwick (1876–1953). The time before the Phanerozoic, called the Precambrian, is now divided into the Hadean, Archaean and Proterozoic eons.

The Triassic is a geologic period and system which spans 50.6 million years from the end of the Permian Period 251.9 million years ago (Mya), to the beginning of the Jurassic Period 201.3 Mya. The Triassic is the first and shortest period of the Mesozoic Era. Both the start and end of the period are marked by major extinction events.

Laurasia Northern supercontinent that formed part of the Pangaea supercontinent

Laurasia, a portmanteau for Laurentia and Eurasia, was the more northern of two supercontinents that formed part of the Pangaea supercontinent around 335 to 175 million years ago (Mya). It separated from Gondwana 215 to 175 Mya during the breakup of Pangaea, drifting farther north after the split.

Tethys Ocean Mesozoic ocean between Gondwana and Laurasia

The Tethys Ocean, also called the Tethys Sea or the Neotethys, was an ocean during much of the Mesozoic Era located between the ancient continents of Gondwana and Laurasia, before the opening of the Indian and Atlantic oceans during the Cretaceous Period.

Panthalassa Prehistoric superocean that surrounded Pangaea

Panthalassa, also known as the Panthalassic Ocean or Panthalassan Ocean, was the superocean that surrounded the supercontinent Pangaea. During the Paleozoic–Mesozoic transition c. 250 Ma it occupied almost 70% of Earth's surface. Its ocean floor has completely disappeared because of the continuous subduction along the continental margins on its circumference. Panthalassa is also referred to as the Paleo-Pacific or Proto-Pacific because the Pacific Ocean developed from its centre in the Mesozoic to the present.

Geology of Great Britain

The geology of Great Britain is renowned for its diversity. As a result of its eventful geological history, Great Britain shows a rich variety of landscapes across the constituent countries of England, Wales and Scotland. Rocks of almost all geological ages are represented at outcrop, from the Archaean onwards.

Euramerica was a minor supercontinent created in the Devonian as the result of a collision between the Laurentian, Baltica, and Avalonia cratons during the Caledonian orogeny, about 410 million years ago. In the Late Carboniferous, tropical rainforests lay over the equator of Euramerica. A major, abrupt change in vegetation occurred when the climate aridified. The forest fragmented and the lycopsids which dominated these wetlands thinned out, being replaced by opportunistic ferns. There was also a great loss of amphibian diversity and simultaneously the drier climate spurred the diversification of reptiles.

Avalonia A microcontinent in the Paleozoic era

Avalonia was a microcontinent in the Paleozoic era. Crustal fragments of this former microcontinent underlie south-west Great Britain, southern Ireland, and the eastern coast of North America. It is the source of many of the older rocks of Western Europe, Atlantic Canada, and parts of the coastal United States. Avalonia is named for the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland.

Geology of India Geological origins and structure of India

The geology of India is diverse. Different regions of India contain rocks belonging to different geologic periods, dating as far back as the Eoarchean Era. Some of the rocks are very deformed and altered. Other deposits include recently deposited alluvium that has yet to undergo diagenesis. Mineral deposits of great variety are found in the Indian subcontinent in huge quantity. Even India's fossil record is impressive in which stromatolites, invertebrates, vertebrates and plant fossils are included. India's geographical land area can be classified into the Deccan Traps, Gondwana and Vindhyan.

Paleo-Tethys Ocean An ocean on the margin of Gondwana between the Middle Cambrian and Late Triassic

The Paleo-Tethys or Palaeo-Tethys Ocean was an ocean located along the northern margin of the paleocontinent Gondwana that started to open during the Middle Cambrian, grew throughout the Paleozoic, and finally closed during the Late Triassic; existing for about 400 million years.

South China (continent) An ancient continent that contained todays South and Southeast China, Indochina, and parts of Southeast Asia

South China, also known as South China Craton, South Chinese Craton, or Yangtze Craton, was an ancient continent (craton) that contained today's South and Southeast China, Indochina, and parts of Southeast Asia. South China had been part of past supercontinents, including Rodinia, Pannotia, Gondwana, Pangaea and Laurasia.

Geology of England

The geology of England is mainly sedimentary. The youngest rocks are in the south east around London, progressing in age in a north westerly direction. The Tees-Exe line marks the division between younger, softer and low-lying rocks in the south east and the generally older and harder rocks of the north and west which give rise to higher relief in those regions. The geology of England is recognisable in the landscape of its counties, the building materials of its towns and its regional extractive industries.

Gondwana Neoproterozoic to Carboniferous supercontinent

Gondwana or Gondwanaland was a supercontinent that existed from the Neoproterozoic until the Jurassic.

Pangaea Supercontinent from the late Paleozoic to early Mesozoic eras

Pangaea or Pangea was a supercontinent that existed during the late Paleozoic and early Mesozoic eras. It assembled from earlier continental units approximately 335 million years ago, and it began to break apart about 175 million years ago. In contrast to the present Earth and its distribution of continental mass, much of Pangaea was in the Southern Hemisphere and surrounded by a superocean, Panthalassa. Pangaea was the most recent supercontinent to have existed and the first to be reconstructed by geologists.

The geology of the North Sea describes the geological features such as channels, trenches, and ridges today and the geological history, plate tectonics, and geological events that created them.

This is a list of articles related to plate tectonics and tectonic plates.

A paleocontinent or palaeocontinent is a distinct area of continental crust that existed as a major landmass in the geological past. There have been many different landmasses throughout Earth's time. They range in sizes, some are just a collection of small microcontinents while others are large conglomerates of crust. As time progresses and sea levels rise and fall more crust can be exposed making way for larger landmasses. The continents of the past shaped the evolution of organisms on Earth and contributed to the climate of the globe as well. As land masses break apart, species are separated and those that were once the same now have evolved to their new climate. The constant movement of these landmasses greatly determines the distribution of organisms on the Earth's surface. This is evident with how similar fossils are found on completely separate continents. Also, as continents move, mountain building events (orogenies) occur, causing a shift in the global climate as new rock is exposed and then there is more exposed rock at higher elevations. This causes glacial ice expansion and an overall cooler global climate. Which effects the overall global climate trend of the Earth. The movement of the continents greatly affects the overall dispersal of organisms throughout the world and the trend in climate throughout the Earth's history. Examples include Laurentia, Baltica and Avalonia, which collided together during the Caledonian orogeny to form the Old Red Sandstone paleocontinent of Laurussia. Another example includes a collision that occurred during the late Pennsylvanian and early Permian time when there was a collision between the two continents of Tarimsky and Kirghiz-Kazakh. This collision was caused because of their askew convergence when the paleoceanic basin closed.

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Further reading