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Gheorghe Asachi Technical University of Iai Faculty of Civil Engineering and Building Services

Geological history of Earth


Ana Maria urcanu
Civil Engineering, teaching in English, group 3412

1. INTRODUCTION
The geological history of Earth is believed to have begun 4.567 billion years ago, when the planets of the Solar System were formed out of the solar nebula, a diskshaped mass of dust and gas left over from the formation of the Sun. 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 soon afterwards, possibly as the result of a Mars-sized object, known as Orpheus or Theia, impacting the Earth in a glancing blow. Some of this object's mass merged with the Earth and a part was ejected into space, but enough material was left to form an orbiting moon. Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice delivered by comets, produced the oceans. As the surface continually reshaped itself over hundreds of millions of years, continents formed and separated. The continents migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750 Ma (million years ago), the earliest-known supercontinent Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia, 600540 Ma, then finally Pangaea, which broke apart 180 Ma.

2. THE PREGEOLOGIC PERIOD


Particles in the solar nebula condensed to form solid particles, and with increasing electrostatic and gravitational influences they eventually clumped together into fragments of rock. One of these planetesimals developed into the Earth. The constituent metallic elements sank toward the centre of the mass, while lighter elements rose toward the top. The lightest ones (such as hydrogen and helium) that might have formed the primordial atmosphere, probably escaped into outer space.

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In these earliest stages of terrestrial cretion, heat was generated by three possible phenomena: the decay of short-lived radioactive isotopes, the gravitational energy released from the sinking of metals, or the impact of small planetary bodies. The increase in temperature became sufficient to heat the entire planet. Melting at depth produced liquids that were gravitationally light and thus rose toward the surface and crystallized to form the earliest crust. Meanwhile, heavier liquids rich in iron, nickel, and perhaps sulfur separated out and sank under gravity, giving rise to the core of the growing planet; and the lightest volatile elements were able to rise and escape by outgassing, which may have been associated with surface volcanic activity, to form the secondary atmosphere and the oceans. The earliest thin crust was probably unstable and so foundered and collapsed to depth. This in turn generated more gravitational energy, which enabled a thicker, more stable, longer-lasting crust to form. Once the Earths interior (or its mantle) was hot and liquid, it would have been subjected to large-scale convection, which may have enabled oceanic crust to develop above upwelling regions. Rapid recycling of crustmantle material occurred in convection cells, and in this way the earliest terrestrial continents may have evolved during the 700-million-year gap between the formation of the Earth and the beginning of the rock record. An exciting discovery was made in 1983 by William Compston and his research group at the Australian National University with the aid of an ion microprobe. Compston and his associates found that a water-laid clastic sedimentary quartzite from Mount Narryer in western Australia contained detrital zircon grains that were 4.18 billion years old. In 1986 they further discovered that one zircon in a conglomerate only 60 kilometres away was 4.276 billion years old; 16 other grains were determined to be the same age or slightly younger. This is the oldest dated material on Earth. The rocks from which the zircons in the quartzites and conglomerates were derived have either disappeared or have not yet been found. The ages of these single zircon grains are significantly older than those of the oldest known intact rocks, which are granites discovered near the Great Slave Lake in northwestern Canada.

Geological history of Earth

3. DEVELOPEMENT OF THE ATMOSPHERE AND OCEANS


3.1 Formation of the secondary atmosphere The Earths secondary atmosphere began to develop at the time of planetary differentiation (chemical process of melting, separation of material, and outgassing), probably in connection with volcanic activity. Its component gases, however, were most likely very different from those emitted by modern volcanoes. The composition of the early secondary atmosphere was quite distinct from that of todays atmosphere. Carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, water vapour, and methane predominated; however, free oxygen could not have been present, since even modern volcanic gases contain no oxygen. It is therefore assumed that the secondary atmosphere during the Archean - the time of the oldest known rocks, was anoxygenic. The free oxygen that makes up the bulk of the present atmosphere evolved over geologic time by two possible processes. First, solar ultraviolet radiation would have provided the energy needed to break up water vapour into hydrogen, which escaped into space, and free oxygen, which remained in the atmosphere. This process was in all likelihood important before the appearance of the oldest extant rocks, but after that time the second process, organic photosynthesis, became predominant. Primitive organisms, such as blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), cause carbon dioxide and water to react by photosynthesis to produce carbohydrates, which they need for growth, repair, and other vital functions, and this reaction releases free oxygen. The discovery of stromatolites (layered or conical sedimentary structures formed by sediment-binding marine algae) in 3.5 billion year old limestones in several parts of the world indicates that blue-green algae existed by that time. The presence of such early carbonate sediments is evidence that carbon dioxide was present in the atmosphere, and it has been calculated that it was at least 100 times greater than the amount in the present-day atmosphere. It can be assumed that such abundant carbon dioxide would have caused retention of heat, resulting in a greenhouse effect and a hot atmosphere. What happened to all the oxygen that was released? It might be surprising to learn that it took at least 1 billion years before there was sufficient oxygen in the atmosphere for oxidative diagenesis to give rise to red beds (sandstones that are predominantly red in colour due to fully oxidized iron coating individual grains) and that 2.2 billion years passed before a large number of life-forms could evolve. An idea formulated by the American paleontologist Preston Cloud has been widely accepted as an answer to this question. The earliest primitive organisms produced free oxygen as a by-product, and in the absence of oxygen-mediating enzymes it

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was harmful to their living cells and had to be removed. Fortunately for the development of life on the early Earth there was extensive volcanic activity, which resulted in the deposition of much lava, the erosion of which released enormous quantities of iron into the oceans. This ferrous iron is water-soluble and therefore could be easily transported, but it had to be converted to ferric iron, which is highly insoluble, before it could be precipitated as iron formations. In short, the organisms produced the oxygen and the iron formations accepted it. Iron formations can be found in the earliest sediments (those deposited 3.8 billion years ago) at Isua in West Greenland, and thus this process must have been operative by this time. Early Precambrian iron formations are so thick and common that they provide the major source of the worlds iron. Large quantities of iron continued to be deposited until about 2 billion years ago, after which time the formations decreased and disappeared from the sedimentary record. Sulfides also accepted oxygen in the early oceans to be deposited as sulfates in evaporites, but such rocks are easily destroyed. One finds, nonetheless, 3.5 billion year old barite/gypsum-bearing evaporites up to 15 metres thick and at least 25 kilometres in extent in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. It seems likely that the excess iron in the early oceans was finally cleared out by about 1.7 billion years ago, and this decrease in the deposition of iron formations resulted in an appreciable rise in the oxygen content of the atmosphere, which in turn enabled more eolian red beds to form. Further evidence of the lack of oxygen in the early atmosphere is provided by detrital uraninite and pyrite and by paleosols - fossil soils. Detrital uraninite and pyrite are readily oxidized in the presence of oxygen and thus do not survive weathering processes during erosion, transport, and deposition in an oxygenous atmosphere. Yet, these minerals are well preserved in their original unoxidized state in conglomerates that have been dated to be more than 2.2 billion years old on several continents. Fossils of eukaryotes, which are organisms that require an oxygen content of about 0.02 PAL (present atmospheric level), bear witness to the beginning of oxidative metabolism. The first microscopic eukaryotes appeared about 1.4 billion years ago. Life-forms with soft parts, such as jellyfish and worms, developed in profusion, albeit locally, toward the end of the Precambrian about 650 million years ago, and it is estimated that this corresponds to an oxygen level of 0.1 PAL. By the time land plants first appeared, roughly 400 million years ago, atmospheric oxygen levels had reached their present values.

Geological history of Earth

3.2 Development of the oceans

Volcanic degassing of volatiles, including water vapour, occurred during the early stages of crustal formation and gave rise to the atmosphere. When the surface of the Earth had cooled to below 100 C (212 F), the hot water vapour in the atmosphere would have condensed to form the early oceans. The existence of 3.5 billion year old stromatolites is, as noted before, evidence of the activity of blue-green algae, and this fact indicates that the Earths surface must have cooled to below 100 C by this time. Also, the presence of pillow structures in basalts of this age attests to the fact that these lavas were extruded under water, and this probably occurred around volcanic islands in the early ocean. The abundance of volcanic rocks of Archean age (3.8 to 2.5 billion years ago) is indicative of the continuing role of intense volcanic degassing, but since the early Proterozoic (from 2.5 billion years ago), much less volcanic activity has occurred. Until about 2 billion years ago there was substantial deposition of iron formations, cherts, and various other chemical sediments, but from roughly that time onward the relative proportions of different types of sedimentary rock and their mineralogy and trace element compositions have been very similar to their Phanerozoic equivalents; it can be inferred from this relationship that the oceans achieved their modern chemical characteristics and sedimentation patterns from approximately 2 billion years ago. By the late Precambrian, 1 billion years ago, ferric oxides were chemically precipitated, indicating the availability of free oxygen. During Phanerozoic time (the last 542 million years), the oceans have been steady-state chemical systems, continuously reacting with the minerals added to them via drainage from the continents and with volcanic gases at the oceanic ridges. 4. CONCLUSIONS
Geological history of Earth provides primary evidence for plate tectonics, the history of life and evolution, and past climates. In modern times, is publicly important for the prediction and understanding of natural hazards, the remediation of environmental problems, and plays an essential role in geotechnical engineering and earthquake engineering.

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References: 1. 2. 3.
Brian Frederick Windley, Geologic history of Earth, Encyclopdia Britannica; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geological_history_of_Earth; en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geology.