Megavolcanoes tied to pre-dinosaur mass extinction

Along sea cliffs in southern England, geologist Paul Olsen of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory samples rocks from near the 201,564,000-year Triassic extinction boundary. -  Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute
Along sea cliffs in southern England, geologist Paul Olsen of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory samples rocks from near the 201,564,000-year Triassic extinction boundary. – Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute

Scientists examining evidence across the world from New Jersey to North Africa say they have linked the abrupt disappearance of half of earth’s species 200 million years ago to a precisely dated set of gigantic volcanic eruptions. The eruptions may have caused climate changes so sudden that many creatures were unable to adapt-possibly on a pace similar to that of human-influenced climate warming today. The extinction opened the way for dinosaurs to evolve and dominate the planet for the next 135 million years, before they, too, were wiped out in a later planetary cataclysm.

In recent years, many scientists have suggested that the so-called End-Triassic Extinction and at least four other known past die-offs were caused at least in part by mega-volcanism and resulting climate change. However, they were unable to tie deposits left by eruptions to biological crashes closely in time. This study provides the tightest link yet, with a newly precise date for the ETE–201,564,000 years ago, exactly the same time as a massive outpouring of lava. “This may not quench all the questions about the exact mechanism of the extinction itself. However, the coincidence in time with the volcanism is pretty much ironclad,” said coauthor Paul Olsen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been investigating the boundary since the 1970s.

The new study unites several pre-existing lines of evidence by aligning them with new techniques for dating rocks. Lead author Terrence Blackburn (then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; now at the Carnegie Institution) used the decay of uranium isotopes to pull exact dates from basalt, a rock left by eruptions. The basalts analyzed in the study all came from the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), a series of huge eruptions known to have started around 200 million years ago, when nearly all land was massed into one huge continent. The eruptions spewed some 2.5 million cubic miles of lava in four sudden spurts over a 600,000-year span, and initiated a rift that evolved into the Atlantic Ocean; remnants of CAMP lavas are found now in North and South America, and North Africa. The scientists analyzed samples from what are now Nova Scotia, Morocco and the New York City suburbs. (Olsen hammered one from a road cut in the Hudson River Palisades, about 1,900 feet from the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.)

Previous studies have suggested a link between the CAMP eruptions and the extinction, but other researchers’ dating of the basalts had a margin of error of 1 to 3 million years. The new margin of error is only a few thousand years-in geology, an eye blink. Blackburn and his colleagues showed that the eruption in Morocco was the earliest, with ones in Nova Scotia and New Jersey coming about 3,000 and 13,000 years later, respectively. Sediments below that time contain pollen, spores and other fossils characteristic of the Triassic era; in those above, the fossils disappear. Among the creatures that vanished were eel-like fish called conodonts, early crocodilians, tree lizards and many broad-leaved plants. The dating is further strengthened by a layer of sediment just preceding the extinction containing mineral grains providing evidence of one of earth’s many periodic reversals of magnetic polarity. This particular reversal, labeled E23r, is consistently located just below the boundary, making it a convenient marker, said coauthor Dennis Kent, a paleomagnetism expert who is also at Lamont-Doherty. With the same layers found everywhere the researchers have looked so far, the eruptions “had to be a hell of an event,” said Kent.

The third piece of chronological evidence is the sedimentary layers themselves. Sedimentary rocks cannot be dated directly-one reason why the timing of the extinction has been hard to nail. Olsen and some others have long contended that the earth’s precession-a cyclic change in the orientation of the axis toward the sun and resulting temperature changes-consistently created layers reflecting the alternate filling and drying of large lake basins on a fairly steady 20,000-year schedule. This idea is well accepted for more recent time, but many scientists have had doubts about whether it could be applied much farther back. By correlating the precisely dated basalts with surrounding sedimentary layers, the new study shows that precession operated pretty much the same way then, allowing dates with a give or take of 20,000 years to be assigned to most sediments holding fossils, said Olsen.

Olsen has painstakingly cataloged the layers around the time of the End Triassic, and the initial phase of the extinction occurs in just one layer-meaning the event took 20,000 years at most. But, he said, “it could have taken much less. This is the level of resolution we have now, but it’s the ‘less’ part that is the more important, and that’s what we are working on now.”

Many scientists assume that giant eruptions would have sent sulfurous particles into the air that darkened the skies, creating a multi-year winter that would have frozen out many creatures. A previous study by Kent and Rutgers University geochemist Morgan Schaller has also shown that each pulse of volcanism doubled the air’s concentration of carbon dioxide-a major component of volcanic gases. Following the cold pulses, the warming effects of this greenhouse gas would have lasted for millennia, wiping out creatures that could not take too much heat. (It was already quite hot to begin with at that time; even pre-eruption CO2 levels were higher than those of today.) Fossils show that heat-sensitive plants especially suffered; there is also evidence that the increased CO2 caused chemical reactions that made the oceans more acidic, causing populations of shell-building creatures to collapse. As if this were not enough, there is also some evidence that a large meteorite hit the earth at the time of the extinction–but that factor seems far less certain. A much stronger case has been made for the extinction of the dinosaurs by a meteorite some 65 million years ago-an event that opened the way for the evolution and dominance of mammals, including human beings. Volcanism may have been involved in that extinction as well, with the meteorite delivering the final blow.)

The End Triassic was the fourth known global die-off; the extinction of the dinosaurs was the fifth. Today, some scientists have proposed that we are on the cusp of a sixth, manmade, extinction. Explosive human population growth, industrial activity and exploitation of natural resources are rapidly pushing many species off the map. Burning of fossil fuels in particular has had an effect, raising the air’s CO2 level more than 40 percent in just 200 years-a pace possibly as fast, or faster, than that of the End Triassic. Resulting temperatures increases now appear to be altering ecosystems; and CO2 entering seawater is causing what could be the fastest ongoing acidification of the oceans for at least the last 300 million years, according to a 2012 study. “In some ways, the End Triassic Extinction is analogous to today,” said Blackburn. “It may have operated on a similar time scale. Much insight on the possible future impact of doubling atmospheric CO2 on global temperatures, ocean acidity and life on earth may be gained by studying the geologic record.”

Paul Renne, a researcher at the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California, who studies the End Triassic but was not involved in the Science paper, said the study was “part of a growing pattern in which we see that the major ecosystem crises were triggered” by volcanism. He said the new data “make the case stronger than it was. ? The pendulum continues to swing in favor of that idea.” Of the actual mechanism that killed creatures, he said climate change was the most popular suspect. But, he added, “We still don’t have any way yet of knowing exactly how much CO2 was put into the atmosphere at that time, and what it did. If we did, we would then be able to say to people, ‘Look folks, this is what we’re facing now, and here’s what we have to do about it. But we don’t know that yet.”

Megavolcanoes tied to pre-dinosaur mass extinction

Along sea cliffs in southern England, geologist Paul Olsen of Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory samples rocks from near the 201,564,000-year Triassic extinction boundary. -  Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute
Along sea cliffs in southern England, geologist Paul Olsen of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory samples rocks from near the 201,564,000-year Triassic extinction boundary. – Kevin Krajick/Earth Institute

Scientists examining evidence across the world from New Jersey to North Africa say they have linked the abrupt disappearance of half of earth’s species 200 million years ago to a precisely dated set of gigantic volcanic eruptions. The eruptions may have caused climate changes so sudden that many creatures were unable to adapt-possibly on a pace similar to that of human-influenced climate warming today. The extinction opened the way for dinosaurs to evolve and dominate the planet for the next 135 million years, before they, too, were wiped out in a later planetary cataclysm.

In recent years, many scientists have suggested that the so-called End-Triassic Extinction and at least four other known past die-offs were caused at least in part by mega-volcanism and resulting climate change. However, they were unable to tie deposits left by eruptions to biological crashes closely in time. This study provides the tightest link yet, with a newly precise date for the ETE–201,564,000 years ago, exactly the same time as a massive outpouring of lava. “This may not quench all the questions about the exact mechanism of the extinction itself. However, the coincidence in time with the volcanism is pretty much ironclad,” said coauthor Paul Olsen, a geologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who has been investigating the boundary since the 1970s.

The new study unites several pre-existing lines of evidence by aligning them with new techniques for dating rocks. Lead author Terrence Blackburn (then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology; now at the Carnegie Institution) used the decay of uranium isotopes to pull exact dates from basalt, a rock left by eruptions. The basalts analyzed in the study all came from the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP), a series of huge eruptions known to have started around 200 million years ago, when nearly all land was massed into one huge continent. The eruptions spewed some 2.5 million cubic miles of lava in four sudden spurts over a 600,000-year span, and initiated a rift that evolved into the Atlantic Ocean; remnants of CAMP lavas are found now in North and South America, and North Africa. The scientists analyzed samples from what are now Nova Scotia, Morocco and the New York City suburbs. (Olsen hammered one from a road cut in the Hudson River Palisades, about 1,900 feet from the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge.)

Previous studies have suggested a link between the CAMP eruptions and the extinction, but other researchers’ dating of the basalts had a margin of error of 1 to 3 million years. The new margin of error is only a few thousand years-in geology, an eye blink. Blackburn and his colleagues showed that the eruption in Morocco was the earliest, with ones in Nova Scotia and New Jersey coming about 3,000 and 13,000 years later, respectively. Sediments below that time contain pollen, spores and other fossils characteristic of the Triassic era; in those above, the fossils disappear. Among the creatures that vanished were eel-like fish called conodonts, early crocodilians, tree lizards and many broad-leaved plants. The dating is further strengthened by a layer of sediment just preceding the extinction containing mineral grains providing evidence of one of earth’s many periodic reversals of magnetic polarity. This particular reversal, labeled E23r, is consistently located just below the boundary, making it a convenient marker, said coauthor Dennis Kent, a paleomagnetism expert who is also at Lamont-Doherty. With the same layers found everywhere the researchers have looked so far, the eruptions “had to be a hell of an event,” said Kent.

The third piece of chronological evidence is the sedimentary layers themselves. Sedimentary rocks cannot be dated directly-one reason why the timing of the extinction has been hard to nail. Olsen and some others have long contended that the earth’s precession-a cyclic change in the orientation of the axis toward the sun and resulting temperature changes-consistently created layers reflecting the alternate filling and drying of large lake basins on a fairly steady 20,000-year schedule. This idea is well accepted for more recent time, but many scientists have had doubts about whether it could be applied much farther back. By correlating the precisely dated basalts with surrounding sedimentary layers, the new study shows that precession operated pretty much the same way then, allowing dates with a give or take of 20,000 years to be assigned to most sediments holding fossils, said Olsen.

Olsen has painstakingly cataloged the layers around the time of the End Triassic, and the initial phase of the extinction occurs in just one layer-meaning the event took 20,000 years at most. But, he said, “it could have taken much less. This is the level of resolution we have now, but it’s the ‘less’ part that is the more important, and that’s what we are working on now.”

Many scientists assume that giant eruptions would have sent sulfurous particles into the air that darkened the skies, creating a multi-year winter that would have frozen out many creatures. A previous study by Kent and Rutgers University geochemist Morgan Schaller has also shown that each pulse of volcanism doubled the air’s concentration of carbon dioxide-a major component of volcanic gases. Following the cold pulses, the warming effects of this greenhouse gas would have lasted for millennia, wiping out creatures that could not take too much heat. (It was already quite hot to begin with at that time; even pre-eruption CO2 levels were higher than those of today.) Fossils show that heat-sensitive plants especially suffered; there is also evidence that the increased CO2 caused chemical reactions that made the oceans more acidic, causing populations of shell-building creatures to collapse. As if this were not enough, there is also some evidence that a large meteorite hit the earth at the time of the extinction–but that factor seems far less certain. A much stronger case has been made for the extinction of the dinosaurs by a meteorite some 65 million years ago-an event that opened the way for the evolution and dominance of mammals, including human beings. Volcanism may have been involved in that extinction as well, with the meteorite delivering the final blow.)

The End Triassic was the fourth known global die-off; the extinction of the dinosaurs was the fifth. Today, some scientists have proposed that we are on the cusp of a sixth, manmade, extinction. Explosive human population growth, industrial activity and exploitation of natural resources are rapidly pushing many species off the map. Burning of fossil fuels in particular has had an effect, raising the air’s CO2 level more than 40 percent in just 200 years-a pace possibly as fast, or faster, than that of the End Triassic. Resulting temperatures increases now appear to be altering ecosystems; and CO2 entering seawater is causing what could be the fastest ongoing acidification of the oceans for at least the last 300 million years, according to a 2012 study. “In some ways, the End Triassic Extinction is analogous to today,” said Blackburn. “It may have operated on a similar time scale. Much insight on the possible future impact of doubling atmospheric CO2 on global temperatures, ocean acidity and life on earth may be gained by studying the geologic record.”

Paul Renne, a researcher at the Berkeley Geochronology Center in California, who studies the End Triassic but was not involved in the Science paper, said the study was “part of a growing pattern in which we see that the major ecosystem crises were triggered” by volcanism. He said the new data “make the case stronger than it was. ? The pendulum continues to swing in favor of that idea.” Of the actual mechanism that killed creatures, he said climate change was the most popular suspect. But, he added, “We still don’t have any way yet of knowing exactly how much CO2 was put into the atmosphere at that time, and what it did. If we did, we would then be able to say to people, ‘Look folks, this is what we’re facing now, and here’s what we have to do about it. But we don’t know that yet.”

Scientists discover ‘lubricant’ for Earth’s tectonic plates

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have found a layer of liquefied molten rock in Earth’s mantle that may be acting as a lubricant for the sliding motions of the planet’s massive tectonic plates. The discovery may carry far-reaching implications, from solving basic geological functions of the planet to a better understanding of volcanism and earthquakes.

The scientists discovered the magma layer at the Middle America trench offshore Nicaragua. Using advanced seafloor electromagnetic imaging technology pioneered at Scripps, the scientists imaged a 25-kilometer- (15.5-mile-) thick layer of partially melted mantle rock below the edge of the Cocos plate where it moves underneath Central America.

The discovery is reported in the March 21 issue of the journal Nature by Samer Naif, Kerry Key, and Steven Constable of Scripps, and Rob Evans of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The new images of magma were captured during a 2010 expedition aboard the U.S. Navy-owned and Scripps-operated research vessel Melville. After deploying a vast array of seafloor instruments that recorded natural electromagnetic signals to map features of the crust and mantle, the scientists realized they found magma in a surprising place.

“This was completely unexpected,” said Key, an associate research geophysicist in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps. “We went out looking to get an idea of how fluids are interacting with plate subduction, but we discovered a melt layer we weren’t expecting to find at all-it was pretty surprising.”

For decades scientists have debated the forces and circumstances that allow the planet’s tectonic plates to slide across the earth’s mantle. Studies have shown that dissolved water in mantle minerals results in a more ductile mantle that would facilitate tectonic plate motions, but for many years clear images and data required to confirm or deny this idea were lacking.

“Our data tell us that water can’t accommodate the features we are seeing,” said Naif, a Scripps graduate student and lead author of the paper. “The information from the new images confirms the idea that there needs to be some amount of melt in the upper mantle and that’s really what’s creating this ductile behavior for plates to slide.”

The marine electromagnetic technology employed in the study was originated by Charles “Chip” Cox, an emeritus professor of oceanography at Scripps, and in recent years further advanced by Constable and Key. Since 2000 they have been working with the energy industry to apply this technology to map offshore oil and gas reservoirs.

The researchers say their results will help geologists better understand the structure of the tectonic plate boundary and how that impacts earthquakes and volcanism.

“One of the longer-term implications of our results is that we are going to understand more about the plate boundary, which could lead to a better understanding of earthquakes,” said Key.

The researchers are now seeking to find the source that supplies the magma in the newly discovered layer.

Scientists discover ‘lubricant’ for Earth’s tectonic plates

Scientists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego have found a layer of liquefied molten rock in Earth’s mantle that may be acting as a lubricant for the sliding motions of the planet’s massive tectonic plates. The discovery may carry far-reaching implications, from solving basic geological functions of the planet to a better understanding of volcanism and earthquakes.

The scientists discovered the magma layer at the Middle America trench offshore Nicaragua. Using advanced seafloor electromagnetic imaging technology pioneered at Scripps, the scientists imaged a 25-kilometer- (15.5-mile-) thick layer of partially melted mantle rock below the edge of the Cocos plate where it moves underneath Central America.

The discovery is reported in the March 21 issue of the journal Nature by Samer Naif, Kerry Key, and Steven Constable of Scripps, and Rob Evans of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

The new images of magma were captured during a 2010 expedition aboard the U.S. Navy-owned and Scripps-operated research vessel Melville. After deploying a vast array of seafloor instruments that recorded natural electromagnetic signals to map features of the crust and mantle, the scientists realized they found magma in a surprising place.

“This was completely unexpected,” said Key, an associate research geophysicist in the Cecil H. and Ida M. Green Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics at Scripps. “We went out looking to get an idea of how fluids are interacting with plate subduction, but we discovered a melt layer we weren’t expecting to find at all-it was pretty surprising.”

For decades scientists have debated the forces and circumstances that allow the planet’s tectonic plates to slide across the earth’s mantle. Studies have shown that dissolved water in mantle minerals results in a more ductile mantle that would facilitate tectonic plate motions, but for many years clear images and data required to confirm or deny this idea were lacking.

“Our data tell us that water can’t accommodate the features we are seeing,” said Naif, a Scripps graduate student and lead author of the paper. “The information from the new images confirms the idea that there needs to be some amount of melt in the upper mantle and that’s really what’s creating this ductile behavior for plates to slide.”

The marine electromagnetic technology employed in the study was originated by Charles “Chip” Cox, an emeritus professor of oceanography at Scripps, and in recent years further advanced by Constable and Key. Since 2000 they have been working with the energy industry to apply this technology to map offshore oil and gas reservoirs.

The researchers say their results will help geologists better understand the structure of the tectonic plate boundary and how that impacts earthquakes and volcanism.

“One of the longer-term implications of our results is that we are going to understand more about the plate boundary, which could lead to a better understanding of earthquakes,” said Key.

The researchers are now seeking to find the source that supplies the magma in the newly discovered layer.

Can intraplate earthquakes produce stronger shaking than at plate boundaries?

New information about the extent of the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake rupture, which occurs in an area with many small and discontinuous faults, may support a hypothesis proposed by other workers that these types of quakes could produce stronger ground shaking than plate boundary earthquakes underlain by oceanic crust, like many of those taking place along the San Andreas fault.

Published estimates of the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake in southeastern California put the quake at a magnitude 7.4-7.5 to 7.7-7.9. Early work indicates the Owens Valley fault is ~140 kilometers long, and ~113 kilometers ruptured in 1872. Recent work comparing magnitude estimates from reported shaking effects versus fault rupture parameters suggests that the Owens Valley surface rupture was either longer than previously suspected, or that there was unusually strong ground shaking during the event. Colin Amos of Western Washington University and colleagues tested the hypothesis that the 1872 rupture may have extended farther to the south in Owens Valley. They conclude that the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake did not trigger additional rupture in the Haiwee area, indicating that the 1872 rupture was not likely significantly longer than previously reported.

Amos and colleagues dug trenches in the southwestern Owens Valley area to look at the prominent Sage Flat fault east of Haiwee Reservoir. The trench data, combined with dating of the exposed sediment, allowed them to preclude the southern extent of the 1872 rupture from the Sage Flat area and identify two other much older surface-rupturing earthquakes in the area 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. The evaluation of their trench site suggests that the only recent ground disturbance, possibly coincident with the 1872 earthquake, was mostly weak fracturing that may have resulted from ground shaking — rather than triggered slip along a fault. Soil liquefaction — the conversion of soil into a fluid-like mass during earthquakes – likely occurred at other nearby saturated wetlands and meadows closer to the axis of the valley.

Can intraplate earthquakes produce stronger shaking than at plate boundaries?

New information about the extent of the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake rupture, which occurs in an area with many small and discontinuous faults, may support a hypothesis proposed by other workers that these types of quakes could produce stronger ground shaking than plate boundary earthquakes underlain by oceanic crust, like many of those taking place along the San Andreas fault.

Published estimates of the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake in southeastern California put the quake at a magnitude 7.4-7.5 to 7.7-7.9. Early work indicates the Owens Valley fault is ~140 kilometers long, and ~113 kilometers ruptured in 1872. Recent work comparing magnitude estimates from reported shaking effects versus fault rupture parameters suggests that the Owens Valley surface rupture was either longer than previously suspected, or that there was unusually strong ground shaking during the event. Colin Amos of Western Washington University and colleagues tested the hypothesis that the 1872 rupture may have extended farther to the south in Owens Valley. They conclude that the 1872 Owens Valley earthquake did not trigger additional rupture in the Haiwee area, indicating that the 1872 rupture was not likely significantly longer than previously reported.

Amos and colleagues dug trenches in the southwestern Owens Valley area to look at the prominent Sage Flat fault east of Haiwee Reservoir. The trench data, combined with dating of the exposed sediment, allowed them to preclude the southern extent of the 1872 rupture from the Sage Flat area and identify two other much older surface-rupturing earthquakes in the area 25,000 to 30,000 years ago. The evaluation of their trench site suggests that the only recent ground disturbance, possibly coincident with the 1872 earthquake, was mostly weak fracturing that may have resulted from ground shaking — rather than triggered slip along a fault. Soil liquefaction — the conversion of soil into a fluid-like mass during earthquakes – likely occurred at other nearby saturated wetlands and meadows closer to the axis of the valley.

An oxygen-poor ‘boring’ ocean challenged evolution of early life

Researchers Chris Reinhard (front) and Noah Planavsky dig into a shale exposure in north China. -  Chu Research Group, Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Researchers Chris Reinhard (front) and Noah Planavsky dig into a shale exposure in north China. – Chu Research Group, Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A research team led by biogeochemists at the University of California, Riverside has filled in a billion-year gap in our understanding of conditions in the early ocean during a critical time in the history of life on Earth.

It is now well accepted that appreciable oxygen first accumulated in the atmosphere about 2.4 to 2.3 billion years ago. It is equally well accepted that the build-up of oxygen in the ocean may have lagged the atmospheric increase by well over a billion years, but the details of those conditions have long been elusive because of the patchiness of the ancient rock record.

The period 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago is of particular interest because it is the essential first chapter in the history of eukaryotes, which are single-celled and multicellular organisms with more complex cellular structures compared to prokaryotes such as bacteria. Their rise was a milestone in the history of life, including that of animals, which first appear around 0.6 to 0.7 billion years ago.

The most interesting thing about the billion-year interval is that despite the rise of oxygen and eukaryotes, the first steps forward were small and remarkably unchanging over a very long period, with oxygen likely remaining low in the atmosphere and ocean and with marine life dominated by bacteria rather than diverse and large populations of more complex eukaryotes. In fact, chemical and biological conditions in this middle age of Earth history were sufficiently static to earn this interval an unflattering nickname-‘the boring billion.’

But lest it be thought that such a ‘boring’ interval is uninteresting, the extraordinary circumstances required to maintain such biological and chemical stasis for a billion years are worthy of close study, which is what motivated the UC Riverside-led team.

By compiling data for metals with very specific and well-known chemical responses to oxygen conditions in the ocean, emphasizing marine sediments from this critical time interval from around the world, the researchers revealed an ancient ocean that was oxygen-free (anoxic) and iron-rich in the deepest waters and hydrogen sulfide-containing over limited regions on the ocean margins.

“Oxygen, by contrast, was limited, perhaps at very low levels, to the surface layers of the ocean,” said Christopher T. Reinhard, the first author of the research paper and a former UC Riverside graduate student. “What’s most unique about our study, however, is that by applying numerical techniques to the data, we were able to place estimates, for the first time, on the full global extent of these conditions. Our results suggest that most of the deep ocean was likely anoxic, compared to something much less than 1 percent today.”

Study results appear online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“A new modeling approach we took allowed us to build on our past work, which was mostly limited to defining very localized conditions in the ancient ocean,” Reinhard said. “The particular strength of the method lies in its ability to define chemical conditions on the seafloor that have long since been lost to plate tectonic recycling.”

Reinhard, now a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech and soon to be an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, explained that chromium and molybdenum enrichments in ancient organic-rich sedimentary rocks, the focus of the study, actually track the amount of the metals present in ancient seawater. Critically, those concentrations are fingerprints of global ocean chemistry.

Beyond the utility of chromium and molybdenum for tracking oxygen levels in the early ocean, molybdenum is also a bioessential element critical in the biological cycling of nitrogen, a major nutrient in the ocean.

“Molybdenum’s abundance in our ancient rocks is also a direct measure of its availability to early life,” said Timothy W. Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry at UCR and the principal investigator of the research project. “Our recent results tell us that poor supplies of molybdenum and their impact on nitrogen availability may have limited the rise of oxygen in the ocean and atmosphere and the proliferation of eukaryotic life. There is more to do, certainly, but this is a very tantalizing new read of a chapter in Earth history that is anything but boring.”

An oxygen-poor ‘boring’ ocean challenged evolution of early life

Researchers Chris Reinhard (front) and Noah Planavsky dig into a shale exposure in north China. -  Chu Research Group, Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.
Researchers Chris Reinhard (front) and Noah Planavsky dig into a shale exposure in north China. – Chu Research Group, Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences.

A research team led by biogeochemists at the University of California, Riverside has filled in a billion-year gap in our understanding of conditions in the early ocean during a critical time in the history of life on Earth.

It is now well accepted that appreciable oxygen first accumulated in the atmosphere about 2.4 to 2.3 billion years ago. It is equally well accepted that the build-up of oxygen in the ocean may have lagged the atmospheric increase by well over a billion years, but the details of those conditions have long been elusive because of the patchiness of the ancient rock record.

The period 1.8 to 0.8 billion years ago is of particular interest because it is the essential first chapter in the history of eukaryotes, which are single-celled and multicellular organisms with more complex cellular structures compared to prokaryotes such as bacteria. Their rise was a milestone in the history of life, including that of animals, which first appear around 0.6 to 0.7 billion years ago.

The most interesting thing about the billion-year interval is that despite the rise of oxygen and eukaryotes, the first steps forward were small and remarkably unchanging over a very long period, with oxygen likely remaining low in the atmosphere and ocean and with marine life dominated by bacteria rather than diverse and large populations of more complex eukaryotes. In fact, chemical and biological conditions in this middle age of Earth history were sufficiently static to earn this interval an unflattering nickname-‘the boring billion.’

But lest it be thought that such a ‘boring’ interval is uninteresting, the extraordinary circumstances required to maintain such biological and chemical stasis for a billion years are worthy of close study, which is what motivated the UC Riverside-led team.

By compiling data for metals with very specific and well-known chemical responses to oxygen conditions in the ocean, emphasizing marine sediments from this critical time interval from around the world, the researchers revealed an ancient ocean that was oxygen-free (anoxic) and iron-rich in the deepest waters and hydrogen sulfide-containing over limited regions on the ocean margins.

“Oxygen, by contrast, was limited, perhaps at very low levels, to the surface layers of the ocean,” said Christopher T. Reinhard, the first author of the research paper and a former UC Riverside graduate student. “What’s most unique about our study, however, is that by applying numerical techniques to the data, we were able to place estimates, for the first time, on the full global extent of these conditions. Our results suggest that most of the deep ocean was likely anoxic, compared to something much less than 1 percent today.”

Study results appear online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“A new modeling approach we took allowed us to build on our past work, which was mostly limited to defining very localized conditions in the ancient ocean,” Reinhard said. “The particular strength of the method lies in its ability to define chemical conditions on the seafloor that have long since been lost to plate tectonic recycling.”

Reinhard, now a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech and soon to be an assistant professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, explained that chromium and molybdenum enrichments in ancient organic-rich sedimentary rocks, the focus of the study, actually track the amount of the metals present in ancient seawater. Critically, those concentrations are fingerprints of global ocean chemistry.

Beyond the utility of chromium and molybdenum for tracking oxygen levels in the early ocean, molybdenum is also a bioessential element critical in the biological cycling of nitrogen, a major nutrient in the ocean.

“Molybdenum’s abundance in our ancient rocks is also a direct measure of its availability to early life,” said Timothy W. Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry at UCR and the principal investigator of the research project. “Our recent results tell us that poor supplies of molybdenum and their impact on nitrogen availability may have limited the rise of oxygen in the ocean and atmosphere and the proliferation of eukaryotic life. There is more to do, certainly, but this is a very tantalizing new read of a chapter in Earth history that is anything but boring.”

Computer models show how deep carbon could return to Earth’s surface

New computer modeling of water under extreme pressure shows that carbonate could dissolve in water deep in the Earth and so return to the surface. This rendering shows water molecules (white/pink) surrounding a carbonate ion (red/grey) with a section of the Earth in the background. -  Ding Pan and Yubo Zhang, UC Davis
New computer modeling of water under extreme pressure shows that carbonate could dissolve in water deep in the Earth and so return to the surface. This rendering shows water molecules (white/pink) surrounding a carbonate ion (red/grey) with a section of the Earth in the background. – Ding Pan and Yubo Zhang, UC Davis

Computer simulations of water under extreme pressure are helping geochemists understand how carbon might be recycled from hundreds of miles below the Earth’s surface. The work, by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Johns Hopkins University, is published March 18 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Carbon compounds are the basis of life, provide most of our fuels and contribute to climate change. The cycling of carbon through the oceans, atmosphere and shallow crust of the Earth has been intensively studied, but little is known about what happens to carbon deep in the Earth.

“We are trying to understand more about whether carbon can be transported in the deep Earth through water-rich fluids,” said coauthor Dimitri Sverjensky, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

There is plenty of water in the mantle, the layer of the planet extending hundreds of miles below the Earth’s crust, but little is known about how water behaves under the extreme conditions there — pressures run to hundreds of tons per square inch and temperatures are over 2,500 F.

Experiments reproducing these conditions are very hard to do, said Giulia Galli, professor of chemistry and physics at UC Davis and co-author on the paper. Geochemists have models to understand the deep Earth, but they have lacked a crucial parameter for water under these conditions: the dielectric constant, which determines how easily minerals will dissolve in water.

“When people use models to understand the Earth, they need to put in the dielectric constant of water — but there are no data at these depths,” Galli said.

Galli and Sverjensky are collaborators in the Deep Carbon Observatory, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which seeks to understand the role of carbon in chemistry and biology deep in the Earth.

Researchers have speculated that carbon, trapped as carbonate in the shells of tiny marine creatures, sinks to the ocean floor and gets carried into the mantle on sinking crustal plates then is recycled and escapes through volcanoes, Sverjensky said. But there has been no mechanism to explain how this might happen.

Ding Pan, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, used computer simulations of water to predict how it behaves under extreme pressure and temperature. The simulations show that the dielectric constant changes significantly. By bringing that new factor into the existing models of water in the mantle, the researchers predict that magnesium carbonate, which is insoluble at the Earth’s surface, would at least partially dissolve in water at that depth.

“It has been thought that this remains solid, but we show that at least part of it can dissolve and could return to the surface, possibly through volcanoes,” Sverjensky said. “Over geologic timescales, a lot of material can move this way.”

Sverjensky said the new modeling work was a “first step” to understanding how carbon deep in the Earth can return to the surface.

Computer models show how deep carbon could return to Earth’s surface

New computer modeling of water under extreme pressure shows that carbonate could dissolve in water deep in the Earth and so return to the surface. This rendering shows water molecules (white/pink) surrounding a carbonate ion (red/grey) with a section of the Earth in the background. -  Ding Pan and Yubo Zhang, UC Davis
New computer modeling of water under extreme pressure shows that carbonate could dissolve in water deep in the Earth and so return to the surface. This rendering shows water molecules (white/pink) surrounding a carbonate ion (red/grey) with a section of the Earth in the background. – Ding Pan and Yubo Zhang, UC Davis

Computer simulations of water under extreme pressure are helping geochemists understand how carbon might be recycled from hundreds of miles below the Earth’s surface. The work, by researchers at the University of California, Davis, and Johns Hopkins University, is published March 18 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Carbon compounds are the basis of life, provide most of our fuels and contribute to climate change. The cycling of carbon through the oceans, atmosphere and shallow crust of the Earth has been intensively studied, but little is known about what happens to carbon deep in the Earth.

“We are trying to understand more about whether carbon can be transported in the deep Earth through water-rich fluids,” said coauthor Dimitri Sverjensky, professor of earth and planetary sciences at Johns Hopkins University.

There is plenty of water in the mantle, the layer of the planet extending hundreds of miles below the Earth’s crust, but little is known about how water behaves under the extreme conditions there — pressures run to hundreds of tons per square inch and temperatures are over 2,500 F.

Experiments reproducing these conditions are very hard to do, said Giulia Galli, professor of chemistry and physics at UC Davis and co-author on the paper. Geochemists have models to understand the deep Earth, but they have lacked a crucial parameter for water under these conditions: the dielectric constant, which determines how easily minerals will dissolve in water.

“When people use models to understand the Earth, they need to put in the dielectric constant of water — but there are no data at these depths,” Galli said.

Galli and Sverjensky are collaborators in the Deep Carbon Observatory, supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which seeks to understand the role of carbon in chemistry and biology deep in the Earth.

Researchers have speculated that carbon, trapped as carbonate in the shells of tiny marine creatures, sinks to the ocean floor and gets carried into the mantle on sinking crustal plates then is recycled and escapes through volcanoes, Sverjensky said. But there has been no mechanism to explain how this might happen.

Ding Pan, a postdoctoral researcher at UC Davis, used computer simulations of water to predict how it behaves under extreme pressure and temperature. The simulations show that the dielectric constant changes significantly. By bringing that new factor into the existing models of water in the mantle, the researchers predict that magnesium carbonate, which is insoluble at the Earth’s surface, would at least partially dissolve in water at that depth.

“It has been thought that this remains solid, but we show that at least part of it can dissolve and could return to the surface, possibly through volcanoes,” Sverjensky said. “Over geologic timescales, a lot of material can move this way.”

Sverjensky said the new modeling work was a “first step” to understanding how carbon deep in the Earth can return to the surface.