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Earth is the third planet from the Sun and is the largest of the terrestrial planets in the Solar System, in both diameter and mass. Home to the human species, it is also referred to as "the Earth", "Planet Earth", "Gaia", "Terra", "the World", and "the Blue Planet".

The Earth is the only place in the universe known to harbor life. Earth has a magnetic field that, together with a primarily nitrogen-oxygen atmosphere, protects the surface from cosmic radiation that is harmful to life. The oxygen-rich atmosphere also serves as a shield that causes smaller meteors to burn up before they strike the Earth's surface.

Image of the Earth from Space


Scientists have been able to reconstruct detailed information about the planet's past. Earth and the other planets in the Solar System formed 4.57 billion years ago[1] out of the solar nebula, a disk-shaped mass of dust and gas left over from the formation of the Sun. Initially molten, the outer layer of the planet Earth cooled to form a solid crust when water began accumulating in the atmosphere. The Moon formed soon afterwards, possibly as the result of a Mars-sized object with about 10% of the Earth's mass,[2] known as Theia, impacting the Earth in a glancing blow.[3] Some of this object's mass merged with the Earth and a portion was ejected into space, but enough material survived to form an orbiting moon.

Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere. Condensing water vapor, augmented by ice delivered by comets, produced the oceans.[4] The highly energetic chemistry is believed to have produced a self-replicating molecule around 4 billion years ago, and half a billion years later, the last common ancestor of all life existed.[5]

The development of photosynthesis allowed the sun's energy to be harvested directly by life forms; the resultant oxygen accumulated in the atmosphere and resulted in a layer of ozone (a form of oxygen [O3]) in the upper atmosphere. The incorporation of smaller cells within larger ones resulted in the development of complex cells called eukaryotes.[6] True multicellular organisms formed as cells within colonies became increasingly specialized. Aided by the absorption of harmful ultraviolet radiation by the ozone layer, life colonized the surface of Earth.[7]

As the surface continually reshaped itself, over hundreds of millions of years, continents formed and broke up. The continents migrated across the surface, occasionally combining to form a supercontinent. Roughly 750 million years ago (mya), the earliest known supercontinent Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia, 600–540 mya, then finally Pangaea, which broke apart 180 mya.[8]

Since the 1960s, it has been hypothesized that severe glacial action between 750 and 580 mya, during the Neoproterozoic, covered much of the planet in a sheet of ice. This hypothesis has been termed "Snowball Earth", and is of particular interest because it preceded the Cambrian explosion, when multicellular life forms began to proliferate.[9]

Following the Cambrian explosion, about 535 mya, there have been five mass extinctions.[10] The last major extinction event occurred at the end of the Mesozoic Era, approximately 65 mya, when a meteorite collision probably triggered the extinction of the (non-avian) dinosaurs and other large reptiles, but spared small animals such as mammals, which then resembled shrews. Over the past 65 mya, mammalian life has diversified, and several mya, an African ape-like animal gained the ability to stand upright.[11] This enabled tool use and encouraged communication that provided the nutrition and stimulation needed for a larger brain. The development of agriculture, and then civilization, allowed humans to influence the Earth in a short time span as no other life form had,[12] affecting both the nature and quantity of other life forms.

The present pattern of ice ages began about 40 mya, then intensified during the Pleistocene Epoch about 3 mya. The polar regions have since undergone repeated cycles of glaciation and thaw, repeating every 40–100,000 years. The last ice age ended 10,000 years ago.[13]

Composition and structure

Earth is a terrestrial planet, meaning that it is a rocky body, rather than a gas giant such as Jupiter. It is the largest of the four solar terrestrial planets, both in terms of size and total mass. Of these four planets, Earth also has the highest density, the highest surface gravity and the strongest magnetic field.[14]


The Earth's shape is very close to an oblate spheroid—a rounded shape with a bulge around the equator—although the precise shape (the geoid) varies from this by up to 100 metres (327 ft).[15] The average diameter of the reference spheroid is about 12,742 km (7,913 mi). More approximately the distance is 40,000 km/π because the metre was originally defined as 1/10,000,000 of the distance from the equator to the north pole through Paris, France.[16]

The rotation of the Earth creates the equatorial bulge so that the equatorial diameter is 43 km (27 mi) larger than the pole to pole diameter.[17] The largest local deviations in the rocky surface of the Earth are Mount Everest (8,848 m [29,028 ft] above local sea level) and the Mariana Trench (10,911 m [35,798 ft] below local sea level). Hence compared to a perfect ellipsoid, the Earth has a tolerance of about one part in about 584, or 0.17%, which is less than the 0.22% tolerance allowed in billiard balls.[18] Because of the bulge, the feature farthest from the center of the Earth is actually Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador.[19]

Chemical composition

F. W. Clarke's Table of Crust Oxides
Compound Formula Composition
silica SiO2 59.71%
alumina Al2O3 15.41%
lime CaO 4.90%
Magnesia MgO 4.36%
sodium oxide Na2O 3.55%
iron(II) oxide FeO 3.52%
potassium oxide K2O 2.80%
iron(III) oxide Fe2O3 2.63%
water H2O 1.52%
titanium dioxide TiO2 0.60%
phosphorus pentoxide P2O5 0.22%
Total 99.22%

The mass of the Earth is approximately 5.9736 X 1024 kg.[20] It is composed mostly of iron (32.1%), oxygen (30.1%), silicon (15.1%), magnesium (13.9%), sulfur (2.9%), nickel (1.8%), calcium (1.5%), and aluminum (1.4%); with the remaining 1.2% consisting of trace amounts of other elements. Due to mass segregation, the core region is believed to be primarily composed of iron (88.8%), with smaller amounts of nickel (5.8%), sulfur (4.5%), and less than 1% trace elements.[21]

The geochemist F. W. Clarke calculated that a little more than 47% of the earth's crust consists of oxygen. The more common rock constituents of the Earth's crust are nearly all oxides; chlorine, sulfur and fluorine are the only important exceptions to this and their total amount in any rock is usually much less than 1%. The principal oxides are silica, alumina, iron oxides, lime, magnesia, potash and soda. The silica functions principally as an acid, forming silicates, and all the commonest minerals of igneous rocks are of this nature. From a computation based on 1,672 analyses of all kinds of rocks, Clarke deduced that 99.22% were composed of 11 oxides (see the table at right.) All the other constituents occur only in very small quantities.[22]

Internal structure

The interior of the Earth, like that of the other terrestrial planets, is chemically divided into layers. The Earth has an outer silicate solid crust, a highly viscous mantle, a liquid outer core that is much less viscous than the mantle, and a solid inner core. The crust is separated from the mantle by the Mohoroviĝić discontinuity, and the thickness of the crust varies: averaging 6 km under the oceans and 30–50 km on the continents.[23]

The geologic component layers of the Earth[24] are at the following depths below the surface:[25]

Cross-section of the Earth
Depth Layer Density
Kilometres Miles
0–60 0–37 (4) Lithosphere (locally varies between 5 and 200 km)
0–35 0–22 (1) Crust (locally varies between 5 and 70 km) 2.2–2.9
35–60 22–37 Uppermost part of mantle 3.4–4.4
35–2890 22–1790 (2) Mantle 3.4–5.6
100–700 62–435 (5) Asthenosphere
2890–5100 1790–3160 (3a) Outer core 9.9–12.2
5100–6378 3160–3954 (3b) Inner core 12.8–13.1

The internal heat of the planet is most likely produced by the radioactive decay of potassium-40, uranium-238 and thorium-232 isotopes. All three have half-life decay periods of more than a billion years.[26] At the center of the planet, the temperature may be up to 7,000 K and the pressure could reach 360 GPa.[27] A portion of the core's thermal energy is transported toward the crust by Mantle plumes; a form of convection consisting of upwellings of higher-temperature rock. These plumes can produce hotspots and flood basalts.[28]

Tectonic plates

According to plate tectonics theory, which is currently accepted by nearly all of the scientists working in this area, the outermost part of the Earth's interior is made up of two layers: the lithosphere, comprising the crust, and the solidified uppermost part of the mantle. Below the lithosphere lies the asthenosphere, which forms the inner part of the mantle. The asthenosphere behaves like a superheated and extremely viscous liquid.[29]

The lithosphere essentially floats on the asthenosphere and is broken up into what are called tectonic plates. These plates are rigid segments that move in relation to one another at one of three types of plate boundaries: convergent, divergent and transform. The last occurs where two plates move laterally relative to each other, creating a strike-slip fault. Earthquakes, volcanic activity, mountain-building, and oceanic trench formation can occur along these plate boundaries.[30]

The main plates are:[31]

Tectonic Plates
Plate name Area Covering
106 km² 106 mi²
African Plate 61.3 23.7 Africa
Antarctic Plate 60.9 23.5 Antarctica
Australian Plate 47.2 18.2 Australia
Eurasian Plate 67.8 26.2 Asia and Europe
North American Plate 75.9 29.3 North America and north-east Siberia
South American Plate 43.6 16.8 South America
Pacific Plate 103.3 39.9 Pacific Ocean

Notable minor plates include the Indian Plate, the Arabian Plate, the Caribbean Plate, the Nazca Plate off the west coast of South America and the Scotia Plate in the southern Atlantic Ocean. The Australian Plate actually fused with Indian Plate between 50 and 55 million years ago. The fastest-moving plates are the oceanic plates, with the Cocos Plate advancing at a rate of 75 mm/yr[32] (3.0 in/yr) and the Pacific Plate moving 52-69 mm/yr (2.1–2.7 in/yr). At the other extreme, the slowest-moving plate is the Eurasian Plate, progressing at a typical rate of about 21 mm/yr (0.8 in/yr).[33]


The Earth's terrain varies greatly from place to place. About 70.8%[34] of the surface is covered by water, with much of the continental shelf below sea level. The submerged surface has mountainous features, including a globe-spanning mid-ocean ridge system, as well as undersea volcanoes,[17] oceanic trenches, submarine canyons, oceanic plateaus and abyssal plains. The remaining 29.2% not covered by water consists of mountains, deserts, plains, plateaus, and other geomorphologies.

The planetary surface undergoes reshaping over geological time periods due to the effects of tectonics and erosion. The surface features built up or deformed through plate tectonics are subject to steady weathering from precipitation, thermal cycles, and chemical effects. Glaciation, coastal erosion, the build-up of coral reefs, and large meteorite impacts[35] also act to reshape the landscape.

As the continental plates migrate across the planet, the ocean floor is subducted under the leading edges. At the same time, upwellings of mantle material create a divergent boundary along mid-ocean ridges. The combination of these processes continually recycles the ocean plate material. Most of the ocean floor is less than 100 million years in age. The oldest ocean plate is located in the western Pacific, and has an estimated age of about 200 million years. By comparison, the oldest fossils found on land have an age of about 3 billion years.[36][37]

The continental plates consist of lower density material such as the igneous rocks granite and andesite. Less common is basalt, a denser volcanic rock that is the primary constituent of the ocean floors.[38] Sedimentary rock is formed from the accumulation of sediment that becomes compacted together. Nearly 75% of the continental surfaces are covered by sedimentary rocks, although they form only about 5% of the crust.[39] The third form of rock material found on Earth is metamorphic rock, which is created from the transformation of pre-existing rock types through high pressures, high temperatures, or both. The most abundant silicate minerals on the Earth's surface include quartz, the feldspars, amphibole, mica, pyroxene and olivine.[40] Common carbonate minerals include calcite (found in limestone), aragonite and dolomite.[41]

The pedosphere is the outermost layer of the Earth that is composed of soil and subject to soil formation processes. It exists at the interface of the lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere. Currently the total arable land is 13.31% of the land surface, with only 4.71% supporting permanent crops.[42] Close to 40% of the Earth's land surface is presently used for cropland and pasture, or an estimated 3.3 × 109 acres of cropland and 8.4 × 109 acres of pastureland.[43]

The elevation of the land surface of the Earth varies from the low point of −418 m (−1,371 ft) at the Dead Sea, to a 2005-estimated maximum altitude of 8,848 m (29,028 ft) at the top of Mount Everest. The mean height of land above sea level is 686 m (2,250 ft).[44]


Elevation histogram of the surface of the Earth

The abundance of water on Earth surface is a unique feature that distinguishes the "Blue Planet" from others in the solar system. The Earth's hydrosphere consists chiefly of the oceans, but technically includes all water surfaces in the world, including inland seas, lakes, rivers, and underground waters down to a depth of 2,000 m. The deepest underwater location is Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean with a depth of −10,911 m (35,798 ft or 6.78 mi).[45] The average depth of the oceans is 3,794 m (12,447 ft), more than five times the average height of the continents.[44]

The mass of the oceans is approximately 1.35 × 1018 tonnes, or about 1/4400 of the total mass of the Earth, and occupies a volume of 1.386 × 109 km³. If all of the land on Earth were spread evenly, water would rise to an altitude of more than 2.7 km (approximately 1.7 mi).[46] About 97.5% of the water is saline, while the remaining 2.5% is fresh water. The majority of the fresh water, about 68.7%, is currently in the form of ice.[47]

About 3.5% of the total mass of the oceans consists of salt. Most of this salt was released from volcanic activity or extracted from cool, igneous rocks.[48] The oceans are also a reservoir of dissolved atmospheric gases, which are essential for the survival of many aquatic life forms.[49] Sea water has an important influence on the world's climate, with the oceans acting as a large heat reservoir.[50] Shifts in the oceanic temperature distribution can cause significant weather shifts, such as the El Niño-Southern Oscillation.[51]


The atmospheric pressure on the surface of the Earth averages 101.325 kPa, with a scale height of about 6 km. It is 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, with trace amounts of water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gaseous molecules. The atmosphere protects the Earth's life forms by absorbing ultraviolet solar radiation, moderating temperature, transporting water vapor, and providing useful gases.[52]

In a phenomenon known as the greenhouse effect, trace molecules within the atmosphere serve to capture thermal energy emitted from the ground, thereby raising the net temperature. Carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane and ozone are the primary greenhouse gases in the Earth's atmosphere. Without this heat-retention effect, the average surface temperature would be -18°C and life would likely not exist.[34]

Weather and climate

The Earth's atmosphere has no definite boundary, slowly becoming thinner and fading into outer space. Three-quarters of the atmosphere's mass is contained within the first 11 km (about 4 mi) of the planet's surface. This lowest layer is called the troposphere. Energy from the Sun heats this layer, and the surface below, causing expansion of the air. This lower density air then rises, and is replaced by cooler, higher density air. The result is atmospheric circulation that drives the weather and climate through redistribution of heat energy.[53]

The primary atmospheric circulation bands consist of the trade winds in the equatorial region below 30° latitude and the westerlies in the mid-latitudes between 30° and 60°.[54] However, ocean currents are also important factors in determining climate, particularly the thermohaline circulation that distributes heat energy from the equatorial oceans to the polar regions.[55]

Water vapor generated through surface evaporation is transported by circulatory patterns in the atmosphere. When atmospheric conditions permit an uplift of warm, humid air, this water condenses and settles to the surface as precipitation.[53] Most of the water is then transported back to lower elevations by river systems, usually returning to the oceans or being deposited into lakes. This water cycle is a vital mechanism for supporting life on land, and is a primary factor in the erosion of surface features over geological periods. Precipitation patterns vary widely, ranging from several metres of water per year to less than a millimetre. Atmospheric circulation, topological features and temperature differences determine the average precipitation that falls in each region.[56]

The Earth can be sub-divided into specific latitudinal belts of approximately homogeneous climate. Ranging from the equator to the polar regions, these are the tropical (or equatorial), subtropical, temperate and polar climates.[57] Climate can also be classified based on the temperature and precipitation, with the climate regions characterized by fairly uniform masses. The commonly-used Köppen climate classification system (as modified by Wladimir Köppen's student Rudolph Geiger) has five broad groups (humid tropics, arid, humid middle latitudes, continental and cold polar), which are further divided into more specific subtypes.[54]

Upper atmosphere

This view from orbit shows the full Moon partially obscured and deformed by the Earth's atmosphere. NASA image.

Above the troposphere, the atmosphere is usually divided into the stratosphere, mesosphere, and thermosphere.[52] Each of these layers has a different lapse rate, defining the rate of change in temperature with height. Beyond these, the exosphere thins out into the magnetosphere (where the Earth's magnetic fields interact with the solar wind).[58] An important part of the atmosphere for life on Earth is the ozone layer, a component of the stratosphere that partially shields the surface from ultraviolet light. The Kármán line, defined as a 100 km (62 mi) above the Earth's surface, is a working definition for the boundary between atmosphere and space.[59]

Due to thermal energy, some of the molecules at the outer edge of the Earth's atmosphere have their velocity increased to the point where they can escape from the planet's gravity. This results in a slow but steady leakage of the atmosphere into space. Because unfixed hydrogen has a low molecular weight, it can achieve escape velocity more readily and it leaks into outer space at a greater rate.[60] For this reason, the Earth's current environment is oxidizing, rather than reducing, with consequences for the chemical nature of life which developed on the planet. The oxygen-rich atmosphere also preserves much of the surviving hydrogen by locking it up in water molecules.[61]

Magnetic field

The magnetic field is shaped roughly as a magnetic dipole, with the poles currently located proximate to the planet's geographic poles. According to dynamo theory, the field is generated within the molten outer core region where heat creates convection motions of conducting materials, generating electric currents. These in turn produce the Earth's magnetic field. The convection movements in the core are chaotic in nature, and periodically change alignment. This results in a field reversal about once every 700,000 years.[62]

The field forms the magnetosphere, which deflects particles in the solar wind. The sunward edge of the bow shock is located about at 13 times the radius of the Earth. The collision between the magnetic field and the solar wind forms the Van Allen radiation belts, a pair of concentric, torus-shaped regions of energetic charged particles. When the plasma enters the Earth's atmosphere at the magnetic poles, it forms the aurora.[63]

Orbit and rotation

An animation showing the rotation of the Earth.

Relative to the background stars, it takes the Earth, on average, 23 hours, 56 minutes and 4.091 seconds (one sidereal day) to rotate around the axis that connects the north and the south poles.[64] From Earth, the main apparent motion of celestial bodies in the sky (except that of meteors within the atmosphere and low-orbiting satellites) is to the west at a rate of 15°/h = 15'/min. This is equivalent to an apparent diameter of the Sun or Moon every two minutes. (The apparent sizes of the Sun and the Moon are identical.)

Earth orbits the Sun at an average distance of about 150 million kilometres (93.2 million miles) every 365.2564 mean solar days (1 sidereal year). From Earth, this gives an apparent movement of the Sun with respect to the stars at a rate of about 1°/day (or a Sun or Moon diameter every 12 hours) eastward. Because of this motion, on average it takes 24 hours—a solar day—for Earth to complete a full rotation about its axis so that the Sun returns to the meridian. The orbital speed of the Earth averages about 30 km/s (108,000 km/h or 67,000 mi/h), which is fast enough to cover the planet's diameter (about 12,600 km [7,800 mi]) in seven minutes, and the distance to the Moon (384,000 km or 238,000 mi) in four hours.[65]

The Moon revolves with the Earth around a common barycenter every 27.32 days relative to the background stars. When combined with the Earth–Moon system's common revolution around the Sun, the period of the synodic month, from new moon to new moon, is 29.53 days. Viewed from Earth's north pole, the motion of Earth, its moon and their axial rotations are all counterclockwise. The orbital and axial planes are not precisely aligned: Earth's axis is tilted some 23.5 degrees against the Earth–Sun plane (which causes the seasons); and the Earth–Moon plane is tilted about 5 degrees against the Earth-Sun plane (without a tilt, there would be an eclipse every two weeks, alternating between lunar eclipses and solar eclipses).[66][65]

Because of the axial tilt of the Earth, the position of the Sun in the sky (as seen by an observer on the surface) varies over the course of the year. For an observer at a northern latitude, when the northern pole is tilted toward the Sun the day will last longer and the Sun will climb higher in the sky. This results in warmer average temperatures from the increase in solar radiation reaching the surface. When the northern pole is tilted away from the Sun, the reverse is true and the climate is generally cooler. Above the arctic circle, an extreme case is reached where there is no daylight at all for at least part of the year. (This is called a polar night.)

This variation in the climate (because of the direction of the Earth's axial tilt) results in the seasons. By astronomical convention, the four seasons are determined by the solstices—the point in the orbit of maximum axial tilt toward or away from the Sun—and the equinoxes, when the tilt is minimized. Winter solstice occurs on about December 21, summer solstice is near June 21, spring equinox is around March 20 and autumnal equinox is about September 23. The axial tilt in the southern hemisphere is exactly the opposite of the direction in the northern hemisphere. Thus the seasonal effects in the south are reversed.

The angle of the Earth's tilt is relatively stable over long periods of time. However, the tilt does undergo a slight, irregular motion (known as nutation) with a main period of 18.6 years. The orientation (rather than the angle) of the Earth's axis also changes over time, precessing around in a complete circle over each 25,800 year cycle. Both of these motions are caused by the varying attraction of the Sun and Moon on the Earth's equatorial bulge. From the perspective of the Earth, the poles also migrate a few metres across the surface. This polar motion has multiple, cyclical components, which collectively are termed quasiperiodic motion. In addition to an annual component to this motion, there is a 14-month cycle called the Chandler wobble. The rotational velocity of the Earth also varies in a phenomenon known as length of day variation.[67]

In modern times, Earth's perihelion occurs around January 3, and the aphelion around July 4. For other eras, see precession and Milankovitch cycles. Coincidentally, the southern hemisphere is tilted toward the Sun at about the same time that the Earth reaches the closest approach to the Sun. This results in about a 6.9% increase in solar energy reaching the southern hemisphere at perihelion.[68] However, this effect is much less significant than the total energy change due to the axial tilt, and most of the excess energy is absorbed by the higher proportion of water in the southern hemisphere.[69]

The Hill sphere (gravitational sphere of influence) of the Earth is about 1.5 Gm (930,000 miles) in radius.[70][71] This is maximum distance at which the Earth's gravitational influence becomes stronger than the more distant Sun and planets. Objects must orbit the Earth within this radius, or they can become unbound by the gravitational perturbation of the Sun.


Earth was first photographed from space by Explorer 6 in 1959.[72] Yuri Gagarin became the first human to view Earth from space in 1961. The crew of the Apollo 8 was the first to view an earth-rise from lunar orbit in 1968. In 1972 the crew of the Apollo 17 produced the famous "Blue Marble" photograph of the planet Earth (see top of page). NASA archivist Mike Gentry has speculated that "The Blue Marble" is the most widely distributed image in human history.

From space, the Earth can be seen to go through phases similar to the phases of the Moon and Venus. This appearance is caused by light that reflects off the Earth as it moves around the Sun. The phases seen depend upon the observer's location in space, and the rate is determined by their orbital velocity. The phases of the Earth can be simulated by shining light on a globe of the Earth.

An observer on Mars would be able to see the Earth go through phases similar to those that an Earth-bound observer sees the phases of Venus (as discovered by Galileo). However, a fictional observer on the Sun would not see the Earth going through phases. The sun observer would only be able to see the lit side of the earth.


Name Diameter Mass Semi-major axis Orbital period
Moon 3,474.8 km 7.349 kg 384,400 km 27 days, 7 hours, 43.7 minutes
2,159.2 mi 8.1 (short) tons 238,700 mi

The Moon is a relatively large, terrestrial, planet-like satellite, with a diameter about one-quarter of the Earth's. It is the largest moon in the solar system relative to the size of its planet. (Charon is larger relative to the dwarf planet Pluto.) The natural satellites orbiting other planets are called "moons", after Earth's Moon.

The gravitational attraction between the Earth and Moon cause tides on Earth. The same effect on the Moon has led to its tidal locking: its rotation period is the same as the time it takes to orbit the Earth. As a result, it always presents the same face to the planet. As the Moon orbits Earth, different parts of its face are illuminated by the Sun, leading to the lunar phases: The dark part of the face is separated from the light part by the solar terminator.

Because of their tidal interaction, the Moon recedes from Earth at the rate of approximately 38 mm (1.5 in) a year. Over millions of years, these tiny modifications—and the lengthening of Earth's day by about 23 µs a year—add up to significant changes.[73] During the Devonian period, for example, (approximately 410 million years ago) there were 400 days in a year, with each day lasting 21.8 hours.[74]

The Moon may have dramatically affected the development of life by moderating the planet's climate. Paleontological evidence and computer simulations show that Earth's axial tilt is stabilized by tidal interactions with the Moon.[75] Some theorists believe that without this stabilization against the torques applied by the Sun and planets to the Earth's equatorial bulge, the rotational axis might be chaotically unstable, as it appears to be for Mars. If Earth's axis of rotation were to approach the plane of the ecliptic, extremely severe weather could result from the resulting extreme seasonal differences. One pole would be pointed directly toward the Sun during summer and directly away during winter. Planetary scientists who have studied the effect claim that this might kill all large animal and higher plant life.[76] However, this is a controversial subject, and further studies of Mars—which has a similar rotation period and axial tilt as Earth, but not its large moon or liquid core—may settle the matter.

Viewed from Earth, the Moon is just far enough away to have very nearly the same apparent-sized disk as the Sun. The angular size (or solid angle) of these two bodies match because, although the Sun is about 400 times as large as the Moon it is also 400 times more distant. This allows total eclipses and annular eclipses to occur on Earth.

The most widely accepted theory of the Moon's origin, the giant impact theory, states that it formed from the collision of a Mars-size protoplanet with the early Earth. This hypothesis explains (among other things) the Moon's relative lack of iron and volatile elements, and the fact that its composition is nearly identical to that of the Earth's crust.[77]

Earth has at least two co-orbital satellites, the asteroids 3753 Cruithne and 2002 AA29.[78]


A planet that can sustain life is termed habitable, even if life did not originate there. The Earth provides the (currently understood) requisite conditions of liquid water, an environment where complex organic molecules can assemble, and sufficient energy to sustain metabolism.[79] The distance of the Earth from the Sun, as well as its orbital eccentricity, rate of rotation, axial tilt, geological history, sustaining atmosphere and protective magnetic field all contribute to the conditions necessary to originate and sustain life on this planet.[80]


The planet's life forms are sometimes said to form a "biosphere". This biosphere is generally believed to have begun evolving about 3.5 billion years ago. Earth is the only place in the universe (officially recognized by the communities of Earth) where life is absolutely known to exist. Some scientists believe that Earth-like biospheres might be rare.[81]

The biosphere is divided into a number of biomes, inhabited by broadly similar plants and animals. On land primarily latitude and height above the sea level separates biomes. Terrestrial biomes lying within the Arctic, Antarctic Circle or in high altitudes are relatively barren of plant and animal life, while the greatest latitudinal diversity of species is found at the Equator.[82]

Natural resources and land use

The Earth provides resources that are exploitable by humans for useful purposes. Some of these are non-renewable resources, such as mineral fuels, that are difficult to replenish on a short time scale.

Large deposits of Fossil fuels are obtained from the Earth's crust, consisting of coal, petroleum, natural gas and methane clathrate. These deposits are used by humans both for energy production and as feedstock for chemical production. Mineral ore bodies have also been formed in Earth's crust through a process of Ore genesis, resulting from actions of erosion and plate tectonics.[83] These bodies form concentrated sources for many metals and other useful elements.

The Earth's biosphere produces many useful biological products for humans, including (but far from limited to) food, wood, pharmaceuticals, oxygen, and the recycling of many organic wastes. The land-based ecosystem depends upon topsoil and fresh water, and the oceanic ecosystem depends upon dissolved nutrients washed down from the land.[84] Humans also live on the land by using building materials to construct shelters. In 1993, human use of land is approximately:

Land use Percentage
Arable land: 13.13%[42]
Permanent crops: 4.71%[42]
Permanent pastures: 26%
Forests and woodland: 32%
Urban areas: 1.5%
Other: 30%

The estimated amount of irrigated land in 1993 was 2,481,250 km².[42]

Natural and environmental hazards

Large areas are subject to extreme weather such as (tropical cyclones), hurricanes, or typhoons that dominate life in those areas. Many places are subject to earthquakes, landslides, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions, tornadoes, sinkholes, blizzards, floods, droughts, and other calamities and disasters.

Many localized areas are subject to human-made pollution of the air and water, acid rain and toxic substances, loss of vegetation (overgrazing, deforestation, desertification), loss of life, species extinction, soil degradation, soil depletion, erosion, and introduction of invasive species. Human activities are also producing long-term climate alteration due to industrial carbon dioxide emissions. This is expected to produce changes such as the melting of glaciers and Arctic ice, more extreme temperatures, significant changes in weather conditions and a global rise in average sea levels.[85]

Human geography

Earth has approximately 6,600,000,000 human inhabitants.[86][87] Projections indicate that the world's human population will reach seven billion in 2013 and 9.2 billion[88] in 2050. Most of the growth is expected to take place in developing nations. Human population density varies widely around the world, but a majority live in Asia. By 2020, 60% of the world's population is expected to be living in urban, rather than rural, areas.[89]

It is estimated that only one eighth of the surface of the Earth is suitable for humans to live on — three-quarters is covered by oceans, and half of the land area is desert (14%),[90] high mountains (27%),[91] or other less suitable terrain. The northernmost permanent settlement in the world is Alert, on Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada.[92] (82°28′N) The southernmost is the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, in Antarctica, almost exactly at the South Pole. (90°S)

The Earth at night, a composite of DMSP/OLS ground illumination data on a simulated night-time image of the world. This image is not photographic and many features are brighter than they would appear to a direct observer.

Independent sovereign nations claim all of the planet's land surface, with the exception of some parts of Antarctica. As of 2007 there are 201 sovereign states, including the 192 United Nations member states. In addition, there are 59 dependent territories, and a number of autonomous areas, territories under dispute and other entities. Historically, Earth has never had a sovereign government with authority over the entire globe, although a number of nation-states have striven for world domination.

The United Nations is a worldwide intergovernmental organization that was created with the goal of intervening in the disputes between nations, thereby avoiding armed conflict. It is not, however, a world government. While the U.N. provides a mechanism for international law and, when the consensus of the membership permits, armed intervention,[93] it serves primarily as a forum for international diplomacy.

In total, about 400 people have been outside the Earth's atmosphere as of 2004, and, of these, twelve have walked on the Moon. Normally the only humans in space are those on the International Space Station. The station's crew of three people is usually replaced every 6 months.

Human viewpoint

Apollo 8

Earth has often been personified as a deity, in particular a goddess. In many cultures the mother goddess, also called the Earth Mother, is also portrayed as a fertility deity.

To the Greeks, Gaia was the goddess personifying the Earth. The Chinese Earth goddess Hou-T'u[94] is similar to Gaia, the deification of the Earth. In Norse mythology, the Earth goddess Jord was the mother of Thor and the daughter of Annar. Ancient Egyptian mythology is different from that of other cultures because Earth is male, Geb, and sky is female, Nut. To the Aztec, earth was called Tonantzin—"our mother".

Although commonly thought to be a sphere, the Earth is actually an oblate spheroid. It bulges slightly at the equator and is slightly flattened at the poles, amounting to a difference of about 0.3 %. In the ancient past there were varying levels of belief in a flat Earth, with the Mesopotamian culture portraying the world as a flat disk afloat in an ocean. The spherical form of the Earth was suggested by early Greek philosophers; a belief espoused by Pythagoras]]. By the Middle Ages—as evidenced by thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas—European belief in a spherical earth was widespread.[95] Prior to the introduction of space flight, belief in a spherical Earth was based on observations of the secondary effects of the Earth's shape and parallels drawn with the shape of other planets.[96]

Cartography, the study and practice of map making, and vicariously geography, have historically been the disciplines devoted to depicting the Earth. Surveying, the determination of locations and distances, to a lesser extent navigation, the determination of position and direction, have developed alongside cartography and geography, providing and suitably quantifying the requisite information.

The technological developments of the latter half of the 20th century are widely considered to have altered the public's perception of the Earth. Before space flight, the popular image of Earth was of a green world. Science fiction artist Frank R. Paul provided perhaps the first image of a cloudless blue planet (with sharply defined land masses) on the back cover of the July 1940 issue of Amazing Stories, a common depiction for several decades thereafter.[97]

Apollo 17's 1972 "Blue Marble" photograph of Earth from cislunar space became the current iconic image of the planet as a marble of cloud-swirled blue ocean broken by green-brown continents. A photo taken of a distant Earth by Voyager 1 in 1990 inspired Carl Sagan to describe the planet as a "Pale Blue Dot."[98] Earth has also been described as a massive spaceship, with a life support system that requires maintenance,[99] or as having a biosphere that forms one large organism.[100]

Over the past two centuries a growing environmental movement has emerged that is concerned about humankind's effects on the Earth. The key issues of this socio-political movement are the conservation of natural resources, elimination of pollution, and the usage of land. Environmentalists advocate sustainable management of resources and stewardship of the natural environment through changes in public policy and individual behavior. Of particular concern is the large-scale exploitation of non-renewable resources. Changes sought by the environmental movements are often in conflict with commercial interests due to the significant additional costs associated with managing the environmental impact.[101]


The future of the planet is closely tied to that of the Sun. As a result of the steady accumulation of helium ash at the Sun's core, the star's total luminosity will slowly increase. In about 1.1 billion years (1.1 Gyr) the luminosity of the Sun will have increased by another 10%, while reaching 40% after 3.5 Gyr.[102] Climate models indicate that the rise in radiation reaching the Earth is likely to have dire consequences, including the possible loss of the planet's oceans.[103]

The Earth's increasing surface temperature will accelerate the inorganic CO2 cycle, reducing its concentration to the lethal dose for plants (10 ppm for C4 photosynthesis) in 900 million years. But even if the Sun were eternal and stable, the continued internal cooling of the Earth would have resulted in a loss of much of its atmosphere and oceans (due to lower volcanism).[104] More specifically, for Earth's oceans, the lower temperatures in the crust will permit water to leak more deeply into the planet than it does today. After another billion years the surface water will have completely disappeared.[105]

The Sun, as part of its solar lifespan, will expand to a red giant in 5 Gyr. Models predict that the Sun will expand out to about 99% of the distance to the Earth's present orbit (1 astronomical unit, or AU). However, by that time, the orbit of the Earth may have expanded to about 1.7 AUs because of the diminished mass of the Sun. The planet might thus escape envelopment by the expanded Sun's sparse outer atmosphere, though most (if not all) existing life will have been destroyed by the Sun's proximity to the Earth.[102]

See also

Subtopic Links
Art & Imaging Google Earth · Landscape art · World Wind
Astronomy Darwin (ESA) · Terrestrial Planet Finder
Civilization International law · Lexicography of Earth · List of countries · World economy
Ecology Earth Day · Millennium Ecosystem Assessment
Fiction Hollow Earth · Journey to the Center of the Earth · Earth in fiction
Continents · Timezones · Degree Confluence Project · Earthquake · Extremes on Earth · Plate tectonics · Equatorial bulge · Structure of the Earth
History Age of the Earth · Geologic time scale · History of Earth · Human history · Origin and evolution of the solar system · Timeline of evolution


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