Big Idea III: Life, including human life, influences and is influenced by the environment

Across its four billion year history, the course of life's evolution has been intimately tied to the Earth's physical environment. Global cooling led to the relatively recent spread of grasslands, which then triggered an evolutionary shift in many herbivorous mammals from browsing to grazing. Conversely, the evolution of life alters the physical environment. Photosynthetic bacteria released free oxygen into the early oceans and atmosphere, making Earth habitable for later types of organisms. Humans, with an interesting population and expanding technology, have altered the landscape, altered the distribution of flora and fauna, and are changing atmospheric chemistry in ways that alter the climate. Earth system processes also affect where and how humans live. For example: 

  • During the Precambrian, the evolution of photosynthetic organisms led to significant change in the planet's atmosphere. Prior to this event, there was little free oxygen in the atmosphere, but with photosynthesis producing oxygen as a waste product, the very existence of these organisms flooded the seas and atmosphere with free oxygen, changing the planet forever. But life's evolution represents just one of the processes working upon the Earth system.
  • With human populations increasing the world over, the emission of greenhouse gases has also increased dramatically. These gases alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere and directly influence the planet's climate. It is generally agreed that the rapid and immense pouring of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere will lead to global warming, which will have incredible impacts throughout the world.
  • Around three million years ago, a land bridge formed between North and South America. For the first time in more than 150 million years, the two continents were linked, and the mammals inhabiting both lands migrated across the bridge. Horses, mastodons, cats, and dogs moved south, while opossums, porcupines, ground sloths, and armadillos moved north (to name a few). Today, half the mammal species in South America are descended from North American migrants.