Land, Life, and Climate Change

Initial Publication Date: December 2, 2005

Since Earth history illustrates many important and complex ideas, it may make more sense to focus on one idea at a time rather than teach several in parallel.

  • For example, one could teach plate tectonics using Earth history as a vehicle: talk about continental drift in the Paleozoic and Mesozoic with the assembly and breakup of Pangea, then about rifting and orogeny with the Cenozoic with the Himalayas, the East African rift and mid-Atlantic ridge.
  • Next, teach about evolution: the origin of life and then of photosynthesis, the first animals and land plants, and so on.
  • Finally, talk about the carbon cycle and insulation and changes in Earth's climate over time.
Image from the ND badlands taken by Lou Maher in a light plane

For a student with limited prior science experience, this approach may be less confusing than the increasingly common integrated Earth system perspective, which illustrates a number of complicated ideas all at once. Synthesizing the various processes of change is useful to students who have already learned about plate tectonics, evolution, and climate change separately, but less so for someone still learning the terms.

Alternatively, instructors may wish to emphasize different time periods when teaching particular topics or focus on particular problems and controversies. In this case, teaching the topics separately would be efficient.


One challenge instructors for this sort of course face is that so many modern Earth history textbooks use an integrated Earth systems approach.

  • van Andel, 1994 is one textbook that breaks up the Earth system into climate, land, oceans, and life and goes over them separately (plus an extra chapter on the Precambrian).
  • Depending on the scope of the course and the topics being emphasized, rather than a single text, use a collection of appropriate chapters from different textbooks or several topical popular science books.
  • For students with some scientific background, consider using primary literature and have them read journal articles from different disciplines.


Bralower et al., 1998 teach Earth history three times in their class: the first time focusing on the development of the solid Earth, the second time dealing with changes in the atmosphere and ocean, and finally covering the evolution of the biota.