Imagine that you are describing planet Earth to someone who has never seen it. How would you describe its appearance? What would you say about it? What things about Earth are typical of all planets? What things are unique?
To describe Earth, you might say that it is the third planet from the Sun in this solar system, and that it is 12,756 kilometers (7,909 miles) in diameter. Someone else might say that Earth is a fragile-looking blue, brown, and white sphere. A third person might say that Earth is the only planet in our system, as far as we know, with life. All of these descriptions are true; they are very different, however, from the descriptions of Earth that someone living in the 1950s or earlier would have given. Before we began to travel into space and to send spacecraft to observe other planets, we did not realize how different, or how similar, our planet was from other planets. And we were so busy examining the details and small regional differences of our world that we did not think about the planet as a whole.
Our knowledge of Earth has been fundamentally changed by the knowledge we have gained about the other planets in the solar system. We have come to realize that, in some ways, Earth is very similar to its nearest neighbors in space. Like all of the other planets in our system, Earth orbits around our star (the Sun). It is the largest of the inner planets, just slightly larger than Venus; and it experiences seasons (as does Mars) due to the tilt of its rotation axis.
Like many other planets in our system, Earth has a natural satellite. We call our single satellite the "Moon" and have used that term to describe all of the other moons in our system, although Earth and its Moon are unusually closer in size than is common. One of the ways in which Earth is similar to its nearest neighbors is that all of the "rocky" planets have been affected by four fundamental geological processes: volcanism, tectonism , erosion, and impact cratering.
The surface of our planet is a battleground between the processes of volcanism and tectonism that create landforms and the process of erosion that attempts to wear away these landforms. Geologically speaking, Earth is a "water-damaged" planet, because water is the dominant agent of erosion on the surface of our world. On planets with little or no atmosphere, erosion of the surface may occur due to other processes, such as impact cratering. On the rocky planets the dominant mechanism of erosion may differ, and the styles or details of the volcanic or tectonic landscape may differ, but the fundamental geological processes remain the same.
Of the four fundamental processes, the one that may be unexpected is impact cratering. In fact, prior to our exploration of the Moon, impact cratering was not considered important to Earth. Those few impact craters identified on Earth were treated as curiosities. Now, after studying the other planets, we realize that impact cratering is an important and continuing process on all planets, including Earth. Impacts from meteorites , comets, and occasionally large asteroids have occurred throughout the history of Earth and have been erased by Earth's dynamic and continuing geology. The formation of an impact crater can significantly affect the geology, atmosphere, and even the biology of our world. For example, scientists believe that an impact that occurred about 65 million years ago on the margin of the Yucatan Peninsula was a possible cause of the extinction of the dinosaurs and many other species.
A Uniquely Different PlanetEdit
Although Earth is in some ways a typical rocky planet, several of its most interesting features appear to be unique. For example, a global map of Earth with the ocean water removed shows a very different planet from our neighboring rocky planets. The patterns made by continents, oceans, aligned volcanoes, and linear mountains are the result of the process geologists call plate tectonics.
We know from the study of earthquake waves moving through Earth that our planet is made up of three main layers: the crust, mantle, and core. The upper layer of Earth (consisting of the crust and the upper mantle) is broken into rigid plates that move and interact in various ways. Where plates are moving together or one plate is moving beneath another, mountains such as the Himalayas or explosive volcanoes such as the Cascades are formed. Where plates are moving apart, such as along the mid-oceanic ridges, new crust is formed by the slow eruption of lava. Where two plates slide along each other, such as the San Andreas Fault zone in California, major earthquakes occur. The movement of the plates is caused by the convection of the mantle beneath them; that convection is driven by the planet's internal heat, derived from radioactive decay of certain elements. Similarly, rotation and convection in the fluid metallic outer core is responsible for Earth's uniquely strong magnetic field. Plate tectonics can be thought of as a giant recycling mechanism for Earth's crust.
The concept of plate tectonics is a relatively new idea, and it is central to our understanding of Earth's dynamic geology. Nevertheless, planetary geologists have found no clear evidence of past or present Earth-style plate tectonics on any of the other rocky planets; Earth seems to be unique in this regard.
Earth is also unique in that no other planet in the solar system currently has the proper temperature and atmospheric pressure to maintain liquid water on its surface. Water exists on Earth as gas (water vapor), liquid, and solid (ice), and all three forms are stable at Earth's surface temperature and pressure. Water may be the single most important criteria for life as it has developed on Earth. And the presence of life, in turn, has changed and affected the composition of the atmosphere and the surface of Earth. For example, the rock type limestone would not be possible without marine life, and limestone formation may have significantly altered the distribution of carbon dioxide on Earth.
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