The Earth in Nature

    The first issue of Nature was published 150 years ago, on the 4th of November 1869. In celebration of the anniversary, we highlight some of our favourite geoscience stories from the archives.

    Some of the geoscience topics that Nature covered as early as the nineteenth century still resonate today. The “inconvenience and expense” caused by air pollution was highlighted in Nature’s news section1. But the scope of the 1890 piece was limited to “The darkness of London air”; today the health impacts of pollution are still on people’s minds, albeit now on a global scale2. Similarly, the devastating eruption of Krakatau volcano, reported3 in Nature in 1883, continues to feature, for example, in investigations of the climatic effect of volcanism4. Nature’s century-and-a-half long archives host a plethora of ideas and discussions that have not ceased to be relevant.

    The plate tectonics revolution of the 1960s is a highlight. Several of the components that were to consolidate this framework of thinking, built on Wegener’s hitherto rejected ideas of continental drift, came together in the pages of Nature in the course of just a few, exciting years. Following on from the discovery of the rift valley within in the Atlantic mid-ocean ridge5, the understanding of plate tectonics evolved rapidly. The theory of sea-floor spreading at mid-ocean ridges was proposed6 in 1961. Support for these ideas came from the correlation of the ages of ocean islands with their distances from mid-ocean ridges7 and from evidence for reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field8 that allowed the linear magnetic anomalies on the seafloor to be recognized as a record of seafloor spreading9. Finally, transform faults were identified in and between mid-ocean ridges and mountain belts and recognized to bound the rigid plates and record the relative plate motions10.

    In the wake of these discoveries, the Wilson cycle — the idea that ocean basins close to form supercontinents, which then rift to open up new ocean basins and so forth — was proposed, initially for the Atlantic Ocean11. The realization that North Pacific plate boundaries are consistent with rigid-plate motion12 confirmed and completed the theory of plate tectonics on the present-day Earth in 1967. Yet the topic of plate tectonics more broadly is far from settled: the debate has moved on to the questions of when and how plate tectonics on Earth started13,14, and whether it exists on other bodies in the Solar System15.

    In palaeoclimate science, when it became clear that deep sea sediment cores can reveal the build-up and decay of ice sheets on land, and not just ocean temperature16, a new chapter for studying glacial–interglacial cycles arose. The international ocean drilling programs helped unlock the climate archives in seafloor sediments from 1969 onwards17. With the advent of deep ice cores in Greenland18 and Antarctica19, actual measurements of the atmospheric composition over time were added to the long temperature records. Together, they leave no doubt that atmospheric CO2 concentrations have been very closely linked to the Earth’s climate for the time we can reconstruct with confidence, which now goes back in time over eight glacial cycles20. These observations form one important cornerstone of our understanding of modern climate change.

    The Antarctic ozone hole is another story that was partly written in past pages of Nature. The mechanism for the destruction of the Earth’s stratospheric ozone layer was presented21 in 1974, and the existence of an ozone hole over Antarctica was confirmed a decade later22. Despite the 1987 Montreal Protocol that banned the emission of anthropogenic ozone-depleting substances, ozone recovery is still being debated23, and has, indeed, encountered new challenges24.

    A reflection on the geoscience archives of Nature reminds us of the enormous leaps in understanding that were made in the Earth sciences. At the same time, the archives present a stark reminder that perturbations to our planet, including those caused by human activity, are often difficult to reverse. We must devote our ingenuity and effort towards stewardship of the Earth.


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    The Earth in Nature. Nat. Geosci. 12, 873 (2019).

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