Earth is the third planet from the Sun and the fifth largest:
orbit: 149,600,000 km (1.00 AU) from Sun
diameter: 12,756.3 km
mass: 5.972e24 kg
Earth is the only planet whose English name does not derive
from Greek/Roman mythology.
The name derives from Old English and Germanic. There are, of course, hundreds
of other names for the planet in other languages.
Roman Mythology, the goddess of the Earth was Tellus -
the fertile soil (Greek: Gaia,
terra mater - Mother Earth).
It was not until the time of Copernicus (the
sixteenth century) that it
was understood that the Earth is just another planet.
Earth, of course, can be studied without the aid of spacecraft. Nevertheless
it was not
until the twentieth century that we had maps
of the entire planet.
Pictures of the planet taken from space are of considerable importance; for
are an enormous help in weather prediction and especially in tracking and
And they are extraordinarily beautiful.
The Earth is divided into several layers which have distinct chemical
and seismic properties (depths in km):
0- 40 Crust
40- 400 Upper mantle
400- 650 Transition region
650-2700 Lower mantle
2700-2890 D'' layer
2890-5150 Outer core
5150-6378 Inner core
The crust varies considerably in thickness, it is thinner under the oceans,
thicker under the continents. The inner
core and crust are solid; the outer core and mantle layers are plastic or semi-fluid.
The various layers are separated by discontinuities which are evident in seismic data;
the best known of these is the Mohorovicic
discontinuity between the crust and upper mantle.
Most of the mass of the Earth is in the mantle, most of the rest in the core; the part we inhabit
is a tiny fraction of the whole (values below x10^24 kilograms):
atmosphere = 0.0000051
oceans = 0.0014
crust = 0.026
mantle = 4.043
outer core = 1.835
inner core = 0.09675
The core is probably composed mostly of iron (or nickel/iron) though
it is possible that some lighter elements may be present, too.
Temperatures at the center of the
core may be as high as 7500 K, hotter than the surface of the Sun.
The lower mantle is probably mostly silicon, magnesium and oxygen with some
iron, calcium and aluminum.
The upper mantle is mostly olivene and pyroxene
calcium and aluminum.
We know most of this only from seismic techniques; samples from the upper mantle
arrive at the surface as lava from volcanoes but the majority of the Earth is
The crust is primarily quartz (silicon dioxide) and other
silicates like feldspar. Taken as a whole, the Earth's chemical composition
(by mass) is:
The Earth is the densest major body in the
The other terrestrial planets
probably have similar structures and compositions with some differences: the
Moon has at most a small core; Mercury has an extra large core
(relative to its diameter); the mantles of Mars and the Moon are much thicker;
the Moon and Mercury may not have chemically
distinct crusts; Earth may be the only one with distinct inner and outer cores.
Note, however, that our knowledge of planetary interiors is mostly theoretical
even for the Earth.
Unlike the other terrestrial planets,
Earth's crust is divided into several separate solid
plates which float around independently on top of the hot mantle below.
The theory that describes this is known as plate tectonics.
It is characterized by two major processes: spreading and seduction. Spreading
occurs when two plates move away from each other and new crust is created by
upwelling magma from below. Sebuction occurs when
two plates collide and the edge of one dives
beneath the other and ends up being destroyed in the mantle.
There is also transverse motion at some plate boundaries (i.e. the San Andreas
Fault in California) and collisions between continental plates
There are (at present) eight major plates:
There are also twenty or more small plates such as the Arabian, Cocos, and
Philippine Plates. Earthquakes are much more common at the plate boundaries.
Plotting their locations makes it easy to see the plate boundaries (right).
- North American Plate - North America, western North Atlantic and Greenland
- South American Plate - South America and western South Atlantic
- Antarctic Plate - Antarctica and the "Southern Ocean"
- Eurasian Plate - eastern North Atlantic, Europe and Asia except for India
- African Plate - Africa, eastern South Atlantic and western Indian Ocean
- Indian-Australian Plate - India, Australia, New Zealand and
most of Indian Ocean
- Nazca Plate - eastern Pacific Ocean adjacent to South America
- Pacific Plate - most of the Pacific Ocean (and the southern coast of
The Earth's surface is very young.
In the relatively
short (by astronomical standards) period of 500,000,000 years or so
erosion and tectonic processes
destroy and recreate most of the Earth's
surface and thereby eliminate almost all traces of earlier
geologic surface history (such as impact craters).
Thus the very early history of the Earth has mostly been erased.
The Earth is 4.5 to 4.6 billion years old,
but the oldest known rocks are about
4 billion years old and rocks older than 3 billion years are rare.
The oldest fossils of living organisms are less than 3.9 billion years old.
There is no record of the critical period when life was first getting started.
71 Percent of the Earth's surface is covered with water.
Earth is the only planet on which water can exist in liquid form on the surface
(though there may be liquid ethane or methane on Titan's surface and liquid water beneath the surface
Liquid water is, of course, essential for life as we know it.
The heat capacity of the oceans is also very important in keeping the Earth's
temperature relatively stable. Liquid water is also responsible for most of the
erosion and weathering of the Earth's continents, a process unique in the solar
system today (though it may have occurred on Mars in the past).
The Earth's atmosphere is 77% nitrogen,
21% oxygen, with traces of
argon, carbon dioxide and water.
There was probably a very much larger amount of carbon dioxide in the
Earth's atmosphere when the Earth was first formed, but it has since been
almost all incorporated into carbonate
rocks and to a lesser extent dissolved
into the oceans and consumed by living plants. Plate tectonics and biological
maintain a continual flow of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to these
various "sinks" and back again. The tiny amount of carbon
dioxide resident in the atmosphere at any time is extremely
important to the maintenance of the Earth's surface temperature via the greenhouse effect.
The greenhouse effect raises the average surface temperature
about 35 degrees C above what it would otherwise be
(from a frigid -21 C to a comfortable +14 C); without it the oceans
would freeze and life as we know it would be impossible.
The presence of free oxygen is quite remarkable from a chemical point of view.
Oxygen is a very reactive gas and under "normal" circumstances would quickly
combine with other elements.
The oxygen in Earth's atmosphere is produced and maintained by
biological processes. Without life there would be no free oxygen.
The interaction of the Earth and the Moon
slows the Earth's rotation by about 2 milliseconds per century.
Current research indicates that about 900
million years ago there were 481 18-hour days in a year.
Earth has a modest magnetic field produced by electric currents in the outer core.
The interaction of the solar wind,
the Earth's magnetic field
and the Earth's upper atmosphere causes the auroras
(see the Interplanetary Medium).
Irregularities in these factors cause the magnetic poles to move and even reverse relative to the surface; the geomagnetic north pole is
currently located in northern Canada.
(The "geomagnetic north pole" is the position on the Earth's surface directly above the south pole of the Earth's field; see this
The Earth's magnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind also produce the
Van Allen radiation belts, a pair of doughnut shaped rings of ionized
gas (or plasma) trapped in orbit around the Earth. The outer belt stretches from
19,000 km in altitude to 41,000 km; the inner
belt lies between 13,000 km and 7,600 km in altitude.
Earth has only one natural satellite, the Moon. But
- thousands of small artificial satellites have also been placed in orbit around the Earth.
- Asteroids 3753 Cruithne and 2002 AA29
have complicated orbital relationships with the Earth;
they're not really moons, the term "companion" is being used.
It is somewhat similar to the situation with Saturn's
moons Janus and Epimetheus.
- Lilith doesn't exist but it's an interesting story.
Distance Radius Mass
Satellite (000 km) (km) (kg)
--------- -------- ------ -------
Moon 384 1738 7.35e22
- AVHRR images
- Our knowledge of the interior of the Earth is derived almost entirely from
highly indirect evidence. How can we get more information?
- Despite substantial increases in the solar "constant" the average temperature
on the surface of the Earth has remained very stable for several billion years.
The best theory is that this has been accomplished by varying the amount of
carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to regulate the greenhouse effect.
But just how is this done?
The Gaia Hypothesis asserts that the
biosphere actively regulates it. More detailed information about Venus and Mars
may provide clues.
- How much more carbon dioxide can we dump
into the Earth's atmosphere before it ends up like Venus?
04/01/12 02:51:47 PM