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Physics LibreTexts

8: Earth as a Planet

Airless worlds in our solar system seem peppered with craters large and small. Earth, on the other hand, has few craters, but a thick atmosphere and much surface activity. Although impacts occurred on Earth at the same rate, craters have since been erased by forces in the planet’s crust and atmosphere. What can the comparison between the obvious persistent cratering on so many other worlds, and the different appearance of Earth, tell us about the history of our planet?

As our first step in exploring the solar system in more detail, we turn to the most familiar planet, our own Earth. The first humans to see Earth as a blue sphere floating in the blackness of space were the astronauts who made the first voyage around the Moon in 1968. For many people, the historic images showing our world as a small, distant globe represent a pivotal moment in human history, when it became difficult for educated human beings to view our world without a global perspective. In this chapter, we examine the composition and structure of our planet with its envelope of ocean and atmosphere. We ask how our terrestrial environment came to be the way it is today, and how it compares with other planets.

  • 8.1: The Global Perspective
    Earth is the prototype terrestrial planet. Its interior composition and structure are probed using seismic waves. Such studies reveal that Earth has a metal core and a silicate mantle. The outer layer, or crust, consists primarily of oceanic basalt and continental granite. A global magnetic field, generated in the core, produces Earth’s magnetosphere, which can trap charged atomic particles.
  • 8.2: Earth's Crust
    Terrestrial rocks can be classified as igneous, sedimentary, or metamorphic. A fourth type, primitive rock, is not found on Earth. Our planet’s geology is dominated by plate tectonics, in which crustal plates move slowly in response to mantle convection. The surface expression of plate tectonics includes continental drift, recycling of the ocean floor, mountain building, rift zones, subduction zones, faults, earthquakes, and volcanic eruptions of lava from the interior.
  • 8.3: Earth's Atmosphere
    The atmosphere has a surface pressure of 1 bar and is composed primarily of \(N_2\) and \(O_2\), plus such important trace gases as \(H_2O\), \(CO_2\), and \(O_3\). Its structure consists of the troposphere, stratosphere, mesosphere, and ionosphere. Changing the composition of the atmosphere also influences the temperature. Atmospheric circulation (weather) is driven by seasonally changing deposition of sunlight. Many longer term climate variations, such as the ice ages, are related to changes i
  • 8.4: Life, Chemical Evolution, and Climate Change
    Life originated on Earth at a time when the atmosphere lacked \(O_2\) and consisted mostly of \(CO_2\). Later, photosynthesis gave rise to free oxygen and ozone. Modern genomic analysis lets us see how the wide diversity of species on the planet are related to each other. \(CO_2\) and methane in the atmosphere heat the surface through the greenhouse effect; today, increasing amounts of atmospheric \(CO_2\) are leading to the global warming of our planet.
  • 8.5: Cosmic Influences on the Evolution of Earth
    Earth, like the Moon and other planets, has been influenced by the impacts of cosmic debris, including such recent examples as Meteor Crater and the Tunguska explosion. Larger past impacts are implicated in some mass extinctions, including the large impact 65 million years ago at the end of the Cretaceous period that wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species. Today, astronomers are working to predict the next impact in advance, while other scientists are coming to grips with the effect of i
  • 8.E: Earth as a Planet (Exercises)

Thumbnail: This image, taken from the International Space Station in 2006, shows a plume of ash coming from the Cleveland Volcano in the Aleutian Islands. Although the plume was only visible for around two hours, such events are a testament to the dynamic nature of Earth’s crust. (credit: modification of work by NASA)

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