CHAPTER 5: The Universe, Earth, Natural Spheres, and Gaia

(b). Early History of the Earth

Scientists believe the Earth began its life about 4.6 billion years ago. The Earth formed as cosmic dust lumped together to form larger and larger particles until 150 million years had passed. At about 4.4 billion years, the young Earth had a mass similar to the mass it has today. The continents probably began forming about 4.2 billion years ago as the Earth continued to cool. The cooling also resulted in the release of gases from the lithosphere, much of which formed the Earth's early atmosphere. Most of the Earth's early atmosphere was created in the first one million years after solidification (4.4 billion years ago). Carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and water vapor dominated this early atmosphere. Table 5b-1 below describes the three major stages of development of the atmosphere.


Table 5b-1: Evolution of the Earth's atmosphere.

Name of Stage

Duration of Stage
(Billions of Years Ago)

Main Constituents of the Atmosphere

Dominant Processes and Features

Early Atmosphere

4.4 to 4.0

H2O, hydrogen cyanide (HCN), ammonia (NH3), methane (CH4), sulfur, iodine, bromine, chlorine, argon

Lighter gases like hydrogen and helium escaped to space.

All water was held in the atmosphere as vapor because of high temperatures.

Secondary Atmosphere

4.0 to 3.3

At 4.0 billion H2O, CO2, and nitrogen (N) dominant. Cooling of the atmosphere causes precipitation and the development of the oceans.

By 3.0 billion CO2, H2O, N2 dominant. O2 begins to accumulate.

Continued release of gases from the lithosphere.

Water vapor clouds common in the lower atmosphere.

Chemosynthetic bacteria appear on the Earth some time between 3.9 and 3.5 billion years ago. Life begins to modify the atmosphere.

Living Atmosphere

3.3 to Present

N2 - 78%, O2 - 21%, Argon - 0.9%, CO2 - 0.036%

Development, evolution and growth of life increases the quantity of oxygen in the atmosphere from <1% to 21%.

500 million years ago concentration of atmospheric oxygen levels off.

Humans begin modifying the concentrations of some gases in the atmosphere beginning around the year 1700.


As the Earth continued to cool, the water vapor found in the atmosphere condensed to form the oceans and other fresh water bodies on the continents. Oxygen began accumulating in the atmosphere through photo-dissociation of O2 from water, and by way of photosynthesis (life). The emergence of living organisms was extremely important in the creation of atmospheric oxygen and ozone. Without ozone, life could not exist on land because of harmful ultraviolet radiation.

Most of the build up of oxygen in the atmosphere occurred between 2.1 and 1.5 billion years ago as a direct result of photosynthesis from ocean based plants like algae. At about 450 million years ago, there was enough oxygen in the atmosphere to allow for the development of a stratospheric ozone layer that was thick enough to keep terrestrial life protected from ultraviolet radiation. As a result, terrestrial life began its development and expansion at this time. Table 5b-2 describes the timing of the evolutionary development of some of the Earth's dominant forms of life before and after 450 million years before present (BP).


Table 5b-2: Approximate origin time of the major plant and animal groups.

Organism Group

Time of Origin

Marine Invertebrates

570 Million Years Ago


505 Million Years Ago

Land Plants

438 Million Years Ago


408 Million Years Ago


320 Million Years Ago


208 Million Years Ago

Flowering Plants (Angiosperms)

140 Million Years Ago




Study Guide


Additional Readings

Internet Weblinks
Citation: Pidwirny, M. (2006). "Early History of the Earth". Fundamentals of Physical Geography, 2nd Edition. Date Viewed.


Created by Dr. Michael Pidwirny & Scott Jones University of British Columbia Okanagan

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05/07/2009 9:59