I broke the class up into 4 groups of 4, and each group created their own timeline based on a handout.
Groups of students lay out their toilet paper timelines. Post-it notes were used to label the events.
Then, I gave each group a slip of paper with four events on it (one event per student), and they had to race to see which group would be first to get one person to each event on the list. Once each group got themselves sorted out, I took a few minutes to talk about why the events were important and how they were related.
Table 1: The series of events.
1) We’ll be talking about plate tectonics soon, so it’s good for them to start thinking about the timing of the formation and breakup of the supercontinents.
Formation of Rodinia (supercontinent)
Breakup of Rodina
Formation of Pangea
Breakup of Pangea
2) This sequence emphasizes the fact that most free oxygen in the atmosphere comes from ocean plants (plankton especially), and that a lot of free atmospheric oxygen was needed to to form the ozone layer which protected the Earth’s surface from uv radiation, which made the land much more amenable to life. Also, trees came way after first plants and oxygen in the atmosphere.
First life (stromatolites)
Oxygen buildup in atmosphere
First land plants
3) Pointing out that flowering plants came after trees.
First land plants
First flowering plants
4) The Cambrian explosion, where multicellular life really took off, happened pretty late in timeline. Longer after the first life and first single-celled animals.
6) More tectonic events we’ll be talking about later.
Opening of the Atlantic Ocean
Linking of North and South America
India collides with Asia
Opening of the Red Sea
7) Pointing out that life on land probably needed the magnetic field to protect from the solar wind (in addition to the ozone layer).
Formation of the Earth
Formation of the Magnetic Field
First land plants
8) Fish came before insect. This one seemed to stick in students’ minds.
9) Mammals came before the dinosaurs went extinct. This allowed a discussion of theories of why the dinosaurs went extinct (disease, asteroid, mammals eating the eggs, volcanic eruption in Deccan) and how paleontologists might test the theories.
The whole exercise took a few hours but I think it worked out very well. The following day I gave the quiz, posted in the excel file, where they had to figure out which of two events came first, and the students did a decent job at that as well.
This is a great demonstration because as you unroll the toilet paper you get a great feel for the long spans of time in the preCambrian when nothing much happens, and then, as you approach the present, events occur faster and faster. There’s 300 million years between the formation of the Moon and the formation of the Earth’s atmosphere. That’s 60 sheets! while modern man only turns up about 10,000 years ago, which is 0.002 sheets; about the width of the line drawn by a pen. Even the dinosaurs went extinct only 14 sheets from the end.
Joel Cayford has posted a nice image showing the composition of the atmosphere over time — since the formation of the Earth.
Note that, although the Earth is 4.5 billion years old, and life has been around for over 4 billion years, there has only been oxygen in the atmosphere for about 2 billion years.
Oxygen is an extremely reactive gas, which is why we use it when we “burn” carbohydrates for energy. But it also means that any free oxygen added to the atmosphere would easily react with rocks, water, and other gasses in the atmosphere, so would not be available in the quantities needed for air breathing organisms until it slowly accumulated.
Also, you need a lot of oxygen in the atmosphere to produce enough ozone to form the ozone layer that protects life at the surface from high-energy, cancer-inducing, ultra-violet radiation from the Sun.
Looking at the smear slides of Coon Creek Sediment Matrix got me thinking about just how important these little, microscopic shells have been for what we know about the Earth’s past climate. In fact, they provide the background knowledge that we have about the changes in climate that we’re seeing today.
Deep sea drilling vessel, JOIDES Resolution. Image via the National Science Foundation.
Back in the 1970’s the Deep Sea Drilling Project collected a lot of sediment cores from all around the world. The deeper you drill under the sea bed the older the sediments are, so micropaleontologists could look at how the organisms that lived in a certain area changed over time. Certain forams that could only live in warm oceans were found living far to the north. By combining all the information from all the sediment cores, they could construct paleo-geographic maps showing what the climate was like in the far past. It’s one of the reasons we know that the Jurassic climate was a lot warmer than today’s climate.
Then they invented mass spectrometers.
Mass specs can find the mass of individual atoms. Calcium carbonate has the chemical formula CaCO3. Water, as we should know by now, is H2O. They both have oxygen atoms, but not all oxygen atoms are equal; some are more equal. Actually, the mass of any atom is made up of the mass of the protons plus the mass of the neutrons in its nucleus. Now, by definition, any atom with eight protons is oxygen; however, while oxygen usually has eight neutrons, it sometimes has nine or even ten.
Your standard oxygen, with eight protons and eight neutrons has an atomic mass of sixteen, and is written as 16O or oxygen-16. Well, oxygen with ten neutrons is going to have a mass of eighteen (8p + 10n) and be called oxygen-18 (18O). These different versions of the same element are called isotopes.
Oxygen-18 has two more neutrons than the much more common oxygen-16. Note that both atoms have eight electrons, but their masses don't count because electrons are really small compared to the protons and neutrons which have about the same mass.
Water molecule with a molecular mass of 20.
What does this have to do with climate? Well a water molecule with two hydrogen atoms, each weighing one atomic mass unit, and one oxygen-16 atom will have a molecular mass of 18, while a water molecule with an oxygen-18 atom will have a mass of 20. When water evaporates from the oceans, the water with the lighter isotope will have an easier time going from liquid to a gas in the atmosphere.
So, during an ice-age for instance, lots of water evaporates from the oceans, falls on land as snow, and then gets trapped in the enormous glaciers that cover entire continents. Since the lighter water molecules evaporate easier from the oceans, they’re the ones that will end up falling as snow and being compressed into glacial ice. The water molecules left behind in the ocean will tend to have the heavier oxygen-18 isotopes. Since the forams use the ocean water as part of the process of creating their calcium carbonate shells, the oxygen from the water ends up in the carbonate (CO3) of the shells. Since the ocean water has extra oxygen-18s during an ice-age, then the shells will have extra oxygen-18 isotopes during an ice-age.
Therefore, by measuring the amount of heavy oxygen-18 isotopes that are in a single shell, we can tell how large the glaciers were at the time that shell formed, and tell what the global climate was like.
Of course there are some interesting complexities to the story, but that’s the general idea of how the microscopic shells of long-dead plankton can tell us about the history of the Earth’s climate.
Fitted to a cylinder, the elements on this periodic table would form a spiral. Image via Wikipedia.
Spurred by Philip Stewart‘s comment that, “The first ever image of the periodic system was a helix, wound round a cylinder by a Frenchman, Chancourtois, in 1862,” I was looking up de Chancourtois and came across David Black’s Periodic Table Videos. They put things into a useful historical context as they explore how the patterns of periodicity were discovered, in fits and starts, until Mendeleev came up with his version, which is pretty much the basis of the one we know today.
The cylindrical version is pretty neat. I think I’ll suggest it as a possible small project if any of my students is looking for one. You can, however, find another interesting 3d periodic table (the Alexander Arrangement) online.
The big red square marks an aftershock of the magnitude 8.9 earthquake off Japan. (Image via USGS). Note that most of the earthquakes occur around the edge of the Pacific Ocean (and the Pacific Plate).
Based on our studies of plate tectonics, we can see why Japan is so prone to earthquakes, and we can also see why the earthquake occurred exactly where it did.
The obvious trench to the east and the mountains and volcanoes of the Japanese islands indicate that this is a convergent margin. The Pacific plate is moving westward and being subducted beneath the northern part of Japan, which is on the Okhotsk Plate.
The tectonic plates and their boundaries surrounding Japan. The epicenter of the earthquake is along the convergent margin where the Pacific Plate is being subducted beneath the Okhotsk Plate. Image adapted from Wikimedia Commonsuser Sting.
The epicenter of the earthquake is on the offshore shelf, and not in the trench. Earthquakes are caused by breaking and movement of rocks along the faultline where the two plates collide.
In cross-section the convergent margin would look something like this:
Diagram showing the tectonic plate movement beneath Japan. Note the location of the earthquake is beneath the offshore shelf and not in the trench.
The shaking of the sea-floor from the earthquake creates the tsunamis.
So where are there similar tectonic environments (convergent margins)? You can use the Google Map above to identify trenches and mountain ranges around the world that indicate converging plates, or Wikimedia Commonsuser Sting’s very detailed map, which I’ve taken the liberty of highlighting the convergent margins (the blue lines with teeth are standard geologists’ markings for faults and, in this case, show the direction of subduction):
Convergent plate boundaries (highlighted blue lines) shown on a world map of tectonic boundaries. The blue lines with teeth are standard geologic symbols for faults, with the teeth showing the direction of the fault underground. Image adapted from Wikimedia Commonsuser Sting.
The Daily Dish has a good collection of media relating to the effects of the quake, including footage of the tsunami inundating coastal areas.
Cars being washed away along city streets:
Our thoughts remain with the people of Japan.
1. Alan Taylor has collected some poignant pictures of the flooding and fires caused by the tsunami and earthquake. TotallyCoolPix has two pages dedicated to the tsunami so far (here and here).
2. Emily Rauhala summarizes Japan’s history of preparing for this type of disaster. They’ve done a lot.
3. Mar 12, 2011. 2:10 GMT: I’ve updated the post to add the map of the tectonic plates surrounding Japan.
4. A CNN interview that includes video of the explosion at the Fukushima nuclear power plant (my full post here).
5. NOAA has an amazing image showing the tsunami wave heights.
Tsunami wave heights modeled by NOAA. Note the colors only go up to 2 meters. The maximum wave heights (shown in black in this image), near the earthquake epicenter, were over 6 meters.
They also have an excellent animation showing the tsunami moving across the Pacific Ocean. (My post with more details here).
6. The United States Geological Survey (USGS) put out a podcast on the day of the earthquake that has interviews with two specialists knowledgeable about the earthquake and the subsequent tsunami, respectively. Over 250 kilometers of coastline moved in the earthquake which is why the tsunami was so big. They also have a shakemap, that shows the area affected by the earthquake.
USGS ShakeMap for the earthquake. Image via the USGS.