Microfossils reveal warm oceans had less oxygen, geologists say

Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. -  Syracuse University
Assistant Professor of Earth Sciences Zunli Lu was among the researchers to release these findings. – Syracuse University

Researchers in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences are pairing chemical analyses with micropaleontology—the study of tiny fossilized organisms—to better understand how global marine life was affected by a rapid warming event more than 55 million years ago.

Their findings are the subject of an article in the journal Paleoceanography (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

“Global warming impacts marine life in complex ways, of which the loss of dissolved oxygen [a condition known as hypoxia] is a growing concern” says Zunli Lu, assistant professor of Earth sciences and a member of Syracuse’s Water Science and Engineering Initiative. “Moreover, it’s difficult to predict future deoxygenation that is induced by carbon emissions, without a good understanding of our geologic past.”

Lu says this type of deoxygenation leads to larger and thicker oxygen minimum zones (OMZs) in the world’s oceans. An OMZ is the layer of water in an ocean where oxygen saturation is at its lowest.

Much of Lu’s work revolves around the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a well-studied analogue for modern climate warming. Documenting the expansion of OMZs during the PETM is difficult because of the lack of a sensitive, widely applicable indicator of dissolved oxygen.

To address the problem, Lu and his colleagues have begun working with iodate, a type of iodine that exists only in oxygenated waters. By analyzing the iodine-to-calcium ratios in microfossils, they are able to estimate the oxygen levels of ambient seawater, where microorganisms once lived.

Fossil skeletons of a group of protists known as foraminiferas have long been used for paleo-environmental reconstructions. Developing an oxygenation proxy for foraminifera is important to Lu because it could enable him study the extent of OMZs “in 3-D,” since these popcorn-like organisms have been abundant in ancient and modern oceans.

“By comparing our fossil data with oxygen levels simulated in climate models, we think OMZs were much more prevalent 55 million years ago than they are today,” he says, adding that OMZs likely expanded during the PETM. “Deoxygenation, along with warming and acidification, had a dramatic effect on marine life during the PETM, prompting mass extinction on the seafloor.”

Lu thinks analytical facilities that combine climate modeling with micropaleontology will help scientists anticipate trends in ocean deoxygenation. Already, it’s been reported that modern-day OMZs, such as ones in the Eastern Pacific Ocean, are beginning to expand. “They’re natural laboratories for research,” he says, regarding the interactions between oceanic oxygen levels and climate changes.”


The article’s lead author is Xiaoli Zhou, a Ph.D. student of Lu’s in Syracuse’s Earth sciences department. Other coauthors are Ellen Thomas, a senior research scientist in geology and geophysics at Yale University; Ros Rickaby, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Oxford (U.K.); and Arne Winguth, assistant professor of oceanography at The University of Texas at Arlington.

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

Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime

Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. -  Paul Renne, UC Berkeley
Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. – Paul Renne, UC Berkeley

Imagine the world waking up one morning to discover that all compasses pointed south instead of north.

It’s not as bizarre as it sounds. Earth’s magnetic field has flipped – though not overnight – many times throughout the planet’s history. Its dipole magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet, remains about the same intensity for thousands to millions of years, but for incompletely known reasons it occasionally weakens and, presumably over a few thousand years, reverses direction.

Now, a new study by a team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that the last magnetic reversal 786,000 years ago actually happened very quickly, in less than 100 years – roughly a human lifetime.

“It’s amazing how rapidly we see that reversal,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Courtney Sprain. “The paleomagnetic data are very well done. This is one of the best records we have so far of what happens during a reversal and how quickly these reversals can happen.”

Sprain and Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a UC Berkeley professor-in- residence of earth and planetary science, are coauthors of the study, which will be published in the November issue of Geophysical Journal International and is now available online.

Flip could affect electrical grid, cancer rates

The discovery comes as new evidence indicates that the intensity of Earth’s magnetic field is decreasing 10 times faster than normal, leading some geophysicists to predict a reversal within a few thousand years.

Though a magnetic reversal is a major planet-wide event driven by convection in Earth’s iron core, there are no documented catastrophes associated with past reversals, despite much searching in the geologic and biologic record. Today, however, such a reversal could potentially wreak havoc with our electrical grid, generating currents that might take it down.

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

“We should be thinking more about what the biologic effects would be,” Renne said.

Dating ash deposits from windward volcanoes

The new finding is based on measurements of the magnetic field alignment in layers of ancient lake sediments now exposed in the Sulmona basin of the Apennine Mountains east of Rome, Italy. The lake sediments are interbedded with ash layers erupted from the Roman volcanic province, a large area of volcanoes upwind of the former lake that includes periodically erupting volcanoes near Sabatini, Vesuvius and the Alban Hills. Italian researchers led by Leonardo Sagnotti of Rome’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology measured the magnetic field directions frozen into the sediments as they accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

Sprain and Renne used argon-argon dating, a method widely used to determine the ages of rocks, whether they’re thousands or billions of years old, to determine the age of ash layers above and below the sediment layer recording the last reversal. These dates were confirmed by their colleague and former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Sebastien Nomade of the Laboratory of Environmental and Climate Sciences in Gif-Sur-Yvette, France.

Because the lake sediments were deposited at a high and steady rate over a 10,000-year period, the team was able to interpolate the date of the layer showing the magnetic reversal, called the Matuyama-Brunhes transition, at approximately 786,000 years ago. This date is far more precise than that from previous studies, which placed the reversal between 770,000 and 795,000 years ago.

“What’s incredible is that you go from reverse polarity to a field that is normal with essentially nothing in between, which means it had to have happened very quickly, probably in less than 100 years,” said Renne. “We don’t know whether the next reversal will occur as suddenly as this one did, but we also don’t know that it won’t.”

Unstable magnetic field preceded 180-degree flip

Whether or not the new finding spells trouble for modern civilization, it likely will help researchers understand how and why Earth’s magnetic field episodically reverses polarity, Renne said.

The magnetic record the Italian-led team obtained shows that the sudden 180-degree flip of the field was preceded by a period of instability that spanned more than 6,000 years. The instability included two intervals of low magnetic field strength that lasted about 2,000 years each. Rapid changes in field orientations may have occurred within the first interval of low strength. The full magnetic polarity reversal – that is, the final and very rapid flip to what the field is today – happened toward the end of the most recent interval of low field strength.

Renne is continuing his collaboration with the Italian-French team to correlate the lake record with past climate change.

Renne and Sprain’s work at the Berkeley Geochronology Center was supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

Fracking’s environmental impacts scrutinized

Greenhouse gas emissions from the production and use of shale gas would be comparable to conventional natural gas, but the controversial energy source actually faired better than renewables on some environmental impacts, according to new research.

The UK holds enough shale gas to supply its entire gas demand for 470 years, promising to solve the country’s energy crisis and end its reliance on fossil-fuel imports from unstable markets. But for many, including climate scientists and environmental groups, shale gas exploitation is viewed as environmentally dangerous and would result in the UK reneging on its greenhouse gas reduction obligations under the Climate Change Act.

University of Manchester scientists have now conducted one of the most thorough examinations of the likely environmental impacts of shale gas exploitation in the UK in a bid to inform the debate. Their research has just been published in the leading academic journal Applied Energy and study lead author, Professor Adisa Azapagic, will outline the findings at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester, England, today (Monday, 22 September).

“While exploration is currently ongoing in the UK, commercial extraction of shale gas has not yet begun, yet its potential has stirred controversy over its environmental impacts, its safety and the difficulty of justifying its use to a nation conscious of climate change,” said Professor Azapagic.

“There are many unknowns in the debate surrounding shale gas, so we have attempted to address some of these unknowns by estimating its life cycle environmental impacts from ‘cradle to grave’. We looked at 11 different impacts from the extraction of shale gas using hydraulic fracturing – known as ‘fracking’- as well as from its processing and use to generate electricity.”

The researchers compared shale gas to other fossil-fuel alternatives, such as conventional natural gas and coal, as well as low-carbon options, including nuclear, offshore wind and solar power (solar photovoltaics).

The results of the research suggest that the average emissions of greenhouse gases from shale gas over its entire life cycle are about 460 grams of carbon dioxide-equivalent per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated. This, the authors say, is comparable to the emissions from conventional natural gas. For most of the other life-cycle environmental impacts considered by the team, shale gas was also comparable to conventional natural gas.

But the study also found that shale gas was better than offshore wind and solar for four out of 11 impacts: depletion of natural resources, toxicity to humans, as well as the impact on freshwater and marine organisms. Additionally, shale gas was better than solar (but not wind) for ozone layer depletion and eutrophication (the effect of nutrients such as phosphates, on natural ecosystems).

On the other hand, shale gas was worse than coal for three impacts: ozone layer depletion, summer smog and terrestrial eco-toxicity.

Professor Azapagic said: “Some of the impacts of solar power are actually relatively high, so it is not a complete surprise that shale gas is better in a few cases. This is mainly because manufacturing solar panels is very energy and resource-intensive, while their electrical output is quite low in a country like the UK, as we don’t have as much sunshine. However, our research shows that the environmental impacts of shale gas can vary widely, depending on the assumptions for various parameters, including the composition and volume of the fracking fluid used, disposal routes for the drilling waste and the amount of shale gas that can be recovered from a well.

“Assuming the worst case conditions, several of the environmental impacts from shale gas could be worse than from any other options considered in the research, including coal. But, under the best-case conditions, shale gas may be preferable to imported liquefied natural gas.”

The authors say their results highlight the need for tight regulation of shale gas exploration – weak regulation, they claim, may result in shale gas having higher impacts than coal power, resulting in a failure to meet climate change and sustainability imperatives and undermining the deployment of low-carbon technologies.

Professor Azapagic added: “Whether shale gas is an environmentally sound option depends on the perceived importance of different environmental impacts and the regulatory structure under which shale gas operates.

“From the government policy perspective – focusing mainly on economic growth and energy security – it appears likely that shale gas represents a good option for the UK energy sector, assuming that it can be extracted at reasonable cost.

“However, a wider view must also consider other aspects of widespread use of shale gas, including the impact on climate change, as well as many other environmental considerations addressed in our study. Ultimately, the environmental impacts from shale gas will depend on which options it is displacing and how tight the regulation is.”

Study co-author Dr Laurence Stamford, from Manchester’s School of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science, said: “Appropriate regulation should introduce stringent controls on the emissions from shale gas extraction and disposal of drilling waste. It should also discourage extraction from sites where there is little shale gas in order to avoid the high emissions associated with a low-output well.

He continued: “If shale gas is extracted under tight regulations and is reasonably cheap, there is no obvious reason, as yet, why it should not make some contribution to our energy mix. However, regulation should also ensure that investment in sustainable technologies is not reduced at the expense of shale gas.”

Trinity geologists re-write Earth’s evolutionary history books

The study site landscape is shown with boulders of the paleosol in the foreground. -  Quentin Crowley
The study site landscape is shown with boulders of the paleosol in the foreground. – Quentin Crowley

Geologists from Trinity College Dublin have rewritten the evolutionary history books by finding that oxygen-producing life forms were present on Earth some 3 billion years ago – a full 60 million years earlier than previously thought. These life forms were responsible for adding oxygen (O2) to our atmosphere, which laid the foundations for more complex life to evolve and proliferate.

Working with Professors Joydip Mukhopadhyay and Gautam Ghosh and other colleagues from the Presidency University in Kolkata, India, the geologists found evidence for chemical weathering of rocks leading to soil formation that occurred in the presence of O2. Using the naturally occurring uranium-lead isotope decay system, which is used for age determinations on geological time-scales, the authors deduced that these events took place at least 3.02 billion years ago. The ancient soil (or paleosol) came from the Singhbhum Craton of Odisha, and was named the ‘Keonjhar Paleosol’ after the nearest local town.

The pattern of chemical weathering preserved in the paleosol is compatible with elevated atmospheric O2 levels at that time. Such substantial levels of oxygen could only have been produced by organisms converting light energy and carbon dioxide to O2 and water. This process, known as photosynthesis, is used by millions of different plant and bacteria species today. It was the proliferation of such oxygen-producing species throughout Earth’s evolutionary trajectory that changed the composition of our atmosphere – adding much more O2 – which was as important for the development of ancient multi-cellular life as it is for us today.

Quentin Crowley, Ussher Assistant Professor in Isotope Analysis and the Environment in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity, is senior author of the journal article that describes this research which has just been published online in the world’s top-ranked Geology journal, Geology. He said: “This is a very exciting finding, which helps to fill a gap in our knowledge about the evolution of the early Earth. This paleosol from India is telling us that there was a short-lived pulse of atmospheric oxygenation and this occurred considerably earlier than previously envisaged.”

The early Earth was very different to what we see today. Our planet’s early atmosphere was rich in methane and carbon dioxide and had only very low levels of O2. The widely accepted model for evolution of the atmosphere states that O2 levels did not appreciably rise until about 2.4 billion years ago. This ‘Great Oxidation Event’ event enriched the atmosphere and oceans with O2, and heralded one of the biggest shifts in evolutionary history.

Micro-organisms were certainly present before 3.0 billion years ago but they were not likely capable of producing O2 by photosynthesis. Up until very recently however, it has been unclear if any oxygenation events occurred prior to the Great Oxidation Event and the argument for an evolutionary capability of photosynthesis has largely been based on the first signs of an oxygen build-up in the atmosphere and oceans.

“It is the rare examples from the rock record that provide glimpses of how rocks weathered,” added Professor Crowley. “The chemical changes which occur during this weathering tell us something about the composition of the atmosphere at that time. Very few of these ‘paleosols’ have been documented from a period of Earth’s history prior to 2.5 billion years ago. The one we worked on is at least 3.02 billion years old, and it shows chemical evidence that weathering took place in an atmosphere with elevated O2 levels.”

There was virtually no atmospheric O2 present 3.4 billion years ago, but recent work from South African paleosols suggested that by about 2.96 billion years ago O2 levels may have begun to increase. Professor Crowley’s finding therefore moves the goalposts back at least 60 million years, which, given humans have only been on the planet for around a tenth of that time, is not an insignificant drop in the evolutionary ocean.

Professor Crowley concluded: “Our research gives further credence to the notion of early and short-lived atmospheric oxygenation.

This particular example is the oldest known example of oxidative weathering from a terrestrial environment, occurring about 600 million years before the Great Oxidation Event that laid the foundations for the evolution of complex life.”

Burrowing animals may have been key to stabilizing Earth’s oxygen

This image depicts a 530-million-year-old fossil of burrow activity in sediment. -  Martin Brasier, University of Oxford
This image depicts a 530-million-year-old fossil of burrow activity in sediment. – Martin Brasier, University of Oxford

Evolution of the first burrowing animals may have played a major role in stabilizing the Earth’s oxygen reservoir, according to a new study in Nature Geoscience.

Around 540 million years ago, the first burrowing animals evolved. When these worms began to mix up the ocean floor’s sediments (a process known as bioturbation), their activity came to significantly influence the ocean’s phosphorus cycle and as a result, the amount of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere.

“Our research is an attempt to place the spread of animal life in the context of wider biogeochemical cycles, and we conclude that animal activity had a decreasing impact on the global oxygen reservoir and introduced a stabilizing effect on the connection between the oxygen and phosphorus cycles”, says lead author Dr. Richard Boyle from the Nordic Center for Earth Evolution (NordCEE) at the University of Southern Denmark.

The computer modelling study by Dr. Richard Boyle and colleagues from Denmark, Germany, China and the UK, published in Nature Geoscience, links data from the fossil record to well established connections between the phosphorus and oxygen cycles.

Marine organic carbon burial is a source of oxygen to the atmosphere, and its rate is proportional to the amount of phosphate in the oceans. This means that (over geologic timescales) anything that decreases the size of the ocean phosphate reservoir also decreases oxygen. The study focuses on one such removal process, burial of phosphorus in the organic matter in ocean sediments.

The authors hypothesize the following sequence of events: Around 540 million years ago, the evolution of the first burrowing animals significantly increased the extent to which oxygenated waters came into contact with ocean sediments. Exposure to oxygenated conditions caused the bacteria that inhabit such sediments to store phosphate in their cells (something that is observed in modern day experiments). This caused an increase in phosphorus burial in sediments that had been mixed up by burrowing animals. This in turn triggered decreases in marine phosphate concentrations, productivity, organic carbon burial and ultimately oxygen. Because an oxygen decrease was initiated by something requiring oxygen (i.e. the activity burrowing animals) a net negative feedback loop was created.

Boyle states: “It has long been appreciated that organic phosphorus burial is greater from the kind of well oxygenated, well-mixed sediments that animals inhabit, than from poorly mixed, low oxygen “laminated” sediments. The key argument we make in this paper is that this difference is directly attributable to bioturbation. This means that (1) animals are directly involved in an oxygen-regulating cycle or feedback loop that has previously been overlooked, and (2) we can directly test the idea (despite the uncertainties associated with looking so far back in time) by looking for a decrease in ocean oxygenation in conjunction with the spread of bioturbation. My colleague, Dr Tais Dahl from University of Copenhagen, compiled data on ocean metals with oxygen-sensitive burial patterns, which does indeed suggest such an oxygen decrease as bioturbation began – confirming the conclusions of the modelling. It is our hope that wider consideration of this feedback loop and the timing of its onset, will improve our understanding of the extent to which Earth’s atmosphere-ocean oxygen reservoir is regulated.”

Co-author Professor Tim Lenton of the University of Exeter adds: “We already think this cycle was key to helping stabilise atmospheric oxygen during the Phanerozoic (the last 542 million years) – and that oxygen stability is a good thing for the evolution of plants and animals. What is new in this study is it attributes the oxygen stabilisation to biology – the presence or absence of animals stirring up the ocean sediments.”

Earlier this year, researchers from the Nordic Center for Earth Evolution showed that early animals may have needed surprisingly little oxygen to grow, supporting the theory that rising oxygen levels were not crucial for animal life to evolve on Earth.

‘Fracking’ in the dark: Biological fallout of shale-gas production still largely unknown

Eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions, including Princeton University, found that shale-gas extraction in the United States has vastly outpaced scientists' understanding of the industry's environmental impact. With shale-gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry's effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority for scientists, industry and policymakers, the researchers said. The photo above shows extensive natural-gas operations at Jonah Field in Wyoming. -  Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.
Eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions, including Princeton University, found that shale-gas extraction in the United States has vastly outpaced scientists’ understanding of the industry’s environmental impact. With shale-gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, determining and minimizing the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife must become a top priority for scientists, industry and policymakers, the researchers said. The photo above shows extensive natural-gas operations at Jonah Field in Wyoming. – Photo courtesy of EcoFlight.

In the United States, natural-gas production from shale rock has increased by more than 700 percent since 2007. Yet scientists still do not fully understand the industry’s effects on nature and wildlife, according to a report in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

As gas extraction continues to vastly outpace scientific examination, a team of eight conservation biologists from various organizations and institutions, including Princeton University, concluded that determining the environmental impact of gas-drilling sites – such as chemical contamination from spills, well-casing failures and other accidents – must be a top research priority.

With shale-gas production projected to surge during the next 30 years, the authors call on scientists, industry representatives and policymakers to cooperate on determining – and minimizing – the damage inflicted on the natural world by gas operations such as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” A major environmental concern, hydraulic fracturing releases natural gas from shale by breaking the rock up with a high-pressure blend of water, sand and other chemicals, which can include carcinogens and radioactive substances.

“We can’t let shale development outpace our understanding of its environmental impacts,” said co-author Morgan Tingley, a postdoctoral research associate in the Program in Science, Technology and Environmental Policy in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.

“The past has taught us that environmental impacts of large-scale development and resource extraction, whether coal plants, large dams or biofuel monocultures, are more than the sum of their parts,” Tingley said.

The researchers found that there are significant “knowledge gaps” when it comes to direct and quantifiable evidence of how the natural world responds to shale-gas operations. A major impediment to research has been the lack of accessible and reliable information on spills, wastewater disposal and the composition of fracturing fluids. Of the 24 American states with active shale-gas reservoirs, only five – Pennsylvania, Colorado, New Mexico, Wyoming and Texas – maintain public records of spills and accidents, the researchers report.

“The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s website is one of the best sources of publicly available information on shale-gas spills and accidents in the nation. Even so, gas companies failed to report more than one-third of spills in the last year,” said first author Sara Souther, a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“How many more unreported spills occurred, but were not detected during well inspections?” Souther asked. “We need accurate data on the release of fracturing chemicals into the environment before we can understand impacts to plants and animals.”

One of the greatest threats to animal and plant life identified in the study is the impact of rapid and widespread shale development, which has disproportionately affected rural and natural areas. A single gas well results in the clearance of 3.7 to 7.6 acres (1.5 to 3.1 hectares) of vegetation, and each well contributes to a collective mass of air, water, noise and light pollution that has or can interfere with wild animal health, habitats and reproduction, the researchers report.

“If you look down on a heavily ‘fracked’ landscape, you see a web of well pads, access roads and pipelines that create islands out of what was, in some cases, contiguous habitat,” Souther said. “What are the combined effects of numerous wells and their supporting infrastructure on wide-ranging or sensitive species, like the pronghorn antelope or the hellbender salamander?”

The chemical makeup of fracturing fluid and wastewater is often unknown. The authors reviewed chemical-disclosure statements for 150 wells in three of the top gas-producing states and found that an average of two out of every three wells were fractured with at least one undisclosed chemical. The exact effect of fracturing fluid on natural water systems as well as drinking water supplies remains unclear even though improper wastewater disposal and pollution-prevention measures are among the top state-recorded violations at drilling sites, the researchers found.

“Some of the wells in the chemical disclosure registry were fractured with fluid containing 20 or more undisclosed chemicals,” said senior author Kimberly Terrell, a researcher at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute. “This is an arbitrary and inconsistent standard of chemical disclosure.”

Asteroid attacks significantly altered ancient Earth

This is an artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. -  Simone Marchi
This is an artistic conception of the early Earth, showing a surface pummeled by large impacts, resulting in extrusion of deep seated magma onto the surface. At the same time, distal portion of the surface could have retained liquid water. – Simone Marchi

New research shows that more than four billion years ago, the surface of Earth was heavily reprocessed – or mixed, buried and melted – as a result of giant asteroid impacts. A new terrestrial bombardment model based on existing lunar and terrestrial data sheds light on the role asteroid bombardments played in the geological evolution of the uppermost layers of the Hadean Earth (approximately 4 to 4.5 billion years ago).

An international team of researchers published their findings in the July 31, 2014 issue of Nature.

“When we look at the present day, we have a very high fidelity timeline over the last about 500 million years of what’s happened on Earth, and we have a pretty good understanding that plate tectonics and volcanism and all these kinds of processes have happened more or less the same way over the last couple of billion years,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

But, in the very beginning of Earth’s formation, the first 500 million years, there’s a less well-known period which has typically been called the Hadean (meaning hell-like) because it was assumed that it was wildly hot and volcanic and everything was covered with magma – completely unlike the present day.

Terrestrial planet formation models indicate Earth went through a sequence of major growth phases: accretion of planetesimals and planetary embryos over many tens of millions of years; a giant impact that led to the formation of our Moon; and then the late bombardment, when giant asteroids, dwarfing the one that presumably killed the dinosaurs, periodically hit ancient Earth.

While researchers estimate accretion during late bombardment contributed less than one percent of Earth’s present-day mass, giant asteroid impacts still had a profound effect on the geological evolution of early Earth. Prior to four billion years ago Earth was resurfaced over and over by voluminous impact-generated melt. Furthermore, large collisions as late as about four billion years ago, may have repeatedly boiled away existing oceans into steamy atmospheres. Despite heavy bombardment, the findings are compatible with the claim of liquid water on Earth’s surface as early as about 4.3 billion years ago based on geochemical data.

A key part of Earth’s mysterious infancy period that has not been well quantified in the past is the kind of impacts Earth was experiencing at the end of accretion. How big and how frequent were those incoming bombardments and what were their effects on the surface of the Earth? How much did they affect the ability of the now cooling crust to actually form plates and start to subduct and make plate tectonics? What kind of volcanism did it produce that was different from volcanoes today?”

“We are increasingly understanding both the similarities and the differences to present day Earth conditions and plate tectonics,” says Elkins-Tanton. “And this study is a major step in that direction, trying to bridge that time from the last giant accretionary impact that largely completed the Earth and produced the Moon to the point where we have something like today’s plate tectonics and habitable surface.”

The new research reveals that asteroidal collisions not only severely altered the geology of the Hadean Earth, but likely played a major role in the subsequent evolution of life on Earth as well.

“Prior to approximately four billion years ago, no large region of Earth’s surface could have survived untouched by impacts and their effects,” says Simone Marchi, of NASA’s Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute at the Southwest Research Institute. “The new picture of the Hadean Earth emerging from this work has important implications for its habitability.”

Large impacts had particularly severe effects on existing ecosystems. Researchers found that on average, Hadean Earth could have been hit by one to four impactors that were more than 600 miles wide and capable of global sterilization, and by three to seven impactors more than 300 miles wide and capable of global ocean vaporization.

“During that time, the lag between major collisions was long enough to allow intervals of more clement conditions, at least on a local scale,” said Marchi. “Any life emerging during the Hadean eon likely needed to be resistant to high temperatures, and could have survived such a violent period in Earth’s history by thriving in niches deep underground or in the ocean’s crust.

From ‘Finding Nemo’ to minerals — what riches lie in the deep sea?

Left: The first species ever recovered from the deep sea. Center: Rockfish use deep-sea carbonate formations at Hydrate Ridge, US, as a refuge. Right: Deep-sea corals such as the one pictured are a source of jewelery and other riches. -  SERPENT Project/D.O.B. Jones, L. Levin, UK's BIS Department
Left: The first species ever recovered from the deep sea. Center: Rockfish use deep-sea carbonate formations at Hydrate Ridge, US, as a refuge. Right: Deep-sea corals such as the one pictured are a source of jewelery and other riches. – SERPENT Project/D.O.B. Jones, L. Levin, UK’s BIS Department

As fishing and the harvesting of metals, gas and oil have expanded deeper and deeper into the ocean, scientists are drawing attention to the services provided by the deep sea, the world’s largest environment. “This is the time to discuss deep-sea stewardship before exploitation is too much farther underway,” says lead-author Andrew Thurber. In a review published today in Biogeosciences, a journal of the European Geosciences Union (EGU), Thurber and colleagues summarise what this habitat provides to humans, and emphasise the need to protect it.

“The deep sea realm is so distant, but affects us in so many ways. That’s where the passion lies: to tell everyone what’s down there and that we still have a lot to explore,” says co-author Jeroen Ingels of Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK.

“What we know highlights that it provides much directly to society,” says Thurber, a researcher at the College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University in the US. Yet, the deep sea is facing impacts from climate change and, as resources are depleted elsewhere, is being increasingly exploited by humans for food, energy and metals like gold and silver.

“We felt we had to do something,” says Ingels. “We all felt passionate about placing the deep sea in a relevant context and found that there was little out there aimed at explaining what the deep sea does for us to a broad audience that includes scientists, the non-specialists and ultimately the policy makers. There was a gap to be filled. So we said: ‘Let’s just make this happen’.”

In the review of over 200 scientific papers, the international team of researchers points out how vital the deep sea is to support our current way of life. It nurtures fish stocks, serves as a dumping ground for our waste, and is a massive reserve of oil, gas, precious metals and the rare minerals we use in modern electronics, such as cell phones and hybrid-car batteries. Further, hydrothermal vents and other deep-sea environments host life forms, from bacteria to sponges, that are a source of new antibiotics and anti-cancer chemicals. It also has a cultural value, with its strange species and untouched habitats inspiring books and films from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea to Finding Nemo.

“From jewellery to oil and gas and future potential energy reserves as well as novel pharmaceuticals, deep-sea’s worth should be recognised so that, as we decide how to use it more in the future, we do not inhibit or lose the services that it already provides,” says Thurber.

The deep sea (ocean areas deeper than 200m) represents 98.5% of the volume of our planet that is hospitable to animals. It has received less attention than other environments because it is vast, dark and remote, and much of it is inaccessible to humans. But it has important global functions. In the Biogeosciences review the team shows that deep-sea marine life plays a crucial role in absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, as well as methane that occasionally leaks from under the seafloor. In doing so, the deep ocean has limited much of the effects of climate change.

This type of process occurs over a vast area and at a slow rate. Thurber gives other examples: manganese nodules, deep-sea sources of nickel, copper, cobalt and rare earth minerals, take centuries or longer to form and are not renewable. Likewise, slow-growing and long-lived species of fish and coral in the deep sea are more susceptible to overfishing. “This means that a different approach needs to be taken as we start harvesting the resources within it.”

By highlighting the importance of the deep sea and identifying the traits that differentiate this environment from others, the researchers hope to provide the tools for effective and sustainable management of this habitat.

“This study is one of the steps in making sure that the benefits of the deep sea are understood by those who are trying to, or beginning to, regulate its resources,” concludes Thurber. “We ultimately hope that it will be a useful tool for policy makers.”

Fracking flowback could pollute groundwater with heavy metals

Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. -  Cornell University
Partially wetted sand grains (grey) with colloids (red) are shown. – Cornell University

The chemical makeup of wastewater generated by “hydrofracking” could cause the release of tiny particles in soils that often strongly bind heavy metals and pollutants, exacerbating the environmental risks during accidental spills, Cornell University researchers have found.

Previous research has shown 10 to 40 percent of the water and chemical solution mixture injected at high pressure into deep rock strata, surges back to the surface during well development. Scientists at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences studying the environmental impacts of this “flowback fluid” found that the same properties that make it so effective at extracting natural gas from shale can also displace tiny particles that are naturally bound to soil, causing associated pollutants such as heavy metals to leach out.

They described the mechanisms of this release and transport in a paper published in the American Chemical Society journal Environmental Science & Technology.

The particles they studied are colloids – larger than the size of a molecule but smaller than what can be seen with the naked eye – which cling to sand and soil due to their electric charge.

In experiments, glass columns were filled with sand and synthetic polystyrene colloids. They then flushed the column with different fluids – deionized water as a control, and flowback fluid collected from a Marcellus Shale drilling site – at different rates of flow and measured the amount of colloids that were mobilized.

On a bright field microscope, the polystyrene colloids were visible as red spheres between light-grey sand grains, which made their movement easy to track. The researchers also collected and analyzed the water flowing out of the column to quantify the colloid concentration leaching out.

They found that fewer than five percent of colloids were released when they flushed the columns with deionized water. That figure jumped to 32 to 36 percent when flushed with flowback fluid. Increasing the flow rate of the flowback fluid mobilized an additional 36 percent of colloids.

They believe this is because the chemical composition of the flowback fluid reduced the strength of the forces that allow colloids to remain bound to the sand, causing the colloids to actually be repelled from the sand.

“This is a first step into discovering the effects of flowback fluid on colloid transport in soils,” said postdoctoral associate Cathelijne Stoof, a co-author on the paper.

The authors hope to conduct further experiments using naturally occurring colloids in more complex field soil systems, as well as different formulations of flowback fluid collected from other drilling sites.

Stoof said awareness of the phenomenon and an understanding of the mechanisms behind it can help identify risks and inform mitigation strategies.

“Sustainable development of any resource requires facts about its potential impacts, so legislators can make informed decisions about whether and where it can and cannot be allowed, and to develop guidelines in case it goes wrong,” Stoof said. “In the case of spills, you want to know what happens when the fluid moves through the soil.”

Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
This video visualizes the effects of hydrofracking flowback fluid on colloid mobilization in unsaturated sand. Included are the injection of the colloids into the sand column at the beginning of the experiment, the deionized water flush at 0.3 ml/min, the flowback water flush at 0.3 ml/min, and the flowback water flush at 1.5 ml/min. – Cornell University

Studies show movements of continents speeding up after slow ‘middle age’

Two studies show that the movement rate of plates carrying the Earth’s crust may not be constant over time. This could provide a new explanation for the patterns observed in the speed of evolution and has implications for the interpretation of climate models. The work is presented today at Goldschmidt 2014, the premier geochemistry conference taking place in Sacramento, California, USA.

The Earth’s continental crust can be thought of as an archive of Earth’s history, containing information on rock formation, the atmosphere and the fossil record. However, it is not clear when and how regularly crust formed since the beginning of Earth history, 4.5 billion years ago.

Researchers led by Professor Peter Cawood, from the University of St. Andrews, UK, examined several measures of continental movement and geologic processes from a number of previous studies. They found that, from 1.7 to 0.75 billion years ago (termed Earth’s middle age), Earth appears to have been very stable in terms of its environment, with little in the way of crust building activity, no major fluctuations in atmospheric composition and few major developments seen in the fossil record. This contrasts markedly with the time periods either side of this, which contained major ice ages and changes in oxygen levels. Earth’s middle age also coincides with the formation of a supercontinent called Rodinia, which appears to have been stable throughout this time.

Professor Cawood suggests this stability may have been due to the gradual cooling of the earth’s crust over time. “Before 1.7 billion years ago, the Earth’s crust would have been substantially hotter, meaning that continental plate movement may have been governed by different rules to those that operate today,” said Professor Cawood. “0.75 billion years ago, the crust reached a point where it had cooled sufficiently to allow modern day plate tectonics to start working, in particular allowing subduction zones to form (where one plate of the crust moves under another). This increase in activity could have kick-started a myriad of changes including the break-up of Rodinia and changes to levels of key elements in the atmosphere and seas, which in turn may have induced evolutionary changes in the life forms present.”

This view is backed up by work from Professor Kent Condie from New Mexico Tech, USA, which suggests the movement rate of the Earth’s crust is not constant but may be speeding up over time. Professor Condie examined how supercontinents assemble and break up. “Our results challenge the view that the rate of plate movement is stable over time,” said Professor Condie. “The interpretation of data from many other disciplines such as stable isotope geochemistry, palaeontology and paleoclimatology in part rely on the assumption that the movement rate of the Earth’s crust is constant.”

Results from these fields may now need to be re-examined in light of Condie’s findings. “We now urgently need to collect further data on critical time periods to understand more about the constraints on plate speeds and the frequency of collision between continental blocks,” concluded Professor Condie.