Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
The geological history of Earth began 4.567 billion years ago, when the planets of the Solar System were formed out of the solar nebula, a disk-shaped 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 with about 10 percent of the Earth’s mass, known as Theia, impacting the Earth in a glancing blow. Some of this object’s mass merged with the Earth and a portion was ejected into space, but enough material survived 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 broke up. The continents migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750 Ma (million years ago) (ICS 2004), the earliest known supercontinent Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia, 600–540 Ma (ICS 2004), then finally Pangaea, which broke apart 180 Ma (ICS 2004).
The present pattern of ice ages began about 40 Ma (ICS 2004), then intensified during the Pleistocene about 3 Ma (ICS 2004). 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.
The geological history of the Earth can be broadly classified into two periods: the Precambrian supereon and the Phanerozoic eon.
Precambrian includes approximately 90 percent of geologic time. It extends from 4.6 billion years ago to the beginning of the Cambrian Period (about 570 Ma). It includes 3 eons namely:
During Hadean time (4.6 – 3.8 bya), the Solar System was forming, probably within a large cloud of gas and dust around the sun, called an accretion disc. The Hadean Eon isn’t formally recognized, but it essentially marks the era before there were any rocks. The oldest dated zircons date from about 4400 Ma (ICS 2004) – very close to the hypothesized time of the Earth’s formation.
During the Hadean period the Late Heavy Bombardment occurred (approximately 3800 to 4100 Ma) 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.
The Earth of the early Archean (3.8-2.5 bya) 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 cratonization and continent formation until the mantle cooled and convection slowed down. Others argue that the sub continental 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. Carbonate rocks are rare, indicating that the oceans were more acidic due to dissolved carbon dioxide than during the Proterozoic. 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 arcs and deposited in a forearc basin. In short, greenstone belts represent sutured protocontinents.
The geologic record of the Proterozoic (2.5-0.57 bya) is much better 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. Study of these rocks show that the eon featured massive, rapid continental accretion (unique to the Proterozoic), supercontinent cycles, and wholly-modern orogenic activity.
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.
The Phanerozoic Eon is the current eon in the geologic timescale. It covers roughly 545 million years. During the period covered, 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.
The Paleozoic spanned from roughly 542 Ma (ICS 2004) to roughly 251 Ma (ICS 2004), 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 Palaeozoic, 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.
The Cambrian is a major division of the geologic timescale that begins about 542 ± 1.0 Ma (ICS 2004). 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 towards the South Pole. Panthalassa covered most of the southern hemisphere, and minor oceans included the Proto-Tethys Ocean, Iapetus Ocean, and Khanty Ocean.
The Ordovician period started at a major extinction event called the Cambrian-Ordovician extinction events some time about 488.3 ± 1.7 Ma (ICS 2004). 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 towards Laurentia later in the period, causing the Iapetus Ocean to shrink between them. Also, Avalonia broke free from Gondwana and began to head north towards 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 went extinct. The only larger one was the Permian-Triassic extinction event. The extinctions occurred approximately 444-447 Ma (ICS 2004) 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.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, which 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.
The Silurian is a major division of the geologic timescale that started about 443.7 ± 1.5 Ma (ICS 2004). During the Silurian, Gondwana continued a slow southward drift to high southern latitudes, but there is evidence that the Silurian icecaps were less extensive than those of the late Ordovician glaciation. The melting of icecaps and glaciers contributed to a rise in sea level, 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.
The Devonian spanned roughly from 416 to 359 Ma (ICS 2004). The period was a time of great tectonic activity, as Laurasia and Gondwanaland 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).
The Carboniferous extends from about 359.2 ± 2.5 Ma (ICS 2004), to about 299.0 ± 0.8 Ma (ICS 2004). 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 Gondwanaland 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. 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. In the same time frame, much of present eastern Eurasian plate welded itself to Europe along the line of the Ural mountains. During the Late Carboniferous Pangaea was shaped like an “O.” There were two major oceans in the Carboniferous – Panthalassa and Paleo-Tethys, which was inside the “O” in the Carboniferous Pangaea. 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.
The Permian extends from about 299.0 ± 0.8 Ma (ICS 2004) to 251.0 ± 0.4 Ma (ICS 2004). 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.
The Mesozoic extended roughly from 251 Ma (ICS 2004) to 65 Ma (ICS 2004). 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.
The Triassic period extends from about 251 ± 0.4 to 199.6 ± 0.6 Ma (ICS 2004). 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 Triassic—especially late in the period—but had not yet separated. The first nonmarine sediments in the rift that marks the initial break-up of Pangea—which separated New Jersey from Morocco—are of Late Triassic age; in the U.S., these thick sediments comprise the Newark Group. 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.
The Jurassic period extends from about 199.6 ± 0.6 Ma (ICS 2004) to 145.4 ± 4.0 Ma (ICS 2004). 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. 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. In contrast, the North American Jurassic record is the poorest of the Mesozoic, with few outcrops at the surface.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. Important Jurassic exposures are also found in Russia, India, South America, Japan, Australasia, and the United Kingdom.
The Cretaceous period extends from about 145.5 ± 4.0 Ma (ICS 2004) to about 65.5 ± 0.3 Ma (ICS 2004). 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 andIndian 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. The Cretaceous is justly famous for its chalk; indeed, more chalk formed in the Cretaceous than in any other period in the Phanerozoic.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 nannoplankton.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.
The Cenozoic era covers the 65.5 million years since the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction event. The Cenozoic era is ongoing. 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 also 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.
The Paleogene (alternatively Palaeogene) period is a unit of geologic time that began 65.5 ± 0.3 and ended 23.03 ± 0.05 Ma (ICS 2004) 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 65.5 ± 0.3 Ma (ICS 2004) to 55.8 ± 0.2 Ma (ICS 2004). 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.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 Gondwanaland continued to split apart, with Africa, South America, Antarctica and Australia pulling away from each other. Africa was heading north towards 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 (55.8 ± 0.2 – 33.9 ± 0.1 Ma (ICS 2004)), 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 mya, 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 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, folding the Himalayas into existence.
- Oligocene Epoch: The Oligocene epoch extends from about 34 Ma (ICS 2004) to 23 Ma (ICS 2004). 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 sometime in the Oligocene, South America was finally detached from Antarctica and drifted north towards North America. It also allowed the Antarctic Circumpolar Current to flow, rapidly cooling the continent.
Neogene Period is a unit of geologic time starting 23.03 ± 0.05 Ma (ICS 2004). The Neogene Period follows the Paleogene Period. Under the current proposal of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS), the Neogene would consist of the Miocene, Pliocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene epochs and continue until the present.[26
- Miocene Epoch: The Miocene extends from about 23.03 to 5.332 Ma (ICS 2004). 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, although South America was approaching the western subduction zone in the Pacific Ocean, causing both the rise of the Andes and a southward extension of the Meso-American peninsula. India continued to collide with Asia, creating more mountain ranges. 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 (known as the Messinian salinity crisis) near the end of the Miocene.
- Pliocene Epoch: The Pliocene extends from 5.332 Ma (ICS 2004) to 1.806 Ma (ICS 2004). During the Pliocene continents continued to drift toward their present positions, moving from positions possibly as far as 250 kilometers (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 Ma (the start the of the Quaternary Period), the current ice age began.
- Pleistocene Epoch: The Pleistocene extends from 1,808,000 to 11,550 years before present (ICS 2004). 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 kilometers (62 mi) relative to each other since the beginning of the period. The sum of transient factors acting at the Earth’s surface is cyclical: climate, ocean currents and other movements, wind currents, temperature, etc. The waveform response comes from the underlying cyclical motions of the planet, which eventually drag all the transients into harmony with them. The repeated glacial advances of the Pleistocene were caused by the same factors.
- Holocene Epoch: The Holocene epoch began approximately 11,550 calendar years before present (ICS 2004) and continues to the present. During the Holocene, continental motions have been less than a kilometer. However, ice melt caused world sea levels to rise about 35 meters (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 meters (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 the Scandinavia region resulted in the formation of the Baltic Sea. 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.
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Originally published by New World Encyclopedia, 05.26.2017, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.