Created by PatrickNoonan about 6 years ago
Earliest atmosphereThe first atmosphere would have consisted of gases in the solar nebula, primarily hydrogen. In addition there would probably have been simple hydrides such as are now found in gas-giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn, notably water vapor, methane and ammonia. As the solar nebula dissipated these gases would have escaped, partly driven off by the solar wind.
Second atmosphereThe next atmosphere, consisting largely of nitrogen plus carbon dioxide and inert gases, was produced by outgassing from volcanism, supplemented by gases produced during the late heavy bombardment of Earth by huge asteroids. A major part of carbon dioxide emissions were soon dissolved in water and built up carbonate sediments.
Water-related sediments have been found dating from as early as 3.8 billion years ago. About 3.4 billion years ago, nitrogen was the major part of the then stable "second atmosphere". An influence of life has to be taken into account rather soon in the history of the atmosphere, since hints of early life forms are to be found as early as 3.5 billion years ago. The fact that this is not perfectly in line with the 30% lower solar radiance (compared to today) of the early Sun has been described as the "faint young Sun paradox"
The geological record however shows a continually relatively warm surface during the complete early temperature record of the Earth with the exception of one cold glacial phase about 2.4 billion years ago. In the late Archaean eon an oxygen-containing atmosphere began to develop, apparently from photosynthesizing algae (see Great Oxygenation Event) which have been found as stromatolite fossils from 2.7 billion years ago. The early basic carbon isotopy (isotope ratio proportions) is very much in line with what is found today,suggesting that the fundamental features of the carbon cycle were established as early as 4 billion years ago.
Third atmosphere Oxygen content of the atmosphere over the last billion years. Free oxygen did not exist in the atmosphere until about 1.8 billion years ago during the Great Oxygenation Event and its appearance is indicated by the end of the banded iron formations. Before this time, any oxygen produced by photosynthesis was consumed by oxidation of reduced materials, notably iron. Molecules of free oxygen did not start to accumulate in the atmosphere until the rate of production of oxygen began to exceed the availability of reducing materials. This point signifies a shift from a reducing atmosphere to an oxidizing atmosphere. O2 showed major ups and downs until reaching a steady state of more than 15% by the end of the Precambrian.The following time span was the Phanerozoic eon, during which oxygen-breathing metazoan life forms began to appear. The amount of oxygen in the atmosphere has varied over the last 600 million years. Around 280 million years ago the amount of oxygen peaked around 30%, significantly higher than today's 21%. Two main processes govern changes in the atmosphere: Plants use carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, releasing oxygen. Breakdown of pyrite and volcanic eruptions release sulfur into the atmosphere, which oxidizes and hence reduces the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere. However, volcanic eruptions also release carbon dioxide, which plants can convert to oxygen. The exact cause of the variation of the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere is not known. Periods with much oxygen in the atmosphere are associated with rapid development of animals. Today's atmosphere contains 21% oxygen, which is high enough for this rapid development of animals.
This animation shows the buildup of tropospheric CO2 in the Northern Hemisphere with a maximum around May. The maximum in the vegetation cycle follows, occurring in the late summer. Following the peak in vegetation, the drawdown of atmospheric CO2 due to photosynthesis is apparent, particularly over the boreal forests.
Currently, anthropogenic greenhouse gases are accumulating in the atmosphere, which is the main cause of global warming.
Evolution of Earth's atmosphere
The Stages of Earth's Atmosphere