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Historical perspective[edit]

Plankton inhabit oceans, seas and lakes, and have existed in various forms for at least 2 billion years.[11]
An animation showing the movement of the continents from the separation ofPangaea until the present day.

Earth is estimated to have formed 4.54 billion years ago from the solar nebula, along with the Sun and other planets.[12] The moon formed roughly 20 million years later. Initially molten, the outer layer of the planet cooled, resulting in the solid crust. Outgassing and volcanic activity produced the primordial atmosphere. Condensing water vapor, most or all of which came from ice delivered bycomets, produced the oceans and other water sources.[13] The highly energetic chemistry is believed to have produced a self-replicating molecule around 4 billion years ago.[14]

Continents formed, then broke up and reformed as the surface of Earth reshaped over hundreds of millions of years, occasionally combining to make a supercontinent. Roughly 750 million years ago, the earliest known supercontinent Rodinia, began to break apart. The continents later recombined to form Pannotia which broke apart about 540 million years ago, then finally Pangaea, which broke apart about 180 million years ago.[15]

There is significant evidence that a severe glacial action during the Neoproterozoic era covered much of the planet in a sheet of ice. This hypothesis has been termed the "Snowball Earth", and it is of particular interest as it precedes the Cambrian explosion in which multicellular life forms began to proliferate about 530–540 million years ago.[16]

Since the Cambrian explosion there have been five distinctly identifiable mass extinctions.[17] The last mass extinction occurred some 66 million years ago, 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 66 million years, mammalian life diversified.[18]

Several million years ago, a species of small African ape gained the ability to stand upright.[11] The subsequent advent of human life, and the development of agriculture and further civilization allowed humans to affect the Earth more rapidly than any previous life form, affecting both the nature and quantity of other organisms as well as global climate. By comparison, the Great Oxygenation Event, produced by the proliferation of algae during the Siderian period, required about 300 million years to culminate.

The present era is classified as part of a mass extinction event, the Holocene extinction event, the fastest ever to have occurred.[19][20] Some, such as E. O. Wilson of Harvard University, predict that human destruction of the biosphere could cause the extinction of one-half of all species in the next 100 years.[21] The extent of the current extinction event is still being researched, debated and calculated by biologists.[22]

 

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