How Plants May Have Helped Create Earth’s Unique Landscapes


According to conventional thinking, plant life first took hold on Earth after oceans and rivers formed; the soil produced by liquid water breaking down bare rock provided an ideal medium for plants to grow in. It certainly sounds logical, but a new study is challenging that view – the theory is that vascular plants, those containing a transport system for water and nutrients, actually created a cycle of glaciation and melting, conditions which led to the formation of rivers and mud which allowed forests and farmland to later develop. In short, they helped actually create the landscapes we see today.

The evidence was just published in two articles in a special edition of Nature Geoscience.

In the first article, analysis of the data proposes that vascular plants began to absorb the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere about 450 million years ago. This led to a cooling of temperatures on a global scale, resulting in widespread glaciation. As the glaciers later started to melt, they ground up the Earth’s surface, forming the kind of soils we see today.

The second article goes further, stating that today’s rivers were also created by vascular plants – the vegetation broke the rocks down into mud and minerals and then also held the mud in place. This caused river banks to start forming, acting as channels for water, which up until then had tended to flow over the surface much more randomly. As the water was channeled into more specific routes, rivers formed. This led to periodic flooding; sediments were deposited over large areas which created rich soil. As trees were able to take root in this new soil, debris from the trees fell into the rivers, creating logjams. This had the effect of creating new rivers and causing more flooding. These larger fertile areas were then able to support the growth of larger lush forests and farmland.

According to Martin Gibling, a professor of Earth science at Dalhousie University, “Sedimentary rocks, before plants, contained almost no mud. But after plants developed, the mud content increased dramatically. Muddy landscapes expanded greatly. A new kind of eco-space was created that wasn’t there before.”

The new theory also leads to the possibility that any exoplanets that happen to have vegetation would look different from Earth; varying circumstances would create a surface unique to each world. Any truly Earth-like exoplanets might be very similar in general, but the way that their surfaces have been modified might be rather different.

It’s an interesting scenario, but it also raises other questions. What about the ancient river channels on Mars? Some appear to have been formed by brief catastrophic floods, but others seem more similar to long-lived rivers here on Earth, especially if there actually was a northern hemisphere ocean as well. How did they form? Does this mean that rivers could form in a variety of ways, with or without plant life being involved? Could Mars have once had something equivalent to vascular plant life as well? Or could the new theory just be wrong? Then there’s Titan, which has numerous rivers still flowing today. Albeit they are liquid methane/ethane instead of water, but what exactly led to their formation?

From the editorial in Nature Geoscience:

Without the workings of life, the Earth would not be the planet it is today. Even if there are a number of planets that could support tectonics, running water and the chemical cycles that are essential for life as we know it, it seems unlikely that any of them would look like Earth. Even if evolution follows a predictable path, filling all available niches in a reproducible and consistent way, the niches on any Earth analogue could be different if the composition of its surface and atmosphere are not identical to those of Earth. And if evolution is random, the differences would be expected to be even larger. Either way, a glimpse of the surface of an exoplanet — if we ever get one — may give us a whole new perspective on biogeochemical cycling and geomorphology.

Just as the many exoplanets now being found are of a previously unknown and amazingly wide variety, and all uniquely alien, even the ones that (may) support life are likely to be just as diverse from each other as they are from Earth itself. Earth’s “twin” may be out there, but in terms of outward appearance, it may be somewhat more of a fraternal twin than an exact replica.

Paul Scott Anderson

Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy and has been a long-time member of The Planetary Society. He currently writes for Universe Today and His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.

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