Ancient minerals: Which gave rise to life?

The magnesium silicate forsterite was one of the most abundant minerals in the Hadean Eon, and it played a major role in Earth's near-surface processes. The green color of this mineral (which is also known as the semi-precious gemstone peridot, the birthstone of August) is caused by small amounts iron. The iron can react with seawater to promote chemical reactions that may have played a role in life's origins. -  Robert Downs, University of Arizona, Ruff Project
The magnesium silicate forsterite was one of the most abundant minerals in the Hadean Eon, and it played a major role in Earth’s near-surface processes. The green color of this mineral (which is also known as the semi-precious gemstone peridot, the birthstone of August) is caused by small amounts iron. The iron can react with seawater to promote chemical reactions that may have played a role in life’s origins. – Robert Downs, University of Arizona, Ruff Project

Life originated as a result of natural processes that exploited early Earth’s raw materials. Scientific models of life’s origins almost always look to minerals for such essential tasks as the synthesis of life’s molecular building blocks or the supply of metabolic energy. But this assumes that the mineral species found on Earth today are much the same as they were during Earth’s first 550 million years-the Hadean Eon-when life emerged. A new analysis of Hadean mineralogy challenges that assumption. It is published in American Journal of Science.

Carnegie’s Robert Hazen compiled a list of every plausible mineral species on the Hadean Earth and concludes that no more than 420 different minerals-about 8 percent of the nearly 5,000 species found on Earth today-would have been present at or near Earth’s surface.

“This is a consequence of the limited ways that minerals might have formed prior to 4 billion years ago,” Hazen explained. “Most of the 420 minerals of the Hadean Eon formed from magma-molten rock that slowly crystallized at or near Earth’s surface-as well as the alteration of those minerals when exposed to hot water.”

By contrast, thousands of mineral species known today are the direct result of growth by living organisms, such as shells and bones, as well as life’s chemical byproducts, such as oxygen from photosynthesis. In addition, hundreds of other minerals that incorporate relatively rare elements such as lithium, beryllium, and molybdenum appear to have taken a billion years or more to first appear because it is difficult to concentrate these elements sufficiently to form new minerals. So those slow-forming minerals are also excluded from the time of life’s origins.

“Fortunately for most origin-of-life models, the most commonly invoked minerals were present on early Earth,” Hazen said.

For example, clay minerals-sometimes theorized by chemists to trigger interesting reactions-were certainly available. Sulfide minerals, including reactive iron and nickel varieties, were also widely available to catalyze organic reactions. However, borate and molybdate minerals, which are relatively rare even today, are unlikely to have occurred on the Hadean Earth and call into question origin models that rely on those mineral groups.

Several questions remain unanswered and offer opportunities for further study of the paleomineralogy of the Hadean Eon. For example, the Hadean Eon differs from today in the frequent large impacts of asteroids and comets-thousands of collisions by objects with diameters from a mile up to 100 miles. Such impacts would have caused massive disruption of Earth’s crust, with extensive fracture zones that were filled with hot circulating water. Such hydrothermal areas could have created complex zones with many exotic minerals.

This study also raises the question of how other planets and moons evolved mineralogically. Hazen suggests that Mars today may have progressed only as far as Earth’s Hadean Eon. As such, Mars may be limited to a similar suite of no more than about 400 different mineral species. Thanks to the Curiosity rover, we may soon know if that’s the case.

Iron in the Earth’s core weakens before melting

The iron in the Earth’s inner core weakens dramatically before it melts, explaining the unusual properties that exist in the moon-sized solid centre of our planet that have, up until now, been difficult to understand.

Scientists use seismic waves – pulses of energy generated during earthquakes – to measure what is happening in the Earth’s inner core, which at 6000 km beneath our feet is completely inaccessible.

Problematically for researchers, the results of seismic measurements consistently show that these waves move through the Earth’s solid inner core at much slower speeds than predicted by experiments and simulations.

Specifically, a type of seismic wave called a ‘shear wave’ moves particularly slowly through the Earth’s core relative to the speed expected for the material – mainly iron – from which the core is made. Shear waves move through the body of the object in a transverse motion – like waves in a rope, as opposed to waves moving through a slinky spring.

Now, in a paper published in Science, scientists from UCL have proposed a possible explanation. They suggest that the iron in the Earth’s core may weaken dramatically just before melting, becoming much less stiff. The team used quantum mechanical calculations to evaluate the wave velocities of solid iron at inner-core pressure up to melting.

They calculated that at temperatures up to 95% of what is needed to melt iron in the Earth’s inner core, the speed of the seismic waves moving through the inner core decreases linearly but, after 95%, it drops dramatically.

At about 99% of the melting temperature of iron, the team’s calculated velocities agree with seismic data for the Earth’s inner core. Since independent geophysical results suggest that the inner core is likely to be at 99-100% of its melting temperature, the results presented in this paper give a compelling explanation as to why the seismic wave velocities are lower than those predicted previously.

Professor Lidunka Vočadlo, from the UCL department of Earth Sciences and an author of the paper said: “The Earth’s deep interior still holds many mysteries that scientists are trying to unravel.

“The proposed mineral models for the inner core have always shown a faster wave speed than that observed in seismic data. This mismatch has given rise to several complex theories about the state and evolution of the Earth’s core.”

The authors stress that this is not the end of the story as other factors need to be taken into account before a definitive core model can be made. As well as iron, the core contains nickel and light elements, such as silicon and sulphur.

Professor Vočadlo said: “The strong pre-melting effects in iron shown in our paper are an exciting new development in understanding the Earth’s inner core. We are currently working on how this result is affected by the presence of other elements, and we may soon be in a position to produce a simple model for the inner core that is consistent with seismic and other geophysical measurements.

‘Highway from hell’ fueled Costa Rican volcano

Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht analyzed crystals formed as Irazú's magma cooled to establish how fast it traveled. -  Kim Martineau
Volcanologist Philipp Ruprecht analyzed crystals formed as Irazú’s magma cooled to establish how fast it traveled. – Kim Martineau

If some volcanoes operate on geologic timescales, Costa Rica’s Irazú had something of a short fuse. In a new study in the journal Nature, scientists suggest that the 1960s eruption of Costa Rica’s largest stratovolcano was triggered by magma rising from the mantle over a few short months, rather than thousands of years or more, as many scientists have thought. The study is the latest to suggest that deep, hot magma can set off an eruption fairly quickly, potentially providing an extra tool for detecting an oncoming volcanic disaster.

“If we had had seismic instruments in the area at the time we could have seen these deep magmas coming,” said the study’s lead author, Philipp Ruprecht, a volcanologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “We could have had an early warning of months, instead of days or weeks.”

Towering more than 10,000 feet and covering almost 200 square miles, Irazú erupts about every 20 years or less, with varying degrees of damage. When it awakened in 1963, it erupted for two years, killing at least 20 people and burying hundreds of homes in mud and ash. Its last eruption, in 1994, did little damage.

Irazú sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, where oceanic crust is slowly sinking beneath the continents, producing some of earth’s most spectacular fireworks. Conventional wisdom holds that the mantle magma feeding those eruptions rises and lingers for long periods of time in a mixing chamber several miles below the volcano. But ash from Irazú’s prolonged explosion is the latest to suggest that some magma may travel directly from the upper mantle, covering more than 20 miles in a few months.

“There has to be a conduit from the mantle to the magma chamber,” said study co-author Terry Plank, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty. “We like to call it the highway from hell.”

Their evidence comes from crystals of the mineral olivine separated from the ashes of Irazú’s 1963-1965 eruption, collected on a 2010 expedition to the volcano. As magma rising from the mantle cools, it forms crystals that preserve the conditions in which they formed. Unexpectedly, Irazú’s crystals revealed spikes of nickel, a trace element found in the mantle. The spikes told the researchers that some of Irazú’s erupted magma was so fresh the nickel had not had a chance to diffuse.

“The study provides one more piece of evidence that it’s possible to get magma from the mantle to the surface in very short order,” said John Pallister, who heads the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Volcano Disaster Assistance Program in Vancouver, Wash. “It tells us there’s a potentially shorter time span we need to worry about.”

Deep, fast-rising magma has been linked to other big events. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines spewed so much gas and ash into the atmosphere that it cooled Earth’s climate. In the weeks before the eruption, seismographs recorded hundreds of deep earthquakes that USGS geologist Randall White later attributed to magma rising from the mantle-crust boundary. In 2010, a chain of eruptions at Iceland’s Eyjafjallajökull volcano that caused widespread flight cancellations also indicated that some magma was coming from down deep. Small earthquakes set off by the eruptions suggested that the magma in Eyjafjallajökull’s last two explosions originated 12 miles and 15 miles below the surface, according to a 2012 study by University of Cambridge researcher Jon Tarasewicz in Geophysical Research Letters.

Volcanoes give off many warning signs before a blow-up. Their cones bulge with magma. They vent carbon dioxide and sulfur into the air, and throw off enough heat that satellites can detect their changing temperature. Below ground, tremors and other rumblings can be detected by seismographs. When Indonesia’s Mount Merapi roared to life in late October 2010, officials led a mass evacuation later credited with saving as many as 20,000 lives.

Still, the forecasting of volcanic eruptions is not an exact science. Even if more seismographs could be placed along the flanks of volcanoes to detect deep earthquakes, it is unclear if scientists would be able to translate the rumblings into a projected eruption date. Most problematically, many apparent warning signs do not lead to an eruption, putting officials in a bind over whether to evacuate nearby residents.

“[Several months] leaves a lot of room for error,” said Erik Klemetti, a volcanologist at Denison University who writes the “Eruptions” blog for Wired magazine. “In volcanic hazards you have very few shots to get people to leave.”

Scientists may be able to narrow the window by continuing to look for patterns between eruptions and the earthquakes that precede them. The Nature study also provides a real-world constraint for modeling how fast magma travels to the surface.

“If this interpretation is correct, you start having a speed limit that your models of magma transport have to catch,” said Tom Sisson, a USGS volcanologist based at Menlo Park, Calif.

Olivine minerals with nickel spikes similar to Irazú’s have been found in the ashes of arc volcanoes in Mexico, Siberia and the Cascades of the U.S. Pacific Northwest, said Lamont geochemist Susanne Straub, whose ideas inspired the study. “It’s clearly not a local phenomenon,” she said. The researchers are currently analyzing crystals from past volcanic eruptions in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands, Chile and Tonga, but are unsure how many will bear Irazú’s fast-rising magma signature. “Some may be capable of producing highways from hell and some may not,” said Ruprecht.

Earth’s oldest known impact crater found in Greenland

A 100 kilometer-wide crater has been found in Greenland, the result of a massive asteroid or comet impact a billion years before any other known collision on Earth.

The spectacular craters on the Moon formed from impacts with asteroids and comets between 3 and 4 billion years ago. The early Earth, with its far greater gravitational mass, must have experienced even more collisions at this time – but the evidence has been eroded away or covered by younger rocks. The previously oldest known crater on Earth formed 2 billion years ago and the chances of finding an even older impact were thought to be, literally, astronomically low.

Now, a team of scientists from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) in Copenhagen, Cardiff University in Wales, Lund University in Sweden and the Institute of Planetary Science in Moscow has upset these odds. Following a detailed programme of fieldwork, funded by GEUS and the Danish ‘Carlsbergfondet’ (Carlsberg Foundation), the team have discovered the remains of a giant 3 billion year old impact near the Maniitsoq region of West Greenland.

“This single discovery means that we can study the effects of cratering on the Earth nearly a billion years further back in time than was possible before,” according to Dr Iain McDonald of Cardiff University’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, who was part of the team.

Finding the evidence was made all the harder because there is no obvious bowl-shaped crater left to find. Over the 3 billion years since the impact, the land has been eroded down to expose deeper crust 25 km below the original surface. All external parts of the impact structure have been removed, but the effects of the intense impact shock wave penetrated deep into the crust – far deeper than at any other known crater – and these remain visible.

However, because the effects of impact at these depths have never been observed before it has taken nearly three years of painstaking work to assemble all the key evidence. “The process was rather like a Sherlock Holmes story,” said Dr McDonald. “We eliminated the impossible in terms of any conventional terrestrial processes, and were left with a giant impact as the only explanation for all of the facts.”

Only around 180 impact craters have ever been discovered on Earth and around 30% of them contain important natural resources of minerals or oil and gas. The largest and oldest known crater prior to this study, the 300 kilometre wide Vredefort crater in South Africa, is 2 billion years in age and heavily eroded.

Dr McDonald added that “It has taken us nearly three years to convince our peers in the scientific community of this but the mining industry was far more receptive. A Canadian exploration company has been using the impact model to explore for deposits of nickel and platinum metals at Maniitsoq since the autumn of 2011.”

The international team was led by Adam A. Garde, senior research scientist at GEUS. The first scientific paper documenting the discovery has just been published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

Rich ore deposits linked to ancient atmosphere

Much of our planet’s mineral wealth was deposited billions of years ago when Earth’s chemical cycles were different from today’s. Using geochemical clues from rocks nearly 3 billion years old, a group of scientists including Andrey Bekker and Doug Rumble from the Carnegie Institution have made the surprising discovery that the creation of economically important nickel ore deposits was linked to sulfur in the ancient oxygen-poor atmosphere.

These ancient ores — specifically iron-nickel sulfide deposits — yield 10% of the world’s annual nickel production. They formed for the most part between two and three billion years ago when hot magmas erupted on the ocean floor. Yet scientists have puzzled over the origin of the rich deposits. The ore minerals require sulfur to form, but neither seawater nor the magmas hosting the ores were thought to be rich enough in sulfur for this to happen.

“These nickel deposits have sulfur in them arising from an atmospheric cycle in ancient times. The isotopic signal is of an anoxic atmosphere,” says Rumble of Carnegie’s Geophysical Laboratory, a co-author of the paper appearing in the November 20 issue of Science.

Rumble, with lead author Andrey Bekker (formerly Carnegie Fellow and now at the University of Manitoba), and four other colleagues used advanced geochemical techniques to analyze rock samples from major ore deposits in Australia and Canada. They found that to help produce the ancient deposits, sulfur atoms made a complicated journey from volcanic eruptions, to the atmosphere, to seawater, to hot springs on the ocean floor, and finally to molten, ore-producing magmas.

The key evidence came from a form of sulfur known as sulfur-33, an isotope in which atoms contain one more neutron than “normal” sulfur (sulfur-32). Both isotopes act the same in most chemical reactions, but reactions in the atmosphere in which sulfur dioxide gas molecules are split by ultraviolet light (UV) rays cause the isotopes to be sorted or “fractionated” into different reaction products, creating isotopic anomalies.

“If there is too much oxygen in the atmosphere then not enough UV gets through and these reactions can’t happen,” says Rumble. “So if you find these sulfur isotope anomalies in rocks of a certain age, you have information about the oxygen level in the atmosphere.”

By linking the rich nickel ores with the ancient atmosphere, the anomalies in the rock samples also answer the long-standing question regarding the source of the sulfur in the ore minerals. Knowing this will help geologists track down new ore deposits, says Rumble, because the presence of sulfur and other chemical factors determine whether or not a deposit will form.

“Ore deposits are a tiny fraction of a percent of the Earth’s surface, yet economically they are incredibly important. Modern society cannot exist without specialized metals and alloys,” he says. “But it’s all a matter of local geological circumstance whether you have a bonanza — or a bust.”