Geologic Time - Real-life applications
H OW D O W E K NOW E ARTH'S A GE ?
We can now begin to answer a question almost inevitably raised when discussing geologic time: just how do we know that Earth is about 4.6 billion years old? A clue lies in the half-life of uranium-238, which is 4.47 × 10 9 years, or 4,470 million years. Geologists typically would abbreviate this as 4.47 Ga, the latter referring to "gigayears," a unit of a billion years.
As uranium atoms undergo fission, or splitting, this process releases energy that causes marks, called tracks, to form on the surface of volcanic minerals. In splitting, two daughter atoms shoot away from each other, forming tracks, and thus the rate of track formation is proportional to the rate of decay on the part of the parent isotope.
Incidentally, fission-track dating with uranium-238 defies the statement made earlier that certain types of dating are more suited to long periods of time, while others are best for shorter periods. When heated, the tracks disappear from
Most meteorites found in the solar system tend to be about 4.56 Ga; hence, the rough figure of 4.6 Ga is used for the point at which the solar system, including Earth, began to form. The oldest known materials on Earth are zircon crystals from western Australia, dated about 4.3 Ga. Small samples of gneiss in Canada's Northwest Territories have been dated to about 4.0 Ga, but the oldest large-scale sample is a belt of 3.8 Ga gneiss in western Greenland.
A Q UESTION OF S CALE
Having discussed at least the rudiments of the dating system used by geologists, it is possible to examine geologic time itself. This requires a mental adjustment of monumental proportions, because one must discard all notions used in studying the history of human civilization. Concepts such as medieval, ancient, and prehistoric are practically useless when discussing geologic time, which dwarfs the scale of human events.
Human civilization has existed for about 5,500 years, the blink of an eye in geologic terms. Even the span of time that the human species, Homo sapiens, has existed—about two million years—is negligible in the grand scheme of Earth's history. The latter stretches back some 4,600 million years, meaning that human beings have existed on this Earth for just 0.043% of the planet's history. As discussed in the essay Historical Geology, if the entire history of Earth were likened to a single year, humans would have appeared on the scene at a few minutes after 8:00 p.m. on December 31. Human civilization would date only from about 42 seconds before midnight, and the age of machinery and industrialization would not fill up even the final two seconds of the year.
ANOTHER ANALOGY: LOS ANGELES TO NEW YORK.
When discussing distances in space, astronomers dispense with miles, because they would be useless, given the vastness of the scale involved. The same is true of geologic time, in which the concept of years is hardly relevant. Instead, geologists speak in terms of millions of years, or megayears, abbreviated "Ma." (Geologists also use the much larger unit of a gigayear, to which we have already referred.) To discuss the age of Earth in terms of years, in fact, would be rather like measuring the distance from Los Angeles to New York in feet; instead, of course, we use miles. Now let us consider geologic time in terms of the 2,462 mi. between Los Angeles and New York, with 1 mi. equal to 1.8684 Ma, or 1,868,400 years.
Suppose we have left Los Angeles and driven a good deal of the distance to New York—46% of the way, in fact, to western Nebraska, a spot analogous to the beginning of the Proterozoic era. In the preceding miles, a duration equivalent to about 1,133 Ma, Earth was formed from a cloud of gas, pounded by meteors, and gradually became the home to oceans—but no atmosphere resembling the one we know now. The end of the Proterozoic era (about 545 Ma, or 545 million years ago) would be at about 88% of the distance from Los Angeles to New York—somewhere around Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By this point, the continental plates have been formed, oxygen has entered the atmosphere, and soft-bodied organisms have appeared.
We are a long way from Los Angeles, and yet almost the entire history of life on Earth, at least in terms of relatively complex organisms, lies ahead of us. If we skip ahead by about 339 Ma (a huge leap in terms of biological development), we come to the time when the dinosaurs appeared. We are now 95% of the way from the beginning of Earth's history to the present, and if measured against the distance from Los Angeles to New York, this would put us at a longitude equivalent to that of Baltimore, Maryland. Another 89 mi. would put us at about 65 million years ago, or the point when the dinosaurs became extinct.
We would then have only 33.7 mi. to drive to reach the point where humans appeared, by which time we would be in the middle of Manhattan. Compared with the distance from Los Angeles to New York, the span of human existence would be much smaller than the cab ride from Central Park to the Empire State Building. The entire sweep of written human history, from about a thousand years before the building of the pyramids to the beginning of the third millennium A.D. , would be much smaller than a city block. In fact, it would be about the width of a modest storefront, or 15.54 ft.
T HE V ERY , V ERY D ISTANT P AST
So what happened for all those hundreds of millions of years before humans appeared on the scene? We will attempt to answer that question in an extremely cursory, abbreviated fashion, but for further clarification, the reader is strongly encouraged to consult a chart of geologic time. Such a chart can be found in virtually any earth sciences textbook; indeed, several versions (including a chronostratigraphic chart) may appear in a single book.
In addition to showing geologic time in both absolute and relative terms, these charts typically provide information about the magnetic polarity over a given span, since that has changed many times since Earth came into existence. In other words, what is today the magnetic North Pole was once the magnetic South Pole, and vice versa. (For more on this subject, see the discussion of paleomagnetism in the entries Plate Tectonics and Geomagnetism.)
As one might expect, disagreement between earth scientists is greatest with regard to the most distant phases of Earth's geologic history. This encompasses nearly 90% of all geologic time, dating back to about 545 Ma, thus showing how little geologists know, even today, about the geologic events of the very distant past. For this reason, when discussing Precambrian time, it is usually necessary to consider only the three eons that composed it. Discussion of era and period, on the other hand, is reserved for the three eras, and 11 periods, of the Phanerozoic eon. The smaller division of epoch is generally only of concern with regard to the most recent era, the Cenozoic. As for divisions smaller than an epoch, these will not concern us here.
THE PRECAMBRIAN EONS.
The last paragraph of the preceding section encompasses a number of ideas, which now need to be explained, in at least general terms. The term Precambrian encompasses about four billion years of Earth's history, including three of the four eons (Hadean or Priscoan, Archaean, and Proterozoic) of the planet's existence. The names of these eons are derived from Greek, with the first being taken from the name of the deity who ruled over the Underworld. The latter two are derived, respectively, from the Greek words for beginning and new life.
The Hadean eon (sometimes called the Priscoan) lasted from about 4,560 Ma to 4,000 Ma ago, when the planet was being formed, or accreted, as pieces of solid matter floating around in the young solar system began to join one another. Meteorites showered the planet, bringing both solid matter and water, and thus forming the basis of the oceans. There was no atmosphere as such, but by the end of the eon, volcanic activity had ejected enough carbon dioxide and other substances into the air to form the beginnings of one. The oceans began to cool, making possible the beginnings of life—that is, molecules of carbon-based matter that were capable of replicating themselves. These appeared at the end of the Hadean eon, perhaps arriving from space in a meteorite.
The boundaries of the Precambrian eons are far from certain, so it is possible only to say that the Archaean eon lasted from about 4,000 Ma to 2,500 Ma ago. The earliest known datable materials, described earlier, all come from this time; in fact, outcrops of Archaean rock have been found on all seven continents. The rocks of this eon contain the first clear evidence of life, in the form of microorganisms. Over the course of the Archaean eon, prokaryotes, or cells without a nucleus, made their appearance, and later they were followed by eukaryotes, or cells with a nucleus.
During this great span of time, more than 20% of Earth's history, the atmosphere and hydrosphere developed considerably, even as the biosphere had its true beginnings. As for the geosphere, it also matured enormously in the course of the Archaean eon. During the Hadean eon, Earth's interior had begun to differentiate into core, mantle, and crust, and cooling in the two upper layers influenced the beginnings of the earliest plate-tectonic activity (see Plate Tectonics).
Even longer was the Proterozoic eon, which appears to have lasted from about 2,500 Ma to 545 Ma. This phase saw the beginnings of very basic forms of plant life, such that photosynthesis (the biological conversion of electromagnetic energy from the Sun into chemical energy in plants) began to take place. Plate-tectonic processes accelerated as well, with continents moving about over Earth's surface and smashing against one another. Oxygen in the atmosphere assumed about 4% of its present levels, but animal life still consisted primarily of eukaryotes.
THE PHANEROZOIC ERAS AND PERIODS.
The end of the Proterozoic eon, once again, is not sharply defined in the stratigraphic record, such that there is considerable dispute as to the time periods involved. In any case, it is clear that the pace of development in the biosphere increased dramatically in the Phanerozoic, the eon in which we are now living. During the beginning of the Phanerozoic eon, algae appeared, and there followed an acceleration in the development of living organisms that ultimately produced the varied biosphere we know today.
As noted earlier, the only eras and periods that need concern most students of the earth sciences are those of the Phanerozoic eon. The three eras are as follows:
Eras of the Phanerozoic Eon
- Paleozoic (about 545 to 248.2 Ma)
- Mesozoic (about 248.2 to 65 Ma)
- Cenozoic (about 65 Ma to the present)
Within these eras are the following periods:
Periods of the Paleozoic Era
- Cambrian (about 545 to 495 Ma)
- Ordovician (about 495 to 443 Ma)
- Silurian (about 443 to 417 Ma)
- Devonian (about 417 to 354 Ma)
- Carboniferous (about 354 to 290 Ma)
- Permian (about 290 to 248.2 Ma)
Periods of the Mesozoic Era
- Triassic (about 248.2 to 205.7 Ma)
- Jurassic (about 205.7 to 142 Ma)
- Cretaceous (about 142 to 65 Ma)
Periods of the Cenozoic Era
- Palaeogene (about 65 to 23.8 Ma)
- Neogene (about 23.8 to 1.8 Ma)
- Quaternary (about 1.8 Ma to present)
These divisions, as well as the two most recent epochs of the Quaternary period (Pleistocene and Holocene), are discussed elsewhere in this book. It should be noted that there are variations for many of the eon, era, and period names given here; also, the Palaeogene and Neogene are often grouped together as a subera called the Tertiary. The latter nomenclature fits with a mnemonic device used by geology students memorizing the names of the 11 Phanerozoic periods: "Camels Ordinarily Sit Down Carefully; Perhaps Their Joints Creak Tremendously Quietly."
WHERE TO LEARN MORE
Boggy's Links to Stratigraphy and Geochronology (Web site). <http://geologylinks.freeyellow.com/stratigraphy.html> .
Comprehending Geologic Time (Web site). <http://www.athro.com/geo/hgfr1.html> .
Hancock, Paul L., and Brian J. Skinner. The Oxford Companion to the Earth. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Harris, Nicholas, Alessandro Rabatti, and Andrea Ricciardi. The Incredible Journey to the Beginning of Time. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1998.
"Historical Geology." Georgia Perimeter College (Web site). <http://www.dc.peachnet.edu/~pgore/geology/geo102.htm> .
Lamb, Simon, and David Sington. Earth Story: The Shaping of Our World. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.
MacRae, Andrew. Radiometric Dating and the Geological Time Scale (Web site). <http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/dating.html> .
Reeves, Hubert. Origins: Cosmos, Earth, and Mankind. New York: Arcade, 1998.
Spickert, Diane Nelson, and Marianne D. Wallace. Earth-steps: A Rock's Journey Through Time. Golden, Colo.: Fulcrum Kids, 2000.
UCMP (University of California, Berkeley, Museum of Paleontology) Web Time Machine (Web site). <http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu/help/timeform.html> .