Experts to calculate potential of Greenlandic mineral wealth

The University of Greenland/Illsimatusarfik and the University of Copenhagen have agreed to set up a joint committee to determine how best Greenland’s mineral resources can benefit the country. Greenland’s premier, Kuupik Kleist, and the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, support the initiative.

The committee will examine Greenland’s opportunities for exploiting its mineral resources and how they can create value for Greenland through, for example, economic growth and employment. The committee will also study how mining, oil drilling and other large-scale raw materials projects can be undertaken as sustainably as possible and with as little impact as possible on the environment or the people of Greenland.

“Greenland and Denmark have historically had a very close relationship and the University of Copenhagen has been sending faculty to conduct research in Greenland for more than 100 years. We have had researchers stationed at the Arctic Station, climatologists studying the ice cap, and the University of Copenhagen offers a programme in Eskimology and Arctic Studies. The joint committee will be able to gather the necessary knowledge to ensure that Greenland’s resources are developed as sustainably as possible and return the maximum yield for future generations,” says University of Copenhagen Rector Ralf Hemmingsen.

Resumed relationship

Denmark’s Interest in Greenland’s mineral resources started as early as 1878 when a commission was established to undertake geological and geographic studies in Greenland. Their study quickly developed into a forum for Danish and Greenlandic scholars to study everything from natural phenomena to Arctic languages, anthropology, culture and history.

With the decision to grant Greenland Home Rule status in 1979, Denmark has gradually reduced its involvement in the country’s affairs. But the importance of maintaining a strong relationship was demonstrated after Greenland, now with Self-Rule status and even more autonomy from Copenhagen, drafted legislation that would make it easier for foreign companies to set up operations in Greenland.

“The extraction of Greenland’s underground resources affects many different interests. Only by collaborating between universities and cultures are we sure to develop a sufficient insight into these interests,” says Illsimatusarfik Rector Tine Pars.

Professor Minik Rosing, from the University of Copenhagen, often collaborates with Illsimatusarfik faculty and will chair the commission. As a geologist he drew international attention when he uncovered some of the world’s oldest rocks at a site north-east of Nuuk.

Ilisimatusarfik Rector Tine Pars

In all, the committee will be made up of nine members, all of whom will be experts in their field and hand selected by the two rectors.

The committee will examine the potential for extracting Greenland’s resources and make recommendations for specific measures that Greenlandic and Danish interests can take. These could consist of initiatives to ensure that Greenland benefits to the greatest extent possible from investments in developing its geological resources.

The committee’s findings will be presented by the end of this year in the hopes that they can form the basis for a public debate. The commission will be jointly administered by Illsimatusarfik and the University of Copenhagen.

Experts to calculate potential of Greenlandic mineral wealth

The University of Greenland/Illsimatusarfik and the University of Copenhagen have agreed to set up a joint committee to determine how best Greenland’s mineral resources can benefit the country. Greenland’s premier, Kuupik Kleist, and the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, support the initiative.

The committee will examine Greenland’s opportunities for exploiting its mineral resources and how they can create value for Greenland through, for example, economic growth and employment. The committee will also study how mining, oil drilling and other large-scale raw materials projects can be undertaken as sustainably as possible and with as little impact as possible on the environment or the people of Greenland.

“Greenland and Denmark have historically had a very close relationship and the University of Copenhagen has been sending faculty to conduct research in Greenland for more than 100 years. We have had researchers stationed at the Arctic Station, climatologists studying the ice cap, and the University of Copenhagen offers a programme in Eskimology and Arctic Studies. The joint committee will be able to gather the necessary knowledge to ensure that Greenland’s resources are developed as sustainably as possible and return the maximum yield for future generations,” says University of Copenhagen Rector Ralf Hemmingsen.

Resumed relationship

Denmark’s Interest in Greenland’s mineral resources started as early as 1878 when a commission was established to undertake geological and geographic studies in Greenland. Their study quickly developed into a forum for Danish and Greenlandic scholars to study everything from natural phenomena to Arctic languages, anthropology, culture and history.

With the decision to grant Greenland Home Rule status in 1979, Denmark has gradually reduced its involvement in the country’s affairs. But the importance of maintaining a strong relationship was demonstrated after Greenland, now with Self-Rule status and even more autonomy from Copenhagen, drafted legislation that would make it easier for foreign companies to set up operations in Greenland.

“The extraction of Greenland’s underground resources affects many different interests. Only by collaborating between universities and cultures are we sure to develop a sufficient insight into these interests,” says Illsimatusarfik Rector Tine Pars.

Professor Minik Rosing, from the University of Copenhagen, often collaborates with Illsimatusarfik faculty and will chair the commission. As a geologist he drew international attention when he uncovered some of the world’s oldest rocks at a site north-east of Nuuk.

Ilisimatusarfik Rector Tine Pars

In all, the committee will be made up of nine members, all of whom will be experts in their field and hand selected by the two rectors.

The committee will examine the potential for extracting Greenland’s resources and make recommendations for specific measures that Greenlandic and Danish interests can take. These could consist of initiatives to ensure that Greenland benefits to the greatest extent possible from investments in developing its geological resources.

The committee’s findings will be presented by the end of this year in the hopes that they can form the basis for a public debate. The commission will be jointly administered by Illsimatusarfik and the University of Copenhagen.

Researchers find new information about ‘Snowball Earth’ period

It is rather difficult to imagine, but approximately 635 million years ago, ice may have covered a vast portion of our planet in an event called “Snowball Earth.” According to the Snowball Earth hypothesis, the massive ice age that occurred before animal life appeared, when Earth’s landmasses were most likely clustered near the equator, precipitated relatively rapid changes in atmospheric conditions and a subsequent greenhouse heat wave. This particular period of extensive glaciation and subsequent climate changes might have supplied the cataclysmic event that gave rise to modern levels of atmospheric oxygen, paving the way for the rise of animals and the diversification of life during the later Cambrian explosion.

But if ice covered the earth all the way to the tropics during what is known as the Marinoan glaciation, how did the planet spring back from the brink of an ice apocalypse? Huiming Bao, Charles L. Jones Professor in Geology & Geophysics at LSU, might have some of the answers. Bao and LSU graduate students Bryan Killingsworth and Justin Hayles, together with Chuanming Zhou, a colleague at Chinese Academy of Sciences, had an article published on Feb. 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, that provides new clues on the duration of what was a significant change in atmospheric conditions following the Marinoan glaciation.

“The story is to put a time limit on how fast our Earth system can recover from a total frozen state,” Bao said. “It is about a unique and rapidly changing post-glacial world, but is also about the incredible resilience of life and life’s remarkable ability to restore a new balance between atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere after a global glaciation.”

Bao’s group went about investigating the post-glaciation period of Snowball Earth by looking at unique occurrences of “crystal fans” of a common mineral known as barite (BaSO4), deposited in rocks following the Marinoan glaciation. Out of the three stable isotopes of oxygen, O-16, O-17 and O-18, Bao’s group pays close attention to the relatively scarce isotope O-17. According to Killingsworth, there aren’t many phenomena on earth that can change the normally expected ratio of the scare isotope O-17 to more abundant isotope O-18. However, in sulfate minerals such as barite in rock samples from around 635 million years ago, Bao’s group finds large deviations in the normal ratio of O-17 to O-18 with respect to O-16 isotopes.

“If something unusual happens with the composition of the atmosphere, the oxygen isotope ratios can change,” Killingsworth said. “We see a large deviation in this ratio in minerals deposited around 635 million years ago. This occurred during an extremely odd time in atmospheric history.”

According to Bao’s group, the odd oxygen isotope ratios they find in barite samples from 635 million years ago could have occurred if, following the extensive Snowball Earth glaciation, Earth’s atmosphere had very high levels of carbon dioxide, or CO2. An ultra-high carbon dioxide atmosphere, Killingsworth explains, where CO2 levels match levels of atmospheric oxygen, would grab more O-17 from oxygen. This would cause a depletion of the O-17 isotope in air and subsequently in barite minerals, which incorporate oxygen as they grow. Bao’s group has found worldwide deposits of this O-17 depleted sulfate mineral in rocks dating from the global glaciation event 635 million years ago, indicating an episode of an ultra-high carbon dioxide atmosphere following the Marinoan glaciation.

“Something significant happened in the atmosphere,” Killingsworth said. “This kind of an atmospheric shift in carbon dioxide is not observed during any other period of Earth’s history. And now we have sedimentary rock evidence for how long this ultra-high carbon dioxide period lasted.”

By using available radiometric dates from areas near layers of barite deposits, Bao’s group has been able to come up with an estimate for the duration of what is now called the Marinoan Oxygen-17 Depletion, or MOSD, event. Bao’s group estimates the MOSD duration at 0 – 1 million years.

“This is, so far, really the best estimate we could get from geological records, in line with previous models of how long an ultra-high carbon dioxide event could last before the carbon dioxide in the air would get drawn back into the oceans and sediments,” Killingsworth said.

Normally, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are in balance with levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean. However, if water and air were cut off by a thick layer of ice during Snowball Earth, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could have increased drastically. In a phenomenon similar to the climate change Earth is witnessing in modern times, high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would have created a greenhouse gas warming effect, trapping heat inside the planet’s atmosphere and melting the Marinoan ice. Essentially, the Marinoan glaciation created the potential for extreme changes in atmospheric chemistry that in turn lead to the end of Snowball Earth and the beginning of a new explosion of animal life on Earth.

While previous work by Bao’s group had advanced the interpretation of the strange occurrence of O-17 depleted barite just after the Marinoan glaciation, there was still much uncertainty on the duration of ultra-high CO2 levels after meltdown of Snowball Earth. Bao’s discovery of a field site with many barite layers gave the opportunity to track how oxygen isotope ratios changed through a thickness of sedimentary rock. As the pages in a novel can be thought of as representing time, so layers of sedimentary rock represent geological history. However, these rock “pages” represented an unknown duration of time for the MOSD event. By using characteristic features of the Marinoan rock sequence occurring regionally in South China, Bao’s group linked the barite layer site to other sites in the region that did have precise dates from volcanic ash beds. Bao’s group has succeeded in estimating the duration of the MOSD event, and thus the time it took for Earth to restore “normal” CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

“To some extent, our findings demonstrate that whatever happens to Earth, she will recover, and recover at a rapid pace,” Bao said. “Mother Earth lived and life carried on even in the most devastating situation. The only difference is the life composition afterwards. In other words, whatever humans do to the Earth, life will go on. The only uncertainty is whether humans will still remain part of the life composition.”

Bao says that he had been interested in this most intriguing episode of Earth’s history since Paul Hoffman, Dan Schrag and colleagues revived the Snowball Earth hypothesis in 1998.

“I was a casual ‘non-believer’ of this hypothesis because of the mere improbability of such an Earth state,” Bao said. “There was nothing rational or logic in that belief for me, of course. I remember I even told my job interviewers back in 2000 that one of my future research plans was to prove that the Snowball Earth hypothesis was wrong.”

However, during a winter break in 2006, Bao obtained some unusual data from barite, a sulfate mineral dating from the Snowball Earth period that he received from a colleague in China.

“I started to develop my own method to explore this utterly strange world,” Bao said. “Now, it seems that our LSU group is the one offering the strongest supporting evidence for a ‘Snowball Earth’ back 635 million years ago. I certainly did not see this coming. The finding we published in 2008 demonstrates, again, that new scientific breakthroughs are often brought in by outsiders.”

Bao credits his research ideas, analytical work and pleasure of working on this project to his two graduate students, Killingsworth and Hayles, as well as his long-time Chinese collaborators. Bao brought Killingsworth and Hayles to an interior mountainous region in South China in December 2011, where the group succeeded in finding multiple barite layers in a section of rocks dating to 635 million years ago. This discovery formed a large part of their analysis and subsequent publication in PNAS.

“Nothing can beat the intellectual excitement and satisfaction you get from research in the field and in the laboratory,” Bao said.

Researchers find new information about ‘Snowball Earth’ period

It is rather difficult to imagine, but approximately 635 million years ago, ice may have covered a vast portion of our planet in an event called “Snowball Earth.” According to the Snowball Earth hypothesis, the massive ice age that occurred before animal life appeared, when Earth’s landmasses were most likely clustered near the equator, precipitated relatively rapid changes in atmospheric conditions and a subsequent greenhouse heat wave. This particular period of extensive glaciation and subsequent climate changes might have supplied the cataclysmic event that gave rise to modern levels of atmospheric oxygen, paving the way for the rise of animals and the diversification of life during the later Cambrian explosion.

But if ice covered the earth all the way to the tropics during what is known as the Marinoan glaciation, how did the planet spring back from the brink of an ice apocalypse? Huiming Bao, Charles L. Jones Professor in Geology & Geophysics at LSU, might have some of the answers. Bao and LSU graduate students Bryan Killingsworth and Justin Hayles, together with Chuanming Zhou, a colleague at Chinese Academy of Sciences, had an article published on Feb. 5 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, or PNAS, that provides new clues on the duration of what was a significant change in atmospheric conditions following the Marinoan glaciation.

“The story is to put a time limit on how fast our Earth system can recover from a total frozen state,” Bao said. “It is about a unique and rapidly changing post-glacial world, but is also about the incredible resilience of life and life’s remarkable ability to restore a new balance between atmosphere, hydrosphere and biosphere after a global glaciation.”

Bao’s group went about investigating the post-glaciation period of Snowball Earth by looking at unique occurrences of “crystal fans” of a common mineral known as barite (BaSO4), deposited in rocks following the Marinoan glaciation. Out of the three stable isotopes of oxygen, O-16, O-17 and O-18, Bao’s group pays close attention to the relatively scarce isotope O-17. According to Killingsworth, there aren’t many phenomena on earth that can change the normally expected ratio of the scare isotope O-17 to more abundant isotope O-18. However, in sulfate minerals such as barite in rock samples from around 635 million years ago, Bao’s group finds large deviations in the normal ratio of O-17 to O-18 with respect to O-16 isotopes.

“If something unusual happens with the composition of the atmosphere, the oxygen isotope ratios can change,” Killingsworth said. “We see a large deviation in this ratio in minerals deposited around 635 million years ago. This occurred during an extremely odd time in atmospheric history.”

According to Bao’s group, the odd oxygen isotope ratios they find in barite samples from 635 million years ago could have occurred if, following the extensive Snowball Earth glaciation, Earth’s atmosphere had very high levels of carbon dioxide, or CO2. An ultra-high carbon dioxide atmosphere, Killingsworth explains, where CO2 levels match levels of atmospheric oxygen, would grab more O-17 from oxygen. This would cause a depletion of the O-17 isotope in air and subsequently in barite minerals, which incorporate oxygen as they grow. Bao’s group has found worldwide deposits of this O-17 depleted sulfate mineral in rocks dating from the global glaciation event 635 million years ago, indicating an episode of an ultra-high carbon dioxide atmosphere following the Marinoan glaciation.

“Something significant happened in the atmosphere,” Killingsworth said. “This kind of an atmospheric shift in carbon dioxide is not observed during any other period of Earth’s history. And now we have sedimentary rock evidence for how long this ultra-high carbon dioxide period lasted.”

By using available radiometric dates from areas near layers of barite deposits, Bao’s group has been able to come up with an estimate for the duration of what is now called the Marinoan Oxygen-17 Depletion, or MOSD, event. Bao’s group estimates the MOSD duration at 0 – 1 million years.

“This is, so far, really the best estimate we could get from geological records, in line with previous models of how long an ultra-high carbon dioxide event could last before the carbon dioxide in the air would get drawn back into the oceans and sediments,” Killingsworth said.

Normally, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are in balance with levels of carbon dioxide in the ocean. However, if water and air were cut off by a thick layer of ice during Snowball Earth, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels could have increased drastically. In a phenomenon similar to the climate change Earth is witnessing in modern times, high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would have created a greenhouse gas warming effect, trapping heat inside the planet’s atmosphere and melting the Marinoan ice. Essentially, the Marinoan glaciation created the potential for extreme changes in atmospheric chemistry that in turn lead to the end of Snowball Earth and the beginning of a new explosion of animal life on Earth.

While previous work by Bao’s group had advanced the interpretation of the strange occurrence of O-17 depleted barite just after the Marinoan glaciation, there was still much uncertainty on the duration of ultra-high CO2 levels after meltdown of Snowball Earth. Bao’s discovery of a field site with many barite layers gave the opportunity to track how oxygen isotope ratios changed through a thickness of sedimentary rock. As the pages in a novel can be thought of as representing time, so layers of sedimentary rock represent geological history. However, these rock “pages” represented an unknown duration of time for the MOSD event. By using characteristic features of the Marinoan rock sequence occurring regionally in South China, Bao’s group linked the barite layer site to other sites in the region that did have precise dates from volcanic ash beds. Bao’s group has succeeded in estimating the duration of the MOSD event, and thus the time it took for Earth to restore “normal” CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

“To some extent, our findings demonstrate that whatever happens to Earth, she will recover, and recover at a rapid pace,” Bao said. “Mother Earth lived and life carried on even in the most devastating situation. The only difference is the life composition afterwards. In other words, whatever humans do to the Earth, life will go on. The only uncertainty is whether humans will still remain part of the life composition.”

Bao says that he had been interested in this most intriguing episode of Earth’s history since Paul Hoffman, Dan Schrag and colleagues revived the Snowball Earth hypothesis in 1998.

“I was a casual ‘non-believer’ of this hypothesis because of the mere improbability of such an Earth state,” Bao said. “There was nothing rational or logic in that belief for me, of course. I remember I even told my job interviewers back in 2000 that one of my future research plans was to prove that the Snowball Earth hypothesis was wrong.”

However, during a winter break in 2006, Bao obtained some unusual data from barite, a sulfate mineral dating from the Snowball Earth period that he received from a colleague in China.

“I started to develop my own method to explore this utterly strange world,” Bao said. “Now, it seems that our LSU group is the one offering the strongest supporting evidence for a ‘Snowball Earth’ back 635 million years ago. I certainly did not see this coming. The finding we published in 2008 demonstrates, again, that new scientific breakthroughs are often brought in by outsiders.”

Bao credits his research ideas, analytical work and pleasure of working on this project to his two graduate students, Killingsworth and Hayles, as well as his long-time Chinese collaborators. Bao brought Killingsworth and Hayles to an interior mountainous region in South China in December 2011, where the group succeeded in finding multiple barite layers in a section of rocks dating to 635 million years ago. This discovery formed a large part of their analysis and subsequent publication in PNAS.

“Nothing can beat the intellectual excitement and satisfaction you get from research in the field and in the laboratory,” Bao said.

Mineral diversity clue to early Earth chemistry

Mineral evolution is a new way to look at our planet’s history. It’s the study of the increasing diversity and characteristics of Earth’s near-surface minerals, from the dozen that arrived on interstellar dust particles when the Solar System was formed to the more than 4,700 types existing today. New research on a mineral called molybdenite by a team led by Robert Hazen at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory provides important new insights about the changing chemistry of our planet as a result of geological and biological processes.

The work is published by Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Mineral evolution is an approach to understanding Earth’s changing near-surface geochemistry. All chemical elements were present from the start of our Solar System, but at first they formed comparatively few minerals-perhaps no more than 500 different species in the first billion years. As time passed on the planet, novel combinations of elements led to new minerals.

Molybdenite is the most common ore mineral of the critical metallic element molybdenum. Hazen and his team, which includes fellow Geophysical Laboratory scientists Dimitri Sverjensky and John Armstrong, analyzed 442 molybdenite samples from 135 locations and ages ranging from 2.91 billion years old to 6.3 million years old. They specifically looked for trace contamination of the element rhenium in the molybdenite, because rhenium can be used to use to gauge historical chemical reactions with oxygen from the environment.

They found that concentrations of rhenium, a trace element that is sensitive to oxidation reactions, increased significantly-by a factor of eight-over the past three billion years. The team suggests that this change reflects the increasing near-surface oxidation conditions from the Archean Eon more than 2.5 billion years ago to the Phanerozoic Eon less than 542 million years ago. This oxygen increase was a consequence of what’s called the Great Oxidation Event, when the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen levels skyrocketed as a consequence of oxygen-producing photosynthetic microbes.

In addition, they found that the distribution of molybdenite deposits through time roughly correlates with five periods of supercontinent formation, the assemblies of Kenorland, Nuna, Rodinia, Pannotia, and Pangea. This correlation supports previous findings from Hazen and his colleagues that mineral formation increases markedly during episodes of continental convergence and supercontinent assembly and that a dearth of mineral deposits form during periods of tectonic stability.

“Our work continues to demonstrate that a major driving force for mineral evolution is hydrothermal activity associated with colliding continents and the increasing oxygen content of the atmosphere caused by the rise of life on Earth,” Hazen said.

Mineral diversity clue to early Earth chemistry

Mineral evolution is a new way to look at our planet’s history. It’s the study of the increasing diversity and characteristics of Earth’s near-surface minerals, from the dozen that arrived on interstellar dust particles when the Solar System was formed to the more than 4,700 types existing today. New research on a mineral called molybdenite by a team led by Robert Hazen at Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory provides important new insights about the changing chemistry of our planet as a result of geological and biological processes.

The work is published by Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Mineral evolution is an approach to understanding Earth’s changing near-surface geochemistry. All chemical elements were present from the start of our Solar System, but at first they formed comparatively few minerals-perhaps no more than 500 different species in the first billion years. As time passed on the planet, novel combinations of elements led to new minerals.

Molybdenite is the most common ore mineral of the critical metallic element molybdenum. Hazen and his team, which includes fellow Geophysical Laboratory scientists Dimitri Sverjensky and John Armstrong, analyzed 442 molybdenite samples from 135 locations and ages ranging from 2.91 billion years old to 6.3 million years old. They specifically looked for trace contamination of the element rhenium in the molybdenite, because rhenium can be used to use to gauge historical chemical reactions with oxygen from the environment.

They found that concentrations of rhenium, a trace element that is sensitive to oxidation reactions, increased significantly-by a factor of eight-over the past three billion years. The team suggests that this change reflects the increasing near-surface oxidation conditions from the Archean Eon more than 2.5 billion years ago to the Phanerozoic Eon less than 542 million years ago. This oxygen increase was a consequence of what’s called the Great Oxidation Event, when the Earth’s atmospheric oxygen levels skyrocketed as a consequence of oxygen-producing photosynthetic microbes.

In addition, they found that the distribution of molybdenite deposits through time roughly correlates with five periods of supercontinent formation, the assemblies of Kenorland, Nuna, Rodinia, Pannotia, and Pangea. This correlation supports previous findings from Hazen and his colleagues that mineral formation increases markedly during episodes of continental convergence and supercontinent assembly and that a dearth of mineral deposits form during periods of tectonic stability.

“Our work continues to demonstrate that a major driving force for mineral evolution is hydrothermal activity associated with colliding continents and the increasing oxygen content of the atmosphere caused by the rise of life on Earth,” Hazen said.