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The Evolution and Current Composition of the Atmospheres of Earth and Mars

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       The Evolution and Current Composition of the Atmospheres of

                Earth and Mars

The essay begins by looking at the birth of our solar system and formation of Mars and Earth. The origins of the atmospheres of the two planets are considered and attention then turns to the early atmospheres themselves. Regarding Mars, predominance is given to the mechanisms responsible for the removal of the planets atmosphere. This is mainly because its early removal precluded further evolution. Consideration is then given to the evolution of Earth’s atmosphere from the Hadean, through the Archean and Proterozoic. Due emphasis is placed on the appearance of life in the Archean and its effect on atmospheric chemistry. The essay ends by looking at the two planets present day atmospheres.

Mars is a terrestrial or ‘Earthlike’ planet composed of rocks and metals and was formed in much the same way as the Earth, by the accretion of planetesimals by gravitational attraction during the birth of our solar system 4.5 billion years ago. Two processes could have formed the early atmospheres of Earth and Mars. During the “Heavy Bombardment” period Earth and Mars were frequently struck by large amounts of residual material which had escaped earlier accretion.

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There is no compelling reason to suspect that Mars’s atmosphere was any different to Earth in terms of reduction properties and also offers another plausible explanation for the disappearance of water from the surface of Mars. By the same processes that occurred on Earth, the hydrogen and oxygen fractions of water would have been split, the hydrogen being lost to space and the oxygen locked up in the surface rocks. The heavily oxidised surface rocks give Mars its characteristic red colour. Another possibility is that due to Mars’s small size and weaker internal heat engine than Earth’s, there was no system of plate tectonics cooling the mantle relative to the core creating convection currents to keep its dynamo turning. The solar wind is powerful enough to strip away atmospheres. It is prevented from doing so on Earth by the magnetic field, which deflects the solar wind around and behind the planet. Scientists havepredicted that the solar wind stripped away Mars’s atmosphere during the planets first two billion years.

Archean photosynthetic organisms on Earth started removing atmospheric CO² and producing oxygen, but oxygen levels did not build up for a considerable time (Fig 2).

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GRIBBIN, J., 1995. Structure of the Earth’s atmosphere. New Scientist, 148, 1-4.

Héctor, J.D.M., (2001). The Evolution of Mars Atmosphere in Post-Noachian Epochs (online). Depto. de Física Espacial, Instituto de Geofísica, UNAM. Available from:

http://ariel.igeofcu.unam.mx/~hdurand/bolinvcien/volumen1/atmosmarte1.html (Accessed 20 Feb 2002).

JAKOSKY, B.M. AND PHILLIPS, R.J., 2001. Mars’ volatile and climate history. Nature, 412, 237-244.

LOVELOCK, J., 1991. Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine. London: Gaia Books.

LOVELOCK, J., 1995. The Ages of Gaia. 2ndedition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mars Acadamy (2001). Atmosphere (online). Available from: http://www.marsacademy.com/geolo5.htm#Atmosphere

(Accessed 20 Feb 2002).

MORTON, O., 1999. Mystery of the missing atmosphere.  New Scientist, 164, 34-38.

PRESS, F. AND SIEVER, R., 2001. Understanding Earth. 3rdedition. New York: Freeman.

SAMUEL, E., 2001. The day the dynamo died – With no magnetic field, Mars lost its atmosphere and chance of life. New Scientist, 169, 4.

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, (2001). Solar Wind (online). Available from: http://www.windows.ucar.edu/tour/link=/glossary/solar_wind.html

(Accessed 20 Feb 2002).

University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, (2001). Volcanic Gasses and the Origin of the Atmosphere (online). Available from: http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/Gases/origin.html

(Accessed 20 Feb 2002).

University of Michigan (1996). Evolution of the Atmosphere: Structure and Composition (online). Available from: http://www.sprl.umich.edu/GCL/paper_to_html/evolut_clim.html

(Accessed 20 Feb 2002).


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