New study finds oceans arrived early to Earth

In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line -- the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the 'snow line' (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. -  Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
In this illustration of the early solar system, the dashed white line represents the snow line — the transition from the hotter inner solar system, where water ice is not stable (brown) to the outer Solar system, where water ice is stable (blue). Two possible ways that the inner solar system received water are: water molecules sticking to dust grains inside the ‘snow line’ (as shown in the inset) and carbonaceous chondrite material flung into the inner solar system by the effect of gravity from protoJupiter. With either scenario, water must accrete to the inner planets within the first ca. 10 million years of solar system formation. – Illustration by Jack Cook, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Earth is known as the Blue Planet because of its oceans, which cover more than 70 percent of the planet’s surface and are home to the world’s greatest diversity of life. While water is essential for life on the planet, the answers to two key questions have eluded us: where did Earth’s water come from and when?

While some hypothesize that water came late to Earth, well after the planet had formed, findings from a new study led by scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) significantly move back the clock for the first evidence of water on Earth and in the inner solar system.

“The answer to one of the basic questions is that our oceans were always here. We didn’t get them from a late process, as was previously thought,” said Adam Sarafian, the lead author of the paper published Oct. 31, 2014, in the journal Science and a MIT/WHOI Joint Program student in the Geology and Geophysics Department.

One school of thought was that planets originally formed dry, due to the high-energy, high-impact process of planet formation, and that the water came later from sources such as comets or “wet” asteroids, which are largely composed of ices and gases.

“With giant asteroids and meteors colliding, there’s a lot of destruction,” said Horst Marschall, a geologist at WHOI and coauthor of the paper. “Some people have argued that any water molecules that were present as the planets were forming would have evaporated or been blown off into space, and that surface water as it exists on our planet today, must have come much, much later—hundreds of millions of years later.”

The study’s authors turned to another potential source of Earth’s water— carbonaceous chondrites. The most primitive known meteorites, carbonaceous chondrites, were formed in the same swirl of dust, grit, ice and gasses that gave rise to the sun some 4.6 billion years ago, well before the planets were formed.

“These primitive meteorites resemble the bulk solar system composition,” said WHOI geologist and coauthor Sune Nielsen. “They have quite a lot of water in them, and have been thought of before as candidates for the origin of Earth’s water.

In order to determine the source of water in planetary bodies, scientists measure the ratio between the two stable isotopes of hydrogen: deuterium and hydrogen. Different regions of the solar system are characterized by highly variable ratios of these isotopes. The study’s authors knew the ratio for carbonaceous chondrites and reasoned that if they could compare that to an object that was known to crystallize while Earth was actively accreting then they could gauge when water appeared on Earth.

To test this hypothesis, the research team, which also includes Francis McCubbin from the Institute of Meteoritics at the University of New Mexico and Brian Monteleone of WHOI, utilized meteorite samples provided by NASA from the asteroid 4-Vesta. The asteroid 4-Vesta, which formed in the same region of the solar system as Earth, has a surface of basaltic rock—frozen lava. These basaltic meteorites from 4-Vesta are known as eucrites and carry a unique signature of one of the oldest hydrogen reservoirs in the solar system. Their age—approximately 14 million years after the solar system formed—makes them ideal for determining the source of water in the inner solar system at a time when Earth was in its main building phase. The researchers analyzed five different samples at the Northeast National Ion Microprobe Facility—a state-of-the-art national facility housed at WHOI that utilizes secondary ion mass spectrometers. This is the first time hydrogen isotopes have been measured in eucrite meteorites.

The measurements show that 4-Vesta contains the same hydrogen isotopic composition as carbonaceous chondrites, which is also that of Earth. That, combined with nitrogen isotope data, points to carbonaceous chondrites as the most likely common source of water.

“The study shows that Earth’s water most likely accreted at the same time as the rock. The planet formed as a wet planet with water on the surface,” Marschall said.

While the findings don’t preclude a late addition of water on Earth, it shows that it wasn’t necessary since the right amount and composition of water was present at a very early stage.

“An implication of that is that life on our planet could have started to begin very early,” added Nielsen. “Knowing that water came early to the inner solar system also means that the other inner planets could have been wet early and evolved life before they became the harsh environments they are today.

Did a ‘forgotten’ meteor have a deadly, icy double-punch?

When a huge meteor collided with Earth about 2.5 million years ago and fell into the southern Pacific Ocean it not only could have generated a massive tsunami but also may have plunged the world into the Ice Ages, a new study suggests.

A team of Australian researchers says that because the Eltanin meteor – which was up to two kilometers across – crashed into deep water, most scientists have not adequately considered either its potential for immediate catastrophic impacts on coastlines around the Pacific rim or its capacity to destabilize the entire planet’s climate system.

“This is the only known deep-ocean impact event on the planet and it’s largely been forgotten because there’s no obvious giant crater to investigate, as there would have been if it had hit a landmass,” says Professor James Goff, lead author of a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Quaternary Science. Goff is co-director of UNSW’s Australia-Pacific Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Laboratory.

“But consider that we’re talking about something the size of a small mountain crashing at very high speed into very deep ocean, between Chile and Antarctica. Unlike a land impact, where the energy of the collision is largely absorbed locally, this would have generated an incredible splash with waves literally hundreds of meters high near the impact site

“Some modelling suggests that the ensuing mega-tsunami could have been unimaginably large – sweeping across vast areas of the Pacific and engulfing coastlines far inland. But it also would have ejected massive amounts of water vapour, sulphur and dust up into the stratosphere.
“The tsunami alone would have been devastating enough in the short term, but all that material shot so high into the atmosphere could have been enough to dim the sun and dramatically reduce surface temperatures. Earth was already in a gradual cooling phase, so this might have been enough to rapidly accelerate and accentuate the process and kick start the Ice Ages.”

In the paper, Goff and colleagues from UNSW and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, note that geologists and climatologists have interpreted geological deposits in Chile, Antarctica, Australia, and elsewhere as evidence of climatic change, marking the start of the Quaternary period. An alternative interpretation is that some or all of these deposits may be the result of mega-tsunami inundation, the study suggests.

“There’s no doubt the world was already cooling through the mid and late Pliocene,” says co-author Professor Mike Archer. “What we’re suggesting is that the Eltanin impact may have rammed this slow-moving change forward in an instant – hurtling the world into the cycle of glaciations that characterized the next 2.5 million years and triggered our own evolution as a species.

“As a ‘cene’ changer – that is, from the Pliocene to Pleistocene – Eltanin may have been overall as significant as the meteor that took out the non-flying dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We’re urging our colleagues to carefully reconsider conventional interpretations of the sediments we’re flagging and consider whether these could be instead the result of a mega-tsunami triggered by a meteor.”