Around when Harland first proposed a global ice age, a climate model developed by Russian climatologist concluded that if a Snowball Earth really happened, the runaway positive feedbacks would ensure that the planet would never thaw and become a permanent block of ice. For the next generation, that climate model made a Snowball Earth scenario seem impossible. In 1992, a professor, , that coined the term Snowball Earth. Kirschvink sketched a scenario in which the supercontinent near the equator reflected sunlight, as compared to tropical oceans that absorb it. Once the global temperature decline due to reflected sunlight began to grow polar ice, the ice would reflect even more sunlight and Earth’s surface would become even cooler. This could produce a runaway effect in which the ice sheets grew into the tropics and buried the supercontinent in ice. Kirschvink also proposed that the situation could become unstable. As the sea ice crept toward the equator, it would kill off all photosynthetic life and a buried supercontinent would no longer engage in . Those were two key ways that carbon was removed from the atmosphere in the day's , especially before the rise of land plants. Volcanism would have been the main way that carbon dioxide was introduced to the atmosphere (animal respiration also releases carbon dioxide, but this was before the eon of animals), and with two key dynamics for removing it suppressed by the ice, carbon dioxide would have increased in the atmosphere. The resultant greenhouse effect would have eventually melted the ice and runaway effects would have quickly turned Earth from an icehouse into a greenhouse. Kirschvink proposed the idea that Earth could vacillate between states.
During that “,” , , and the rise of grazing and predation had eonic significance. While many critical events in life’s history were unique, one that is not is multicellularity, , and some prokaryotes have multicellular structures, some even with specialized organisms forming colonies. There are , but the primary advantage was size, which would become important in the coming eon of complex life. The rise of complex life might have happened faster than the billion years or so after the basic foundation was set (the complex cell, oxygenic photosynthesis), but geophysical and geochemical processes had their impacts. Perhaps most importantly, the oceans probably did not get oxygenated until just before complex life appeared, as they were sulfidic from 1.8 bya to 700 mya. Atmospheric oxygen is currently thought to have remained at only a few percent at most until about 850 mya, although there are recent arguments that it remained low until only about 420 mya, when large animals began to appear and animals began to colonize land. Just as the atmospheric oxygen content began to rise, then came the biggest ice age in Earth’s history, which probably played a major role in the rise of complex life.
In summary, today’s orthodox late-Proterozoic hypothesis is that the complex dynamics of a supercontinent breakup somehow triggered . The global glaciation was reversed by runaway effects primarily related to an immense increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. During the events, oceanic life would have been delivered vast amounts of continental nutrients scoured from the rocks by glaciers, and the hot conditions would have combined to create a global explosion of photosynthetic life. A billion years of relative equilibrium between prokaryotes and eukaryotes was ultimately shattered, and oxygen levels began rising during the Cryogenian and Ediacaran periods toward modern levels. Largely sterilized oceans, which began to be oxygenated at depth for the first time, are now thought to have prepared the way for what came next: the rise of complex life.
Since mitochondria are the energy generation centers in eukaryotic cells (some , usually because the mitochondria evolved into other organelles such as and ), they present similar issues related to how industrialized humanity generates energy today. Power plants have pollution issues and can explode and create environmental catastrophes such as what happened at .
Just as were “invented,” somewhere between 1.6 bya and 600 mya a eukaryote ate a cyanobacterium and both survived, and that cyanobacterium became the ancestor of all chloroplasts, which is the photosynthetic organelle in all plants. As with similar previous events, it appears that it , and all plants are descended from that unique event. The invention of the chloroplast , which were the first plants. The first algae fossils are from about 1.2 bya. Most algae species are not called plants, as they are not descended from that instance when a eukaryote ate a cyanobacterium. The non-plant algae, such as , also have chloroplasts, from various “envelopment” events when algae chloroplasts were eaten and the grazers and chloroplasts survived. Below is the general outline of the tree of life today, in which bacteria and archaea combined to make eukaryotic cells, and in which the bacterium enveloped into a protist to make plants, and all complex life developed from protists. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Polar forests reappeared in the Eocene after the , and the Eocene’s was the Cenozoic’s warmest time and . Not only did alligators live near the North Pole, but the continents and oceans hosted an abundance and diversity of life that Earth may have not seen before or since. That ten million year period ended as Earth began cooling off and headed toward the current ice age, and it has been called the original Paradise Lost. One way that methane has been implicated in those hot times is that leaves have , which regulate the air they take in to obtain carbon dioxide and oxygen, needed for photosynthesis and respiration. Plants also lose water vapor through their stomata, so balancing gas input needs against water losses are key stomata functions, and it is thought that in periods of high carbon dioxide concentration, . Scientists can count stomata density in fossil leaves, which led some scientists to conclude that carbon dioxide levels were not high enough to produce the PETM, so that produced the PETM and , and the controversy and research continues.
While oxygen level changes of the model show early fluctuations that the model does not, both models agree on a huge rise in oxygen levels in the late Devonian and Carboniferous, in tandem with collapsing carbon dioxide levels. There is also virtually universal agreement that that situation is due to rainforest development. Rainforests dominated the Carboniferous Period. If the Devonian could be considered terrestrial life’s , then the Carboniferous was its . In the Devonian, plants developed vascular systems, photosynthetic foliage, seeds, roots, and bark, and true forests first appeared. Those basics remain unchanged to this day, but in the Carboniferous there was great diversification within those body plans, and Carboniferous plants formed the foundation for the first complex land-based ecosystems. Ever since the episodes, there has , and the that have prominently shaped Earth’s eon of complex life probably always began with ice sheets at the South Pole, and the current ice age arguably is the only partial exception, but today’s cold period really began about 35 mya, .
Trees first appeared during a plant diversity crisis, and the arrival of seed plants and ferns ended the dominance of the first trees, so the plant crises may have been more about evolutionary experiments than environmental conditions, although a carbon dioxide crash and ice age conditions would have impacted photosynthesizers. The that gave rise to trees and seed plants largely went extinct at the Devonian’s end. But what might have been the most dramatic extinction, as far as humans are concerned, was the impact on land vertebrates. During the about 20% of all families, 50% of all genera, and 70% of all species disappeared forever.
For this essay’s purposes, the most important ecological understanding is that the Sun provides all of earthly life’s energy, either (all except nuclear-powered electric lights driving photosynthesis in greenhouses, as that energy came from dead stars). Today’s hydrocarbon energy that powers our industrial world comes from captured sunlight. Exciting electrons with photon energy, then stripping off electrons and protons and using their electric potential to power biochemical reactions, is what makes Earth’s ecosystems possible. Too little energy, and reactions will not happen (such as ice ages, enzyme poisoning, the darkness of night, food shortages, and lack of key nutrients that support biological reactions), and too much (such as , ionizing radiation, temperatures too high for enzyme activity), and life is damaged or destroyed. The journey of life on Earth has primarily been about adapting to varying energy conditions and finding levels where life can survive. For the many hypotheses about those ancient events and what really happened, the answers are always primarily in energy terms, such as how it was obtained, how it was preserved, and how it was used. For life scientists, that is always the framework, and they devote themselves to discovering how the energy game was played.
Perhaps a few hundred million years after the first mitochondrion appeared, as the oceanic oxygen content, at least on the surface, increased as a result of oxygenic photosynthesis, those complex cells learned to use oxygen instead of hydrogen. It is difficult to overstate the importance of learning to use oxygen in respiration, called . Before the appearance of aerobic respiration, life generated energy via and . Because oxygen , aerobic respiration generates, on average, about per cycle as fermentation and anaerobic respiration do (although some types of anaerobic respiration can get ). The suite of complex life on Earth today would not have been possible without the energy provided by oxygenic respiration. At minimum, nothing could have flown, and any animal life that might have evolved would have never left the oceans because the atmosphere would not have been breathable. With the advent of aerobic respiration, became possible, as it is several times as efficient as anaerobic respiration and fermentation (about 40% as compared to less than 10%). Today’s food chains of several levels would be constrained to about two in the absence of oxygen. Some scientists have and oxygen and respiration in eukaryote evolution. is controversial.
People are usually surprised to hear that grass is a relatively recent plant innovation. and only became common in the late Cretaceous, along with flowering plants. With grass, some , and grazers have been plentiful Cenozoic herbivores. According to , carbon dioxide levels have been falling nearly continuously for the past 150-100 million years. Not only has that decline progressively cooled Earth to the point where we live in an ice age today, but is currently considered the key reason why complex life may become extinct on Earth in several hundred million years. In the Oligocene, between 32 mya and 25 mya some plants developed a during photosynthesis known as . It allowed plants to adapt to reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide levels. C4 plants became in the Miocene, and grasses are today’s most common C4 plants and . The rest of Earth’s photosynthesizers use or , which is a water-conserving process used in arid biomes.