The Earth is thought to have been formed about 4.6 billion years ago by collisions in the giant disc-shaped cloud of material that also formed the Sun. Gravity slowly gathered this gas and dust together into clumps that became asteroids and small early planets called planetesimals. These objects collided repeatedly and gradually got bigger, building up the planets in the Solar System, including the Earth.

The details of how the Earth formed are still being worked out. Scientists study meteorites and the oldest rocks on Earth to understand what happened in these earliest times in the Solar System. They also observe other solar systems in our galaxy, the Milky Way.

Image: Artwork showing the early Earth (credit: Walter Myers/SPL)

The Earth forms

The history of the Earth encompasses the development of the planet Earth from its formation to the present day. Nearly all branches of natural science have contributed to the understanding of the main events of the Earth’s past. The age of Earth is approximately one-third of the age of the universe. An immense amount of biological and geological change has occurred in that time span.

Earth formed around 4.54 billion (4.54×109) years ago by accretion from the solar nebula. Volcanic outgassing likely created the primordial atmosphere, but it contained almost no oxygen and would have been toxic to humans and most modern life. Much of the Earth was molten because of extreme volcanism and frequent collisions with other bodies. One very large collision is thought to have been responsible for tilting the Earth at an angle and forming the Moon. Over time, such cosmic bombardments ceased, allowing the planet to cool and form a solid crust. Water that was brought here by comets and asteroids condensed into clouds and the oceans took shape. Earth was finally hospitable to life, and the earliest forms that arose enriched the atmosphere with oxygen. Life on Earth remained small and microscopic for at least one billion years. About 580 million years ago, complex multicellular life arose, and during the Cambrian period it experienced a rapid diversification into most major phyla. Around six million years ago, the primate lineage that would lead to chimpanzees (the closest relatives of humans) diverged from the lineage that would lead to modern humans.

Biological and geological change has been constantly occurring on our planet since the time of its formation. Organisms continuously evolve, taking on new forms or going extinct in response to an ever-changing planet. The process of plate tectonics has played a major role in the shaping of Earth’s oceans and continents, as well as the life they harbor. The biosphere, in turn, has had a significant effect on the atmosphere and other abiotic conditions on the planet, such as the formation of the ozone layer, the proliferation of oxygen, and the creation of soil. Though humans are unable to perceive it due to their relatively brief life spans, this change is ongoing and will continue for the next few billion years.

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