These beautiful landscapes hold secrets to the origins of life

A photographic odyssey explores the places on Earth that showcase our unique planet’s evolutionary journey.

By Eva van den Berg
Published 9 Jun 2022, 12:52 BST
Evoking a scene from Earth’s past, lava flows from a fissure in Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano during ...
Evoking a scene from Earth’s past, lava flows from a fissure in Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano during a 2010 eruption. The lava filled a gorge that had been carved out over centuries by shifting tectonic plates and gushes of glacial water.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

These photographs take us on a journey through Earth’s history. Like an open book, our planet reveals the primordial geophysical processes that culminated in the emergence of life.

“This journey through time, space, and diversity seeks to strengthen our bond with nature and inspires respect for the Earth,” says French photographer Olivier Grunewald. For 30 years he and his partner, conservationist and writer Bernadette Gilbertas, have travelled the world, documenting the places that best express the forces that shaped our unique planet, the basis of their Origins project. Ours is a rocky planet, born out of chaos. Driven by evolution, it’s home to diverse habitats and millions of species. One of those is our own, Homo sapiens, captivated by Earth’s wonders—and just as capable of razing them.

Life emerged more than 3.5 billion years ago in an environment with water and volcanic activity, perhaps similar to Ethiopia’s Danakil Depression. Mineral-rich deposits in the Dallol hydrothermal field display their splendor in blue and green basins, yellow sulfur terraces, geysers, briny springs, and salt crystals.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald
Raindrops from a morning shower in Brazil’s Pantanal wetlands adorn eared watermoss (Salvinia auriculata), an aquatic fern native to the Rio Negro. All the opulence of today’s plants can be traced back to processes that began in ancient microalgae.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

Concerned by climate change and other environmental issues, Grunewald and Gilbertas channeled their energy into creating a tribute to our fascinating sphere. “It took 4.5 billion years to forge this lush, bountiful, and welcoming planet,” Grunewald says. “Now what will we do? Will we continue to spur the ecological crisis, or will we finally decide to prevent the worst?”

Origins showcases the beauty and breadth of untamed nature. Volcanoes spew incandescent torrents of lava. Polar auroras dance like ghosts in the icy night. Erosive forces shape mountains. Fledgling life forms struggle to find their way. Vegetation proliferates across the planet, and animals diversify across habitats. “Sometimes unbridled, sometimes serene, always moving and eloquent, nature is an unlimited source of inspiration,” Gilbertas says.

These images—a fraction of Grunewald’s collection—are classified according to four stages. The first is chaos—photographs that reflect the turbulent origins of the planet. Earth, the second category, centers on landscapes moulded by erosive forces. Oasis represents the spread of plants—their persistent attempts to emerge in the most unlikely environments. Finally, the beasts theme celebrates the biodiversity of the animal kingdom in all its magnificence.

Grunewald and Gilbertas have captured the essence of places that are a testament to Earth’s distant past—the ancestral pulse that kindled life.

The glow of sunrise washes over the cliff at Toroweap Point, in the heart of Arizona’s Grand Canyon National Park. Cross-sections of the canyon, an immense gorge carved by the Colorado River, reveal two billion years of geological history.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald
Icy fragments float on Iceland’s glacial lake Jökulsárlón under the magical aurora borealis. The northern lights appear when the solar wind collides with Earth’s magnetosphere—which shields the planet from solar radiation—and travels along it, producing a display at high latitudes.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald
On primeval Earth, volcanic rock formed rafts of terrestrial crust, such as these patches in a caldera of bubbling lava in the Nyiragongo volcano, located in the Virunga Mountains of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

Chaos

It all began about 4.5 billion years ago, many scientists believe, when a supernova explosion caused the solar nebula—a spinning cloud of gas and dust—to collapse, giving rise to our solar system.

Eight planets and many other celestial bodies began to orbit around our massive star, the sun. Of these, only three—Venus, Mars, and Earth—were in the habitable zone: the region around the sun where liquid water could exist on a planet’s surface. But as far as we know, only on Earth did life triumph—a long, arduous, and haphazard course.

At first our planet was an incandescent mass, its elements at the mercy of gravity’s tug and pull. The heavier elements sank to Earth’s centre, forming a metallic core. Then a long cooling process produced two key ingredients for life: the Earth’s crust, and water vapour that condensed and fell—the first rain. Meteorites and asteroids bombarded the planet, and constant earthquakes and eruptions released vast amounts of magma and gas from fissures and volcanoes.

At some point, the planet formed distinct tectonic plates that moved and ground together, forcing some of the rock back into the interior. Volcanoes, most of which formed near the edges of tectonic plates, provided an ongoing outlet for the planet’s internal heat. Fortunately for us, Earth’s interior continues to generate heat from the radioactive decay of uranium and other elements left over from the formation of the planet. Along with the sun, this process keeps the planet at a comfortable temperature for life.

Internal processes also shroud Earth in a magnetic shield extending from the core out into space, protecting us from cosmic radiation. Without this shield, solar wind would strip away the planet’s atmosphere, leaving the surface dry and inhospitable. This delicate balance makes it all the more astonishing that life was able to emerge in the chaos of the early Earth.

At dawn, a thin cloud lingers over Uluru, a sandstone outcropping in the heart of Australia, formed over 500 million years ago. At 863 meters high, this rock, sacred to the area’s Aboriginal people, stands out in the vast expanse of the Northern Territory.

Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

Around five million years ago, the Colorado River carved out this sandstone escarpment, aptly named Horseshoe Bend, near the town of Page, Arizona.

Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

Earth

“The soil is the great connector of our lives, the source and destination of all,” wrote American philosopher and farmer Wendell Berry. The ground we walk on has been shaped since its origins by the forces of nature.

Like actors in a cosmic conspiracy, meteorites, volcanoes, and earthquakes join forces with water, wind, and gravity to transform Earth’s crust, a composite of elements such as oxygen, silicon, aluminium, iron, calcium, sodium, potassium, and magnesium.

The results are a seemingly endless and strikingly diverse set of phenomena: peaked mountains, vast plateaus and plains, depressions, deep ravines, fjords, ocean trenches, dunes, cliffs. The rocks and minerals forged from primordial elements have been chiselled away over billions of years. At some point organic molecules began to enrich ancient sediments, which played a key role in the rise of a new and potent force: life.

Geology reveals the history of Earth’s structure and composition. While many rocky secrets have been wiped from Earth’s surface, other magnificent formations have survived to tell the story of entire geological eras. Each of these places—the Grand Canyon, Utah’s Capitol Reef, Mount Uluru in Australia, and Madagascar’s stone forest, to name a few—take us on an introspective journey that lays bare the sheer magnitude of our planet’s many wonders.

These quiver trees in Namibia are favored by the San people, who hollow out branches to make cases for their arrows. The trees, under threat by rising temperatures, have broad canopies that provide an ideal communal nesting place for weavers.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

Oasis

The first living things appeared on Earth before about 3.5 billion years ago, within hundreds of millions of years of the planet’s birth. We still don’t know how this genesis occurred, though some research suggests the necessary organic molecules formed in deep-sea hydrothermal vents. However those primordial organisms arose, they would unleash the unbridled force of life across the planet.

Photosynthetic bacteria, known as cyanobacteria, played an essential role in this spread. They were the first microorganisms to evolve photosynthesis, which let them harvest energy from sunlight, generating oxygen as a waste product.

Thanks to cyanobacteria, the ancient atmosphere—formed mostly of hydrogen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide—was transformed into an oxygen-rich environment. The oxygen reacted with sunlight to form the ozone layer, which protects Earth’s surface from ultraviolet radiation. Oxygen-consuming, or aerobic, cells became increasingly abundant, while anaerobic microorganisms that had thrived in the absence of oxygen began to diminish.

The Hoh Rainforest, in the heart of Olympic National Park in Washington State, is one of the last remaining temperate rainforests in North America and a true feast for the eyes. Many different forms of life proliferate under its draping of conifers, mosses, and ferns.

Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

Every October, whooper swans (Cygnus cygnus) in Siberia take to the skies to escape extreme temperatures, as low as minus 50 degrees. After a 3,800-kilometer, nonstop 18-hour migration, they arrive in more temperate Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island.

Photograph by Olivier Grunewald
Hardy Reef is one of thousands that make up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Earth’s largest structure built by living organisms. It abounds with sponges, which appeared in the oceans about 600 million years ago. Human activity threatens the delicate ecosystem.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

Some of these microorganisms even joined forces in a symbiosis that gave rise to more complex “eukaryotic” cells, with protective membranes and internal nuclei—the building blocks of all plants and animals.

For more than a billion years, single-celled organisms were the only life on Earth. Complex multicellular organisms, with different types of cells performing different functions, did not become common until the Cambrian explosion around 540 million years ago. Increased levels of oxygen and other environmental conditions triggered an extraordinary proliferation and diversification of life.

New species evolved in ecosystems on land and sea, creating an interdependent web of life that has been sustained for millennia—a delicate balance now increasingly threatened by human activity.

Beasts

The last universal common ancestor, known by the acronym LUCA, is the hypothetical organism that marks the lineage of all living things. We still don’t know when and where LUCA lived, though some scientists think it may have been single-celled bacteria that lived in sulphur-rich hydrothermal vents on the seafloor four billion years ago.

Life eventually evolved into more complex forms, especially after eukaryotic organisms began to exchange genetic material through sexual reproduction. Roughly 500 million years ago, plants and fungi spread out of the seas to colonise the land. The appearance of the first arthropods—ancestors to modern insects, arachnids, and crustaceans—signalled the coming of countless diverse life-forms that built an immense network of physical, chemical, and biological interactions.

An estimated 50 million bison once roamed the United States, but after a mass slaughter—an attempt to starve Native Americans—just 600 bison remained by 1875. Today the species has been restored to over 5,000 individuals in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.
Photograph by Olivier Grunewald

The rise of vertebrates during the Cambrian explosion kicked off a new and powerful wave of diversification that eventually led to the evolution of the first hominins around six million years ago, and our own species, Homo sapiens, more than 230,000 years ago. Of all the agents that have wrought change, none has transformed the Earth quite like humans. We’ve become the most powerful erosive force, and our manufactured products outweigh the planet’s entire biomass.

While humans are intelligent enough to appreciate the remarkable history of life on Earth, we have yet to fully grasp the responsibility that comes with this awareness and figure out how to protect Earth’s biosphere from our unrelenting ambitions.

This story originally published in the September 2021 issue of National Geographic's Spain edition.

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