The History of Earth in One Year

We compress the entire evolution of our planet into a fascinating 12-month "cosmic calendar". It includes a step by step timeline of climate change.
Crocodile crawling out of water
Crocodiles are around 95 million yrs. So far, modern humans have survived 200,000 yrs. Photo: fvanrenterghem/Flickr

In this article we squeeze the history of Planet Earth (and the universe) into 365 days.

Thirteen billion years are plotted along a single 12-month, 365-day, year. One second corresponds to 438 years; one minute is about 26,000 years; one hour is 1.6 million years; and one day is 38 million years.

Occurring in the final second before midnight on December 31, are three centuries of events connected with global warming and the climate crisis which now threatens us all. It’s a cosmic calendar with a climate twist.

This chronological history demonstrates quite clearly how insignificant we humans are, in the evolutionary history of of our universe.

With all time compressed into one year, it shows that modern man didn’t arrive until 8 minutes before midnight on the final day of the year. Yet scientists are considering changing the name of our present era – the Holocene – to the “Anthropocene epoch“, to reflect the environmental damage that we have inflicted on the biosphere and its unique biodiversity of plants and animals.

The bible was written 12 seconds before midnight, by which time chemical and biological evolution had been going on day and night for well over 4 billion years.

Our cosmic calendar starts by listing events on a scale of billions of years. After this, with life on Earth well established, we switch to millions of years, then thousands, before zooming in on individual years in the final second of time.

Planet Earth from Space
Planet Earth. Photo: Pixabay

History of Earth: Billions of Years Ago (BYA)

DateBYAEvent
Jan 113.8Big Bang, as seen through cosmic background radiation
Jan 2212.85First galaxies form
Mar 1611Milky Way Galaxy formed
May 128.8Milky Way Galaxy disk formed
Sep 24.57Formation of the solar system
Sep 44.54Formation of Planet Earth and its atmosphere
Sep 54.53Formation of the moon
Sep 64.4Oldest rocks known on Earth. Early carbon cycle forms
Sep 144.1First signs of biotic life on Earth
Sep 213.8Hydrosphere starts to form. First oceans. Formation of biosphere
Sep 213.8First life (Prokaryotes) including phytoplankton. Early ecosystems emerge
Sep 303.5Photosynthesis begins
Oct 83.0Lithosphere starts to form
Oct 162.7First fossil fuels form about 650 million years after first photosynthesis
Oct 242.5Great Oxygenation Event. Bacterially produced O2 accumulates in atmosphere. Start of oxygen cycle
Nov 12.2Ozone layer forms in the stratosphere
Nov 92.0Complex cells (Eukaryotes, such as zooplankton)
Dec 50.8First multicellular life. Mangroves first appear
Dec 70.67Simple animals. Pedosphere starts to form. Food web develops
Dec 140.55Arthropods (ancestors of insects, arachnids)
Dec 170.5Fish and proto-amphibians. Marine food web develops
Dec 200.45First soil develops. Terrestrial plants appear
Dec 210.4Insects and Seeds. Biodiversity gathers pace
Dec 220.36Amphibians
Dec 230.3Reptiles. Rainforest biomes appear
Dec 240.25Permian-Triassic Extinction Event. 90% of species die out
Dec 250.23Dinosaurs
Dec 260.2Mammals
Dec 270.15Birds
Dec 280.13First flowering plants
Dec 290.1First bees
Graph of atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide. Currently the highest recorded level in the history of Earth since the arrival of Man.
Today’s atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) are the highest for at least 800,000 years, or more. These CO2 levels are the main driver for global warming. Data Source: The EPICA (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica) Antarctica Dome C ice core. Image: © Prairie Climate Centre 2018

History of Earth: Millions of Years Ago (MYA)

Date MYAEvent
Dec 29, 18:3295Earliest crocodiles
Dec 30, 06:2466Cretaceous Extinction Event. Dinosaurs die out
Dec 30, 07:0365Primates
Dec 30, 20:0345Antarctic ice sheet starts to form
Dec 31, 01:4034Amazon Rainforest forms. First glaciers appear
Dec 31, 03:4026First elephants
Dec 31, 06:0515Apes
Dec 31, 14:2412.3Hominids
Dec 31, 22:083Greenland ice sheet forms
Dec 31, 22:242.5Primitive humans and stone tools
Dec 31, 23:121.0Earliest firm evidence of controlled use of fire
Dinosaur models
Photo shows fight between two major dinosaurs: Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus rex. Prehistoric dinosaurs first appeared around 230 million years ago and mysteriously disappeared about 65 million years ago. In between, they ruled the Earth for 165 million years. Man has been an apex predator for about 1 million years. Photo: © Marcin Chady/ flickr (CC BY 2.0)

History of Earth: Thousands of Years Ago (TYA)

Date/TimeTYAEvent
Dec 31, 23:44400Domestication of fire
Dec 31, 23:50250Neanderthals appear
Dec 31, 23:52195Anatomically modern humans in Africa
Dec 31, 23:55110Beginning of most recent Glacial Period
Dec 31, 23:5850Cave painting
Dec 31, 23:59:3212End of the Ice Age
Dec 31, 23:59:3312Agriculture
Dec 31, 23:59:409.0People settle along the banks of the Nile
Dec 31, 23:59:475.5Invention of the plough
Dec 31, 23:59:485.2Invention of writing
Dec 31, 23:59:485.1Invention of the wheel, and wheel & axle in Iraq
Dec 31, 23:59:485.0First Civilizations: Middle East, India. Early books of the Bible written
Dec 31, 23:59:494.6Building of Stonehenge. Start of Egyptian pyramids
Dec 31, 23:59:494.5Egyptian pyramids built with mechanical devices: inclined plane, wedge, and lever
Dec 31, 23:59:514.0Code of Hammurabi, Middle Kingdom of Egypt
Dec 31, 23:59:523.6Modern alphabet invented
Dec 31, 23:59:533.0Iron Age; Beginning of Classical Antiquity. Earliest pulleys invented in Iraq
Dec 31, 23:59:532.7Rome founded
Dec 31, 23:59:542.5Buddha, Euclidean geometry, Archimedean physics, Roman Republic
Dec 31, 23:59:552.0Ptolemaic astronomy, Roman Empire, Christ, Gupta Empire
Dec 31, 23:59:561.5Muhammad. Rise of Byzantine Empire
Dec 31, 23:59:580.6Christopher Columbus. Italian Renaissance
Dec 31, 23:59:590.5The last 500 years before the present

Climate Change for Beginners
Climate Change for Students

Global Warming Events in the Final Second of Time

The following events associated with the destabilization of Earth’s climate system have all happened during the final second of the cosmic year: that is, from 23:59:59 to midnight on Dec 31.

1700 – Coal starts to displace other energies (wood, charcoal) as a source of mechanical power.
1709 – Advances in iron smelting using coke and better furnaces lead to the Industrial Revolution. This opens the ‘modern’ chapter in the history of Earth.
1776 – James Watt introduces his new steam engine. This too hastens the Industrial Revolution.
1780 – The Industrial Revolution. Coal burning in factories & furnaces produces large greenhouse gas emissions.
1800 – World population reaches 1 billion.
1800 – Atmospheric CO2, we now know, reaches about 290 ppm.
1800 – Mean global temperature (1850-1890) is roughly 13.7°C.
1800 – Discovery of electrolysis by English scientists William Nicholson and Sir Anthony Carlisle.
1824 – French physicist Joseph Fourier calculates Earth would be far colder without an atmosphere.
1849 – British–US engineer James Francis develops first modern water turbine enabling hydroelectricity.
1850 – During the 19th century, natural gas is used mostly as a source of light.
1850 – 1900: Artificial baseline for pre-industrial temperatures. When Did Global Warming Start?
1861 – Irish physicist John Tyndall describes the greenhouse effect.
1878 – World’s first hydroelectric power scheme developed in Northumberland, UK by William Armstrong.
1882 – First Electric power plant built by Thomas Edison in New York.
1885 – Robert Bunsen invents the Bunsen burner opening new opportunities to use natural gas.
1888 – First electricity-generating wind turbine invented by Charles F. Brush, in Ohio, USA.
1888 – National Geographic Society founded in USA. Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor first full-time editor 1899.
1896 – Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius says coal burning will boost the greenhouse effect.
1900 – Swedish scientist Knut Angstrom finds that CO2 absorbs heat
1908 – Oil discovered at Masjid-i-Sulaiman in north-western Persia by Anglo-Persian Oil Company
1908 – First Ford Model-T comes off the assembly line – the first affordable car for the middle classes
1911 – World’s first commercial geothermal power station is built in Larderello, Italy.
1920s – Opening of Persian Gulf oil fields inaugurates era of cheap energy.
1927 – Man-made global CO2 emissions reach one billion tonnes per year.
1930 – Human population reaches 2 billion.
1938 – Saudi Arabian oil first discovered in quantity by the Americans in modern day Dhahran.
1940s – First major advances in pipeline technology opens up natural gas market.
1945 – First atomic bomb explodes, in New Mexico, USA.
1951 – First electricity produced, in Idaho, USA.
1958 – US geochemist Keeling proves CO2 concentrations (then 315 ppm) are rising.
1960 – Human population reaches 3 billion. Mean global temperature (five-year average) is 13.9°C.
1969 – Astronauts walk on the Moon. People perceive Earth as a unique life-giving planet.
1969 – Friends of the Earth founded in San Francisco by David Brower, Donald Aitken and Gary Soucie.
1970s – Beginning of the Computer Age, a major landmark in the history of Earth.
1970 – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration founded, a leading funder of climate research.
1970 – Man-made black carbon emissions begin to increase swiftly.
1970 – Uncontrolled air pollution causes global cooling, which (we now know) concealed global warming.
1971 – Greenpeace founded in Vancouver by Irving Stowe and Dorothy Stowe
1972 – Droughts in Africa, Ukraine, India spread fears about global warming
1973 – Oil embargo and price hike triggers first “energy crisis”
1974 – First Silicon Photovoltaic Cell for harnessing solar power developed by Joseph Lindmayer, USA.
1975 – US scientist Wallace Broecker publicizes the term “global warming”.
1975 – Human population reaches 4 billion.
1976 – Studies show that methane and ground-level ozone boost the greenhouse effect.
1977 – Deforestation recognized as key contributor to climate change.
1981 – Election of Ronald Reagan instals conservatives who are skeptical about global warming.
1981 – Sulfate aerosols cool the climate. Scientists predict global warming will reassert itself
1985 – Broecker speculates weakening thermohaline circulation in Atlantic will cause climate change
1986 – Chernobyl nuclear meltdown torpedoes plans to replace fossil fuels with nuclear power.
1987 – Human population reaches 5 billion.
1987 – Montreal Protocol of the Vienna Convention restricts CFCs and other ozone-destroying gases.
1987 – Rainforest Alliance founded in New York by Daniel Katz.
1989 – Man-made global CO2 emissions reach six billion tonnes per year
1989 – At the UN, Margaret Thatcher calls for a global treaty on climate change.
1988 – UN endorses setting up of IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).
1989 – Fossil-fuel companies form Global Climate Coalition to downplay global warming
1990s – Popular Internet is established. Another key stage in the history of Earth.
1990 – Global dimming is reversed, save for Pintaubo anomaly, due to fewer aerosols.
1991 – Mt. Pinatubo explodes, releasing huge amount of cooling aerosols.
1992 – Formation of U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change. US blocks call for serious action.
1993 – Greenland ice cores suggest major climate change can occur in a single decade.
1997 – Kyoto Protocol agreed. Toyota unveils the Prius – the first mass-market electric hybrid car.
1999 – Population reaches 6 billion. Asian brown cloud first detected.
2000 – Oil lobby convinces US administration to deny problem of climate change.
2001 – US President G.W. Bush removes the US from the Kyoto Protocol agreement.
2001 – US National Academy sees a “paradigm shift” in scientific recognition of climate change.
2002 – Studies find strong “global dimming,” due to pollution.
2003 – Effects of global warming on the oceans stoke fears of sea level rise due to West Antarctic ice melt
2003 – Deadly summer heat wave in Europe stokes fears of global warming
2005 – Kyoto treaty goes live, all major industrial nations sign up except USA.
2005 – Hurricane Katrina and other storms sharpens debate over influence of global warming
2006 – The documentary film “An Inconvenient Truth” publicizes and politicizes climate change
2007 – IPCC says it is 90% sure climate change caused by human greenhouse gas emissions
2007 – IPCC also says cost of reducing emissions far less than the financial damage they will cause
2008 – Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets and Arctic Ocean sea-ice cover found to be shrinking faster than expected.
2008 – The Keeling project on Hawaii shows CO2 concentrations are now 380 ppm
2009 – China’s carbon footprint overtakes America’s. US still ahead on a per capita basis.
2011 – Human population reaches 7 billion.
2011 – Fukushima Nuclear reactor disaster squashes any hopes of a renaissance of nuclear power.
2012 – Studies find recent heat waves, droughts, and floods exacerbated by global warming
2012 – Arctic sea ice suffers greatest ever summer loss
2013 – Hawaii shows that CO2 concentrations are over 400 ppm
2013 – IPCC says it is 95% sure climate change caused by human greenhouse gases.
2015 – Researchers find West Antarctic ice sheet collapse may be irreversible.
2015 – Paris Climate Agreement aims for temperature rise of less than 2 °C (ideally 1.5 °C) above 1850-1900 levels.
2016 – Solar and wind power become economically competitive with fossil fuels.
2017 – The word decarbonization (reduce carbon) becomes a new buzzword
2018 – IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.
2018 – Extinction Rebellion founded in UK by Roger Hallam and Gail Bradbrook.
2019 – IPCC Special Report on The Ocean and Cryosphere. See also: Effects of Global Warming on Oceans.
2019 – IPCC Special Report Climate Change and Land. See also: Land Use.
2019 – News of tropical cyclones, wildfires and floods spur public demonstrations and civil disobedience.
2019 – Global temperature is the warmest in tens of thousands of years.
2019 – Level of CO2 in the atmosphere (415 ppm) is the highest in millions of years. An incredibly retrogressive step in the history of Earth.
2019 – 27,000 delegates at COP25 UN climate talks in Madrid unable to reach consensus.
2019 – US President Trump formally announces US withdrawal from Paris Agreement. The momentum for climate action is dissipated.
2019 – Sales of plug-in passenger cars achieve a 2.5% market share of new car sales (almost half in China). UN Climate Talks at COP25 end in impasse.
2020 – China building 121 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants, more than the rest of the world combined.
2020 – IRENA report says renewable energy cheaper than any new electricity capacity based on fossil fuels.
2020 – Coronavirus pandemic. See: Effect of COVID-19 on Climate Change.

Acid Mine, Ohio, USA
Acid mine drainage pollution from coal mines in the Ohio Valley. We exploit the Earth’s resources and leave nature to clean up our mess. Photo: © Jack Pearce (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Further Reading

– “Cosmic Calendar” Wikipedia
– “Geologic History of Earth.” Encyclopaedia Britannica
– “The Earth Through Time” GSI
– “Earth” NASA

References

The sources used in the compilation of this History of Earth timeline include: Wikipedia, American Museum of Natural History, Encyclopedia Britannica, NASA, Space.com, National Geographic, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), IPCC, History.com, BBC.com, CNN, Smithsonian Institute, Metropolitan Museum NYC, United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), United States Geological Survey (USGS), REN21, United Nations, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), among many others.

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