First harvest of research based on the final GOCE gravity model

This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. -  TUM IAPG
This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. – TUM IAPG

Just four months after the final data package from the GOCE satellite mission was delivered, researchers are laying out a rich harvest of scientific results, with the promise of more to come. A mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) provided the most accurate measurements yet of Earth’s gravitational field. The GOCE Gravity Consortium, coordinated by the Technische Universität München (TUM), produced all of the mission’s data products including the fifth and final GOCE gravity model. On this basis, studies in geophysics, geology, ocean circulation, climate change, and civil engineering are sharpening the picture of our dynamic planet – as can be seen in the program of the 5th International GOCE User Workshop, taking place Nov. 25-28 in Paris.

The GOCE satellite made 27,000 orbits between its launch in March 2009 and re-entry in November 2013, measuring tiny variations in the gravitational field that correspond to uneven distributions of mass in Earth’s oceans, continents, and deep interior. Some 800 million observations went into the computation of the final model, which is composed of more than 75,000 parameters representing the global gravitational field with a spatial resolution of around 70 kilometers. The precision of the model improved over time, as each release incorporated more data. Centimeter accuracy has now been achieved for variations of the geoid – a gravity-derived figure of Earth’s surface that serves as a global reference for sea level and heights – in a model based solely on GOCE data.

The fifth and last data release benefited from two special phases of observation. After its first three years of operation, the satellite’s orbit was lowered from 255 to 225 kilometers, increasing the sensitivity of gravity measurements to reveal even more detailed structures of the gravity field. And through most of the satellite’s final plunge through the atmosphere, some instruments continued to report measurements that have sparked intense interest far beyond the “gravity community” – for example, among researchers concerned with aerospace engineering, atmospheric sciences, and space debris.

Moving on: new science, future missions

Through the lens of Earth’s gravitational field, scientists can image our planet in a way that is complementary to approaches that rely on light, magnetism, or seismic waves. They can determine the speed of ocean currents from space, monitor rising sea level and melting ice sheets, uncover hidden features of continental geology, even peer into the convection machine that drives plate tectonics. Topics like these dominate the more than 100 talks scheduled for the 5th GOCE User Workshop, with technical talks on measurements and models playing a smaller role. “I see this as a sign of success, that the emphasis has shifted decisively to the user community,” says Prof. Roland Pail, director of the Institute for Astronomical and Physical Geodesy at TUM.

This shift can be seen as well among the topics covered by TUM researchers, such as estimates of the elastic thickness of the continents from GOCE gravity models, mass trends in Antarctica from global gravity fields, and a scientific roadmap toward worldwide unification of height systems. For his part Pail – who was responsible for delivery of the data products – chose to speak about consolidating science requirements for a next-generation gravity field mission.

TUM has organized a public symposium on “Seeing Earth in the ‘light’ of gravity” for the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. This session, featuring speakers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Italy, takes place on Feb. 14, 2015. (See

This research was supported in part by the European Space Agency.


“EGM_TIM_RL05: An Independent Geoid with Centimeter Accuracy Purely Based on the GOCE Mission,” Jan Martin Brockmann, Norbert Zehentner, Eduard Höck, Roland Pail, Ina Loth, Torsten Mayer-Gürr, and Wolf-Dieter Shuh. Geophysical Research Letters 2014, doi:10.1002/2014GL061904.

Geologists shed light on formation of Alaska Range

Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. -  Syracuse University
Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. – Syracuse University

Geologists in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences have recently figured out what has caused the Alaska Range to form the way it has and why the range boasts such an enigmatic topographic signature. The narrow mountain range is home to some of the world’s most dramatic topography, including 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a team of students and fellow scientists have been studying the Alaska Range along the Denali fault. They think they know why the fault is located where it is and what accounts for the alternating asymmetrical, mountain-scale topography along the fault.

Their findings were the subject of a recent paper in the journal Tectonics (American Geophysical Union, 2014).

In 2002, the Denali fault, which cuts across south-central Alaska, was the site of a magnitude-7.9 earthquake and was felt as far away as Texas and Louisiana. It was the largest earthquake of its kind in more than 150 years.

“Following the earthquake, researchers flocked to the area to examine the effects,” says Fitzgerald, who serves as professor of Earth Sciences and an associate dean for the College. “They were fascinated by how the frozen ground behaved; the many landslides [the earthquake] caused; how bridges responded; and how the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline survived, as it was engineered to do so.”

Geologists were also surprised by how the earthquake began on a previously unknown thrust-fault; then propagated eastward, along the Denali fault, and finally jumped onto another fault, hundreds of kilometers away.

“From our perspective, the earthquake has motivated analyses of why the highest mountains in the central Alaska Range occur south of the Denali fault and the highest mountains in the eastern Alaska Range occur north of the fault–something that has puzzled us for years,” Fitzgerald adds. “It’s been an enigma staring us in the face.”

He attributes the Alaska Range’s alternating topographic signatures to a myriad of factors: contrasting lithospheric strength between large terranes (i.e., distinctly different rock units); the location of the curved Denali fault; the transfer of strain inland from southern Alaska’s active plate margin; and the shape of the controlling former continental margin against weaker suture-zone rocks.

It’s no secret that Alaska is one of the most geologically active areas on the planet. For instance, scientists know that the North American Plate is currently overriding the Pacific Plate at the latter’s southern coast, while the Yakutat microplate is colliding with North America.

As a result of plate tectonics, Alaska is an amalgamation of terranes that have collided with the North American craton and have accreted to become part of North America.

Cratons are pieces of continents that have been largely stable for hundreds of millions of years.

Terranes often originate as volcanic islands (like those of Hawaii) and, after colliding with one another or a continent, are separated by large discrete faults. When terranes collide and accrete, they form a suture, also known as a collision zone, which is made up of weak, crushed rock. During deformation, suture-zone rocks usually deform first, especially if they are adjacent to a strong rock body.

“Technically, the Denali fault is what we’d call an ‘intercontinental right-lateral strike-slip fault system,'” says Fitzgerald, adding that a strike-slip fault occurs when rocks move horizontally past one another, usually on a vertical fault. “This motion includes a component of slip along the fault and a component of normal motion against the fault that creates mountains. Hence, the shape of the fault determines which of the two components is predominant and where mountains form.”

In Alaska, the shape of the accreted terranes generally controls the location of the Denali fault and the mountains that form along it, especially at the bends in the trace of the fault.

Fitzgerald: “Mount McKinley and the central Alaska Range lie within the concave curve of the Denali fault. There, higher topography and greater exhumation [uplift of rock] occur south of the Denali fault, exactly where you’d expect a mountain range to form, given the regional tectonics. In the eastern Alaska Range, higher topography and greater exhumation are found north of the fault, on its convex side–not an expected pattern at all and very puzzling.”

Using mapped surface geology, geophysical data, and thermochronology (i.e., time-temperature history of the rocks), Fitzgerald and colleagues have determined that much of Alaska’s uplift and deformation began some 25 million years ago, when the Yakutat microplate first started colliding with North America. The bold, glacier-clad peaks comprising the Alaska Range actually derive from within the aforementioned “weak suture-zone rocks” between the terranes.

While mountains are high and give the impression of strength, they are built largely from previously fractured rock units. Rock movement along the Denali fault drives the uplift of the mountains, which form at bends in the fault, where previously fractured suture-zone rocks are pinned against the stronger former North American continental margin.

“The patterns of deformation help us understand regional tectonics and the formation of the Alaska Range, which is fascinating to geologists and non-geologists alike,” says Fitzgerald. “Being able to determine patterns or how to reveal them, while others see chaos, is often the key to finding the answer to complex problems. … To us scientists, the real significance of this work is that it helps us understand the evolution of our planet, how faults and mountain belts form, and why earthquakes happen. It also provides a number of hypotheses about Alaskan tectonics and rock deformation that we can test, using the Alaska Range as our laboratory.”

In addition to Fitzgerald, the paper was co-authored by Sarah Roeske, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis; Jeff Benowitz, a research scientist at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; Steven Riccio and Stephanie Perry, graduate students in Earth Sciences at Syracuse; and Phillip Armstrong, professor and chair of geological sciences at California State University, Fullerton.

Housed in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Earth Sciences offers graduate and undergraduate degree opportunities in crustal evolution and tectonics, environmental sciences and climate change, hydrogeology, sedimentology and paleolimnology, geochemistry, and paleobiology.

Worldwide retreat of glaciers confirmed in unprecedented detail

The worldwide retreat of glaciers is confirmed in unprecedented detail. This new book presents an overview and detailed assessment of changes in the world's glaciers by using satellite imagery -  Springer
The worldwide retreat of glaciers is confirmed in unprecedented detail. This new book presents an overview and detailed assessment of changes in the world’s glaciers by using satellite imagery – Springer

Taking their name from the old Scottish term glim, meaning a passing look or glance, in 1994 a team of scientists began developing a world-wide initiative to study glaciers using satellite data. Now 20 years later, the international GLIMS (Global Land Ice Measurements from Space) initiative observes the world’s glaciers primarily using data from optical satellite instruments such as ASTER (Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer) and Landsat.

More than 150 scientists from all over the world have contributed to the new book Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, the most comprehensive report to date on global glacier changes. While the shrinking of glaciers on all continents is already known from ground observations of individual glaciers, by using repeated satellite observations GLIMS has firmly established that glaciers are shrinking globally. Although some glaciers are maintaining their size, most glaciers are dwindling. The foremost cause of the worldwide reductions in glaciers is global warming, the team writes.

Full color throughout, the book has 25 regional chapters that illustrate glacier changes from the Arctic to the Antarctic. Other chapters provide a thorough theoretical background on glacier monitoring and mapping, remote sensing techniques, uncertainties, and interpretation of the observations in a climatic context. The book highlights many other glacier research applications of satellite data, including measurement of glacier thinning from repeated satellite-based digital elevation models (DEMs) and calculation of surface flow velocities from repeated satellite images.

These tools are key to understanding local and regional variations in glacier behavior, the team writes. The high sensitivity of glaciers to climate change has substantially decreased their volume and changed the landscape over the past decades, affecting both regional water availability and the hazard potential of glaciers. The growing GLIMS database about glaciers also contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s Fifth Assessment Report issued in 2013. The IPCC report concluded that most of the world’s glaciers have been losing ice at an increasing rate in recent decades.

More than 60 institutions across the globe are involved in GLIMS. Jeffrey S. Kargel of the Department of Hydrology and Water Resources at the University of Arizona coordinates the project. The GLIMS glacier database and GLIMS web site are developed and maintained by the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Global Land Ice Measurements from Space</em?

Hardcover $279.00; £180.00; € 199,99

Springer and Praxis Publishing (2014) ISBN 978-3-540-79817-0

Also available as an eBook

Massive geographic change may have triggered explosion of animal life

A new analysis from The University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics suggests a deep oceanic gateway, shown in blue, developed between the Pacific and Iapetus oceans immediately before the Cambrian sea level rise and explosion of life in the fossil record, isolating Laurentia from the supercontinent Gondwanaland. -  Ian Dalziel
A new analysis from The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics suggests a deep oceanic gateway, shown in blue, developed between the Pacific and Iapetus oceans immediately before the Cambrian sea level rise and explosion of life in the fossil record, isolating Laurentia from the supercontinent Gondwanaland. – Ian Dalziel

A new analysis of geologic history may help solve the riddle of the “Cambrian explosion,” the rapid diversification of animal life in the fossil record 530 million years ago that has puzzled scientists since the time of Charles Darwin.

A paper by Ian Dalziel of The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, published in the November issue of Geology, a journal of the Geological Society of America, suggests a major tectonic event may have triggered the rise in sea level and other environmental changes that accompanied the apparent burst of life.

The Cambrian explosion is one of the most significant events in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. The surge of evolution led to the sudden appearance of almost all modern animal groups. Fossils from the Cambrian explosion document the rapid evolution of life on Earth, but its cause has been a mystery.

The sudden burst of new life is also called “Darwin’s dilemma” because it appears to contradict Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of gradual evolution by natural selection.

“At the boundary between the Precambrian and Cambrian periods, something big happened tectonically that triggered the spreading of shallow ocean water across the continents, which is clearly tied in time and space to the sudden explosion of multicellular, hard-shelled life on the planet,” said Dalziel, a research professor at the Institute for Geophysics and a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences.

Beyond the sea level rise itself, the ancient geologic and geographic changes probably led to a buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere and a change in ocean chemistry, allowing more complex life-forms to evolve, he said.

The paper is the first to integrate geological evidence from five present-day continents — North America, South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica — in addressing paleogeography at that critical time.

Dalziel proposes that present-day North America was still attached to the southern continents until sometime into the Cambrian period. Current reconstructions of the globe’s geography during the early Cambrian show the ancient continent of Laurentia — the ancestral core of North America — as already having separated from the supercontinent Gondwanaland.

In contrast, Dalziel suggests the development of a deep oceanic gateway between the Pacific and Iapetus (ancestral Atlantic) oceans isolated Laurentia in the early Cambrian, a geographic makeover that immediately preceded the global sea level rise and apparent explosion of life.

“The reason people didn’t make this connection before was because they hadn’t looked at all the rock records on the different present-day continents,” he said.

The rock record in Antarctica, for example, comes from the very remote Ellsworth Mountains.

“People have wondered for a long time what rifted off there, and I think it was probably North America, opening up this deep seaway,” Dalziel said. “It appears ancient North America was initially attached to Antarctica and part of South America, not to Europe and Africa, as has been widely believed.”

Although the new analysis adds to evidence suggesting a massive tectonic shift caused the seas to rise more than half a billion years ago, Dalziel said more research is needed to determine whether this new chain of paleogeographic events can truly explain the sudden rise of multicellular life in the fossil record.

“I’m not claiming this is the ultimate explanation of the Cambrian explosion,” Dalziel said. “But it may help to explain what was happening at that time.”


To read the paper go to

Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”


This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014:

James Farquhar home page

Alan J. Kaufman home page

Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845,

Writer: Heather Dewar

Scientists find ancient mountains that fed early life

This image shows the ancient mountain site, Brazil. -  Carlos Ganade de Araujo
This image shows the ancient mountain site, Brazil. – Carlos Ganade de Araujo

Scientists have found evidence for a huge mountain range that sustained an explosion of life on Earth 600 million years ago.

The mountain range was similar in scale to the Himalayas and spanned at least 2,500 kilometres of modern west Africa and northeast Brazil, which at that time were part of the supercontinent Gondwana.

“Just like the Himalayas, this range was eroded intensely because it was so huge. As the sediments washed into the oceans they provided the perfect nutrients for life to flourish,” said Professor Daniela Rubatto of the Research School of Earth Sciences at The Australian National University (ANU).

“Scientists have speculated that such a large mountain range must have been feeding the oceans because of the way life thrived and ocean chemistry changed at this time, and finally we have found it.”

The discovery is earliest evidence of Himalayan-scale mountains on Earth.

“Although the mountains have long since washed away, rocks from their roots told the story of the ancient mountain range’s grandeur,” said co-researcher Professor Joerg Hermann.

“The range was formed by two continents colliding. During this collision, rocks from the crust were pushed around 100 kilometres deep into the mantle, where the high temperatures and pressures formed new minerals.”

As the mountains eroded, the roots came back up to the surface, to be collected in Togo, Mali and northeast Brazil, by Brazilian co-researcher Carlos Ganade de Araujo, from the University of Sao Paolo.

Dr Ganade de Araujo recognised the samples were unique and brought the rocks to ANU where, using world-leading equipment, the research team accurately identified that the rocks were of similar age, and had been formed at similar, great depths.

The research team involved specialists from a range of different areas of Earth Science sharing their knowledge, said Professor Rubatto.

“With everyone cooperating to study tiny crystals, we have managed to discover a huge mountain range,” she said.

Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
Scientists from Australian National University reveal how they found a mountain range that fed an explosion of life 600 million years ago. The range stretched 2,500 km across Gondwana from modern west Africa to Northeast Brazil. Tiny mineral crystals formed in the roots of these huge mountains were the key to reconstructing their age and size. – ANU Media

What set the Earth’s plates in motion?

The image shows a snapshot from the film after 45 million years of spreading. The pink is the region where the mantle underneath the early continent has melted, facilitating its spreading, and the initiation of the plate tectonic process. -  Patrice Rey, Nicolas Flament and Nicolas Coltice.
The image shows a snapshot from the film after 45 million years of spreading. The pink is the region where the mantle underneath the early continent has melted, facilitating its spreading, and the initiation of the plate tectonic process. – Patrice Rey, Nicolas Flament and Nicolas Coltice.

The mystery of what kick-started the motion of our earth’s massive tectonic plates across its surface has been explained by researchers at the University of Sydney.

“Earth is the only planet in our solar system where the process of plate tectonics occurs,” said Professor Patrice Rey, from the University of Sydney’s School of Geosciences.

“The geological record suggests that until three billion years ago the earth’s crust was immobile so what sparked this unique phenomenon has fascinated geoscientists for decades. We suggest it was triggered by the spreading of early continents then eventually became a self-sustaining process.”

Professor Rey is lead author of an article on the findings published in Nature on Wednesday, 17 September.

The other authors on the paper are Nicolas Flament, also from the School of Geosciences and Nicolas Coltice, from the University of Lyon.

There are eight major tectonic plates that move above the earth’s mantle at rates up to 150 millimetres every year.

In simple terms the process involves plates being dragged into the mantle at certain points and moving away from each other at others, in what has been dubbed ‘the conveyor belt’.

Plate tectonics depends on the inverse relationship between density of rocks and temperature.

At mid-oceanic ridges, rocks are hot and their density is low, making them buoyant or more able to float. As they move away from those ridges they cool down and their density increases until, where they become denser than the underlying hot mantle, they sink and are ‘dragged’ under.

But three to four billion years ago, the earth’s interior was hotter, volcanic activity was more prominent and tectonic plates did not become cold and dense enough to spontaneously sank.

“So the driving engine for plate tectonics didn’t exist,” said Professor Rey said.

“Instead, thick and buoyant early continents erupted in the middle of immobile plates. Our modelling shows that these early continents could have placed major stress on the surrounding plates. Because they were buoyant they spread horizontally, forcing adjacent plates to be pushed under at their edges.”

“This spreading of the early continents could have produced intermittent episodes of plate tectonics until, as the earth’s interior cooled and its crust and plate mantle became heavier, plate tectonics became a self-sustaining process which has never ceased and has shaped the face of our modern planet.”

The new model also makes a number of predictions explaining features that have long puzzled the geoscience community.

Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
The movie tells an 87-million-year-long story. It shows an early buoyant continent (made of a residual mantle in green and continental crust in red) slowly spreading toward the adjacent immobile plate (blue). After 45 million years, a short-lived subduction zone, where the plate goes under, develops. This allows the continent to surge toward the ocean, leading to the detachment of a continental block, the starting step in the movement of the continental plates or plate tectonics. – Patrice Rey, Nicolas Flament and Nicolas Coltice

Early Earth less hellish than previously thought

Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. -  Tamara Carley
Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. – Tamara Carley

Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have been surprisingly similar to the present day, complete with oceans, continents and active crustal plates.

This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, which has been proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.

The study was conducted by a team of geologists directed by Calvin Miller, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, and published online this weekend by the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters in a paper titled, “Iceland is not a magmatic analog for the Hadean: Evidence from the zircon record.”

From the early 20th century up through the 1980’s, geologists generally agreed that conditions during the Hadean period were utterly hostile to life. Inability to find rock formations from the period led them to conclude that early Earth was hellishly hot, either entirely molten or subject to such intense asteroid bombardment that any rocks that formed were rapidly remelted. As a result, they pictured the surface of the Earth as covered by a giant “magma ocean.”

This perception began to change about 30 years ago when geologists discovered zircon crystals (a mineral typically associated with granite) with ages exceeding 4 billion years old preserved in younger sandstones. These ancient zircons opened the door for exploration of the Earth’s earliest crust. In addition to the radiometric dating techniques that revealed the ages of these ancient zircons, geologists used other analytical techniques to extract information about the environment in which the crystals formed, including the temperature and whether water was present.

Since then zircon studies have revealed that the Hadean Earth was not the uniformly hellish place previously imagined, but during some periods possessed an established crust cool enough so that surface water could form – possibly on the scale of oceans.

Accepting that the early Earth had a solid crust and liquid water (at least at times), scientists have continued to debate the nature of that crust and the processes that were active at that time: How similar was the Hadean Earth to what we see today?

Two schools of thought have emerged: One argues that Hadean Earth was surprisingly similar to the present day. The other maintains that, although it was less hostile than formerly believed, early Earth was nonetheless a foreign-seeming and formidable place, similar to the hottest, most extreme, geologic environments of today. A popular analog is Iceland, where substantial amounts of crust are forming from basaltic magma that is much hotter than the magmas that built most of Earth’s current continental crust.

“We reasoned that the only concrete evidence for what the Hadean was like came from the only known survivors: zircon crystals – and yet no one had investigated Icelandic zircon to compare their telltale compositions to those that are more than 4 billion years old, or with zircon from other modern environments,” said Miller.

In 2009, Vanderbilt doctoral student Tamara Carley, who has just accepted the position of assistant professor at Layfayette College, began collecting samples from volcanoes and sands derived from erosion of Icelandic volcanoes. She separated thousands of zircon crystals from the samples, which cover the island’s regional diversity and represent its 18 million year history.

Working with Miller and doctoral student Abraham Padilla at Vanderbilt, Joe Wooden at Stanford University, Axel Schmitt and Rita Economos from UCLA, Ilya Bindeman at the University of Oregon and Brennan Jordan at the University of South Dakota, Carley analyzed about 1,000 zircon crystals for their age and elemental and isotopic compositions. She then searched the literature for all comparable analyses of Hadean zircon and for representative analyses of zircon from other modern environments.

“We discovered that Icelandic zircons are quite distinctive from crystals formed in other locations on modern Earth. We also found that they formed in magmas that are remarkably different from those in which the Hadean zircons grew,” said Carley.

Most importantly, their analysis found that Icelandic zircons grew from much hotter magmas than Hadean zircons. Although surface water played an important role in the generation of both Icelandic and Hadean crystals, in the Icelandic case the water was extremely hot when it interacted with the source rocks while the Hadean water-rock interactions were at significantly lower temperatures.

“Our conclusion is counterintuitive,” said Miller. “Hadean zircons grew from magmas rather similar to those formed in modern subduction zones, but apparently even ‘cooler’ and ‘wetter’ than those being produced today.”

Antarctic ice sheet is result of CO2 decrease, not continental breakup

Climate modelers from the University of New Hampshire have shown that the most likely explanation for the initiation of Antarctic glaciation during a major climate shift 34 million years ago was decreased carbon dioxide (CO2) levels. The finding counters a 40-year-old theory suggesting massive rearrangements of Earth’s continents caused global cooling and the abrupt formation of the Antarctic ice sheet. It will provide scientists insight into the climate change implications of current rising global CO2 levels.

In a paper published today in Nature, Matthew Huber of the UNH Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space and department of Earth sciences provides evidence that the long-held, prevailing theory known as “Southern Ocean gateway opening” is not the best explanation for the climate shift that occurred during the Eocene-Oligocene transition when Earth’s polar regions were ice-free.

“The Eocene-Oligocene transition was a major event in the history of the planet and our results really flip the whole story on its head,” says Huber. “The textbook version has been that gateway opening, in which Australia pulled away from Antarctica, isolated the polar continent from warm tropical currents, and changed temperature gradients and circulation patterns in the ocean around Antarctica, which in turn began to generate the ice sheet. We’ve shown that, instead, CO2-driven cooling initiated the ice sheet and that this altered ocean circulation.”

Huber adds that the gateway theory has been supported by a specific, unique piece of evidence-a “fingerprint” gleaned from oxygen isotope records derived from deep-sea sediments. These sedimentary records have been used to map out gradient changes associated with ocean circulation shifts that were thought to bear the imprint of changes in ocean gateways.

Although declining atmospheric levels of CO2 has been the other main hypothesis used to explain the Eocene-Oligocene transition, previous modeling efforts were unsuccessful at bearing this out because the CO2 drawdown does not by itself match the isotopic fingerprint. It occurred to Huber’s team that the fingerprint might not be so unique and that it might also have been caused indirectly from CO2 drawdown through feedbacks between the growing Antarctic ice sheet and the ocean.

Says Huber, “One of the things we were always missing with our CO2 studies, and it had been missing in everybody’s work, is if conditions are such to make an ice sheet form, perhaps the ice sheet itself is affecting ocean currents and the climate system-that once you start getting an ice sheet to form, maybe it becomes a really active part of the climate system and not just a passive player.”

For their study, Huber and colleagues used brute force to generate results: they simply modeled the Eocene-Oligocene world as if it contained an Antarctic ice sheet of near-modern size and shape and explored the results within the same kind of coupled ocean-atmosphere model used to project future climate change and across a range of CO2 values that are likely to occur in the next 100 years (560 to 1200 parts per million).

“It should be clear that resolving these two very different conceptual models for what caused this huge transformation of the Earth’s surface is really important because today as a global society we are, as I refer to it, dialing up the big red knob of carbon dioxide but we’re not moving continents around.”

Just what caused the sharp drawdown of CO2 is unknown, but Huber points out that having now resolved whether gateway opening or CO2 decline initiated glaciation, more pointed scientific inquiry can be focused on answering that question.

Huber notes that despite his team’s finding, the gateway opening theory won’t now be shelved, for that massive continental reorganization may have contributed to the CO2 drawdown by changing ocean circulation patterns that created huge upwellings of nutrient-rich waters containing plankton that, upon dying and sinking, took vast loads of carbon with them to the bottom of the sea.

How Earth avoided global warming, last time around

Geochemists have calculated a huge rise in atmospheric CO2 was only avoided by the formation of a vast mountain range in the middle of the ancient supercontinent, Pangea. This work is being presented to the Goldschmidt geochemistry conference in Sacramento, California.

Around 300 million years ago, plate tectonics caused the continents to aggregate into a giant supercontinent, known as “Pangea”. The sheer size of the continent meant that much of the land surface was far from the sea, and so the continent became increasingly arid due to lack of humidity. This aridity meant that rock weathering was reduced; normally, a reduction in rock weathering means that CO2 levels rise, yet in spite of this CO2 levels – which had been falling prior to the mountain formation- continued to drop, eventually undergoing the most significant drop in atmospheric CO2 of the last 500 million years. This phenomenon has remained unexplained, until now.

Now a group of French scientists from the CNRS in Toulouse have produced a model which seems to explain this contradiction. The period coincides with the rise of a vast series of mountains in the interior of Pangea, the “Hercynian” mountains”. These mountains arose in a wide belt, running from what is now the Appalachians, through to Ireland, South-Western England, through Paris and the Alps into Germany, and on further East.

According to team leader, Dr Yves Godderis (CNRS, Toulouse, France):

“The formation of these mountains meant that the rock weathering, which was threatening to slow to a walk through much of the supercontinent, was able to continue. The steep slopes of these Hercynian mountains produced physical erosion. Occurring in a humid equatorial environment, this physical erosion promoted rock weathering and removing CO2 from the atmosphere”.

He continued, “We believe that it is this which led to the dramatic drop in atmospheric levels of CO2. We estimate that if it hadn’t been for the formation of the Hercynian mountains, the atmospheric CO2 levels would have reached around 25 times the pre-industrial level, meaning that CO2 levels would have reached around 7000 ppm (parts per million). Let me put that into a present-day context; the current atmospheric CO2 levels are around 400 ppm, so this means that we would have seen CO2 rise to a level around 17 times current levels. This would obviously have had severe effects on the environment of that time. But the formation of the mountains in fact contributed to the greatest fall in atmospheric CO2 in the last 500 million years”.

The team believes that even if the mountains had not formed and CO2 levels rose sharply, this would not have led to a runaway greenhouse effect as happened on Venus, because the increasing temperatures would have led to rocks being ultimately weathered, heat compensating for the scarcity of water. Rock weathering would have removed CO2 from the atmosphere, thus stopping the rising temperatures.

“So it would eventually have been self-correcting” said Dr Godderis, “but there’s no doubt that this would have stalled Earth’s temperature at a high level for a long, long time. The world would look very different today if these mountains had not developed when they did.

This is a new model which explains some of the events in the 80 million years following the start of the Carboniferous period, and of course the ideas need to be confirmed before we can be sure that the model is completely accurate. The take-home message is that the factors affecting atmospheric CO2 over geological periods of time are complex, and our understanding is still evolving”.