Study hints that ancient Earth made its own water — geologically

A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University– and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

“When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water–in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell–a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser–to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface–a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found–a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”–as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier–a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said–an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

“One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

“If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

Geophysicists challenge traditional theory underlying the origin of mid-plate volcanoes

Traditional thought holds that hot updrafts from the Earth's core cause volcanoes, but researchers say eruptions may stem from the asthenosphere, a layer closer to the surface. -  Virginia Tech
Traditional thought holds that hot updrafts from the Earth’s core cause volcanoes, but researchers say eruptions may stem from the asthenosphere, a layer closer to the surface. – Virginia Tech

A long-held assumption about the Earth is discussed in today’s edition of Science, as Don L. Anderson, an emeritus professor with the Seismological Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and Scott King, a professor of geophysics in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, look at how a layer beneath the Earth’s crust may be responsible for volcanic eruptions.

The discovery challenges conventional thought that volcanoes are caused when plates that make up the planet’s crust shift and release heat.

Instead of coming from deep within the interior of the planet, the responsibility is closer to the surface, about 80 kilometers to 200 kilometers deep — a layer above the Earth’s mantle, known as the as the asthenosphere.

“For nearly 40 years there has been a debate over a theory that volcanic island chains, such as Hawaii, have been formed by the interaction between plates at the surface and plumes of hot material that rise from the core-mantle boundary nearly 1,800 miles below the Earth’s surface,” King said. “Our paper shows that a hot layer beneath the plates may explain the origin of mid-plate volcanoes without resorting to deep conduits from halfway to the center of the Earth.”

Traditionally, the asthenosphere has been viewed as a passive structure that separates the moving tectonic plates from the mantle.

As tectonic plates move several inches every year, the boundaries between the plates spawn most of the planet’s volcanoes and earthquakes.

“As the Earth cools, the tectonic plates sink and displace warmer material deep within the interior of the Earth,” explained King. “This material rises as two broad, passive updrafts that seismologists have long recognized in their imaging of the interior of the Earth.”

The work of Anderson and King, however, shows that the hot, weak region beneath the plates acts as a lubricating layer, preventing the plates from dragging the material below along with them as they move.

The researchers show this lubricating layer is also the hottest part of the mantle, so there is no need for heat to be carried up to explain mid-plate volcanoes.

“We’re taking the position that plate tectonics and mid-plate volcanoes are the natural results of processes in the plates and the layer beneath them,” King said.

Study shows tectonic plates not rigid, deform horizontally in cooling process

Corné Kreemer, associate professor in the College of Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, conducts research on plate tectonics and geodetics. His latest research shows that oceanic tectonic plates deform due to cooling, causing shortening of the plates and mid-plate seismicity. -  Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.
Corné Kreemer, associate professor in the College of Science at the University of Nevada, Reno, conducts research on plate tectonics and geodetics. His latest research shows that oceanic tectonic plates deform due to cooling, causing shortening of the plates and mid-plate seismicity. – Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

The puzzle pieces of tectonic plates that make up the outer layer of the earth are not rigid and don’t fit together as nicely as we were taught in high school.

A study published in the journal Geology by Corné Kreemer, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, and his colleague Richard Gordon of Rice University, quantifies deformation of the Pacific plate and challenges the central approximation of the plate tectonic paradigm that plates are rigid.

Using large-scale numerical modeling as well as GPS velocities from the largest GPS data-processing center in the world – the Nevada Geodetic Laboratory at the University of Nevada, Reno – Kreemer and Gordon have showed that cooling of the lithosphere, the outermost layer of Earth, makes some sections of the Pacific plate contract horizontally at faster rates than other sections. This causes the plate to deform.

Gordon’s idea is that the plate cooling, which makes the ocean deeper, also affects horizontal movement and that there is shortening and deformation of the plates due to the cooling. In partnering with Kreemer, the two put their ideas and expertise together to show that the deformation could explain why some parts of the plate tectonic puzzle didn’t fall neatly into place in recent plate motion models, which is based on spreading rates along mid-oceanic ridges. Kreemer and Gordon also showed that there is a positive correlation between where the plate is predicted to deform and where intraplate earthquakes occur. Their work was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Results of the study suggest that plate-scale horizontal thermal contraction is significant, and that it may be partly released seismically. . The pair of researchers are, as the saying goes, rewriting the textbooks.

“This is plate tectonics 2.0, it revolutionizes the concepts of plate rigidity,” Kreemer, who teaches in the University’s College of Science, said. “We have shown that the Pacific plate deforms, that it is pliable. We are refining the plate tectonic theory and have come up with an explanation for mid-plate seismicity.”

The oceanic plates are shortening due to cooling, which causes relative motion inside the plate, Kreemer said. The oceanic crust of the Pacific plate off shore California is moving 2 mm to the south every year relative to the Pacific/Antarctic plate boundary.

“It may not sound like much, but it is significant considering that we can measure crustal motion with GPS within a fraction of a millimeter per year,” he said. “Unfortunately, all existing GPS stations on Pacific islands are in the old part of the plate that is not expected nor shown to deform. New measurements will be needed within the young parts of the plate to confirm this study’s predictions, either on very remote islands or through sensors on the ocean floor.”

This work is complementary to Kreemer’s ongoing effort to quantify the deformation in all of the Earth’s plate boundary zones with GPS velocities – data that are for a large part processed in the Nevada Geodetic Laboratory. The main goal of the global modeling is to convert the strain rates to earthquake forecast maps.

“Because we don’t have GPS data in the right places of the Pacific plate, our prediction of how that plate deforms can supplement the strain rates I’ve estimated in parts of the world where we can quantify them with GPS data,” Kreemer said. “Ultimately, we hope to have a good estimate of strain rates everywhere so that the models not only forecast earthquakes for places like Reno and San Francisco, but also for places where you may expect them the least.”

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.



Video
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

Textbook theory behind volcanoes may be wrong

In the typical textbook picture, volcanoes, such as those that are forming the Hawaiian islands, erupt when magma gushes out as narrow jets from deep inside Earth. But that picture is wrong, according to a new study from researchers at Caltech and the University of Miami in Florida.

New seismology data are now confirming that such narrow jets don’t actually exist, says Don Anderson, the Eleanor and John R. McMillian Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, at Caltech. In fact, he adds, basic physics doesn’t support the presence of these jets, called mantle plumes, and the new results corroborate those fundamental ideas.

“Mantle plumes have never had a sound physical or logical basis,” Anderson says. “They are akin to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’ about how giraffes got their long necks.”

Anderson and James Natland, a professor emeritus of marine geology and geophysics at the University of Miami, describe their analysis online in the September 8 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to current mantle-plume theory, Anderson explains, heat from Earth’s core somehow generates narrow jets of hot magma that gush through the mantle and to the surface. The jets act as pipes that transfer heat from the core, and how exactly they’re created isn’t clear, he says. But they have been assumed to exist, originating near where the Earth’s core meets the mantle, almost 3,000 kilometers underground-nearly halfway to the planet’s center. The jets are theorized to be no more than about 300 kilometers wide, and when they reach the surface, they produce hot spots.

While the top of the mantle is a sort of fluid sludge, the uppermost layer is rigid rock, broken up into plates that float on the magma-bearing layers. Magma from the mantle beneath the plates bursts through the plate to create volcanoes. As the plates drift across the hot spots, a chain of volcanoes forms-such as the island chains of Hawaii and Samoa.

“Much of solid-Earth science for the past 20 years-and large amounts of money-have been spent looking for elusive narrow mantle plumes that wind their way upward through the mantle,” Anderson says.

To look for the hypothetical plumes, researchers analyze global seismic activity. Everything from big quakes to tiny tremors sends seismic waves echoing through Earth’s interior. The type of material that the waves pass through influences the properties of those waves, such as their speeds. By measuring those waves using hundreds of seismic stations installed on the surface, near places such as Hawaii, Iceland, and Yellowstone National Park, researchers can deduce whether there are narrow mantle plumes or whether volcanoes are simply created from magma that’s absorbed in the sponge-like shallower mantle.

No one has been able to detect the predicted narrow plumes, although the evidence has not been conclusive. The jets could have simply been too thin to be seen, Anderson says. Very broad features beneath the surface have been interpreted as plumes or super-plumes, but, still, they’re far too wide to be considered narrow jets.

But now, thanks in part to more seismic stations spaced closer together and improved theory, analysis of the planet’s seismology is good enough to confirm that there are no narrow mantle plumes, Anderson and Natland say. Instead, data reveal that there are large, slow, upward-moving chunks of mantle a thousand kilometers wide.

In the mantle-plume theory, Anderson explains, the heat that is transferred upward via jets is balanced by the slower downward motion of cooled, broad, uniform chunks of mantle. The behavior is similar to that of a lava lamp, in which blobs of wax are heated from below and then rise before cooling and falling. But a fundamental problem with this picture is that lava lamps require electricity, he says, and that is an outside energy source that an isolated planet like Earth does not have.

The new measurements suggest that what is really happening is just the opposite: Instead of narrow jets, there are broad upwellings, which are balanced by narrow channels of sinking material called slabs. What is driving this motion is not heat from the core, but cooling at Earth’s surface. In fact, Anderson says, the behavior is the regular mantle convection first proposed more than a century ago by Lord Kelvin. When material in the planet’s crust cools, it sinks, displacing material deeper in the mantle and forcing it upward.

“What’s new is incredibly simple: upwellings in the mantle are thousands of kilometers across,” Anderson says. The formation of volcanoes then follows from plate tectonics-the theory of how Earth’s plates move and behave. Magma, which is less dense than the surrounding mantle, rises until it reaches the bottom of the plates or fissures that run through them. Stresses in the plates, cracks, and other tectonic forces can squeeze the magma out, like how water is squeezed out of a sponge. That magma then erupts out of the surface as volcanoes. The magma comes from within the upper 200 kilometers of the mantle and not thousands of kilometers deep, as the mantle-plume theory suggests.

“This is a simple demonstration that volcanoes are the result of normal broad-scale convection and plate tectonics,” Anderson says. He calls this theory “top-down tectonics,” based on Kelvin’s initial principles of mantle convection. In this picture, the engine behind Earth’s interior processes is not heat from the core but cooling at the planet’s surface. This cooling and plate tectonics drives mantle convection, the cooling of the core, and Earth’s magnetic field. Volcanoes and cracks in the plate are simply side effects.

The results also have an important consequence for rock compositions-notably the ratios of certain isotopes, Natland says. According to the mantle-plume idea, the measured compositions derive from the mixing of material from reservoirs separated by thousands of kilometers in the upper and lower mantle. But if there are no mantle plumes, then all of that mixing must have happened within the upwellings and nearby mantle in Earth’s top 1,000 kilometers.

The paper is titled “Mantle updrafts and mechanisms of oceanic volcanism.”

Pacific plate shrinking as it cools

A map produced by scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Rice University shows predicted velocities for sectors of the Pacific tectonic plate relative to points near the Pacific-Antarctic ridge, which lies in the South Pacific ocean. The researchers show the Pacific plate is contracting as younger sections of the lithosphere cool. -  Corné Kreemer and Richard Gordon
A map produced by scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Rice University shows predicted velocities for sectors of the Pacific tectonic plate relative to points near the Pacific-Antarctic ridge, which lies in the South Pacific ocean. The researchers show the Pacific plate is contracting as younger sections of the lithosphere cool. – Corné Kreemer and Richard Gordon

The tectonic plate that dominates the Pacific “Ring of Fire” is not as rigid as many scientists assume, according to researchers at Rice University and the University of Nevada.

Rice geophysicist Richard Gordon and his colleague, Corné Kreemer, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, have determined that cooling of the lithosphere — the outermost layer of Earth — makes some sections of the Pacific plate contract horizontally at faster rates than others and cause the plate to deform.

Gordon said the effect detailed this month in Geology is most pronounced in the youngest parts of the lithosphere — about 2 million years old or less — that make up some the Pacific Ocean’s floor. They predict the rate of contraction to be 10 times faster than older parts of the plate that were created about 20 million years ago and 80 times faster than very old parts of the plate that were created about 160 million years ago.

The tectonic plates that cover Earth’s surface, including both land and seafloor, are in constant motion; they imperceptibly surf the viscous mantle below. Over time, the plates scrape against and collide into each other, forming mountains, trenches and other geological features.

On the local scale, these movements cover only inches per year and are hard to see. The same goes for deformations of the type described in the new paper, but when summed over an area the size of the Pacific plate, they become statistically significant, Gordon said.

The new calculations showed the Pacific plate is pulling away from the North American plate a little more — approximately 2 millimeters a year — than the rigid-plate theory would account for, he said. Overall, the plate is moving northwest about 50 millimeters a year.

“The central assumption in plate tectonics is that the plates are rigid, but the studies that my colleagues and I have been doing for the past few decades show that this central assumption is merely an approximation — that is, the plates are not rigid,” Gordon said. “Our latest contribution is to specify or predict the nature and rate of deformation over the entire Pacific plate.”

The researchers already suspected cooling had a role from their observation that the 25 large and small plates that make up Earth’s shell do not fit together as well as the “rigid model” assumption would have it. They also knew that lithosphere as young as 2 million years was more malleable than hardened lithosphere as old as 170 million years.

“We first showed five years ago that the rate of horizontal contraction is inversely proportional to the age of the seafloor,” he said. “So it’s in the youngest lithosphere (toward the east side of the Pacific plate) where you get the biggest effects.”

The researchers saw hints of deformation in a metric called plate circuit closure, which describes the relative motions where at least three plates meet. If the plates were rigid, their angular velocities at the triple junction would have a sum of zero. But where the Pacific, Nazca and Cocos plates meet west of the Galápagos Islands, the nonclosure velocity is 14 millimeters a year, enough to suggest that all three plates are deforming.

“When we did our first global model in 1990, we said to ourselves that maybe when we get new data, this issue will go away,” Gordon said. “But when we updated our model a few years ago, all the places that didn’t have plate circuit closure 20 years ago still didn’t have it.”

There had to be a reason, and it began to become clear when Gordon and his colleagues looked beneath the seafloor. “It’s long been understood that the ocean floor increases in depth with age due to cooling and thermal contraction. But if something cools, it doesn’t just cool in one direction. It’s going to be at least approximately isotropic. It should shrink the same in all directions, not just vertically,” he said.

A previous study by Gordon and former Rice graduate student Ravi Kumar calculated the effect of thermal contraction on vertical columns of oceanic lithosphere and determined its impact on the horizontal plane, but viewing the plate as a whole demanded a different approach. “We thought about the vertically integrated properties of the lithosphere, but once we did that, we realized Earth’s surface is still a two-dimensional problem,” he said.

For the new study, Gordon and Kreemer started by determining how much the contractions would, on average, strain the horizontal surface. They divided the Pacific plate into a grid and calculated the strain on each of the nearly 198,000 squares based on their age, as determined by the seafloor age model published by the National Geophysical Data Center.

“That we could calculate on a laptop,” Gordon said. “If we tried to do it in three dimensions, it would take a high-powered computer cluster.”

The surface calculations were enough to show likely strain fields across the Pacific plate that, when summed, accounted for the deformation. As further proof, the distribution of recent earthquakes in the Pacific plate, which also relieve the strain, showed a greater number occurring in the plate’s younger lithosphere. “In the Earth, those strains are either accommodated by elastic deformation or by little earthquakes that adjust it,” he said.

“The central assumption of plate tectonics assumes the plates are rigid, and this is what we make predictions from,” said Gordon, who was recently honored by the American Geophysical Union for writing two papers about plate movements that are among the top 40 papers ever to appear in one of the organization’s top journals. “Up until now, it’s worked really well.”

“The big picture is that we now have, subject to experimental and observational tests, the first realistic, quantitative estimate of how the biggest oceanic plate departs from that rigid-plate assumption.”

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.

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.

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”.

Four-billion-year-old rocks yield clues about Earth’s earliest crust

University of Alberta Ph.D. student Jesse Reimink studied some of the oldest rocks on Earth to find out how the earliest continents formed. -  Bryan Alary/University of Alberta
University of Alberta Ph.D. student Jesse Reimink studied some of the oldest rocks on Earth to find out how the earliest continents formed. – Bryan Alary/University of Alberta

It looks like just another rock, but what Jesse Reimink holds in his hands is a four-billion-year-old chunk of an ancient protocontinent that holds clues about how the Earth’s first continents formed.

The University of Alberta geochemistry student spent the better part of three years collecting and studying ancient rock samples from the Acasta Gneiss Complex in the Northwest Territories, part of his PhD research to understand the environment in which they formed.

“The timing and mode of continental crust formation throughout Earth’s history is a controversial topic in early Earth sciences,” says Reimink, lead author of a new study in Nature Geoscience that points to Iceland as a solid comparison for how the earliest continents formed.

Continents today form when one tectonic plate shifts beneath another into the Earth’s mantle and cause magma to rise to the surface, a process called subduction. It’s unclear whether plate tectonics existed 2.5 billion to four billion years ago or if another process was at play, says Reimink.

One theory is the first continents formed in the ocean as liquid magma rose from the Earth’s mantle before cooling and solidifying into a crust.

Iceland’s crust formed when magma from the mantle rises to shallow levels, incorporating previously formed volcanic rocks. For this reason, Reimink says Iceland is considered a theoretical analogue on early Earth continental crust formation.

Working under the supervision of co-author Tom Chacko, Reimink spent his summers in the field collecting rock samples from the Acasta Gneiss Complex, which was discovered in the 1980s and found to contain some of the Earth’s oldest rocks, between 3.6 and four billion years old. Due to their extreme age, the rocks have undergone multiple metamorphic events, making it difficult to understand their geochemistry, Reimink says.

Fortunately, a few rocks-which the research team dubbed “Idiwhaa” meaning “ancient” in the local Tlicho dialect-were better preserved. This provided a “window” to see the samples’ geochemical characteristics, which Reimink says showed crust-forming processes that are very similar to those occurring in present-day Iceland.

“This provides the first physical evidence that a setting similar to modern Iceland was present on the early Earth.”

These ancient rocks are among the oldest samples of protocontinental crust that we have, he adds, and may have helped jump-start the formation of the rest of the continental crust.

Reimink, who came to the U of A to work with Chacko, says the university’s lab resources are “second to none,” particularly the Ion Microprobe facility within the Canadian Centre for Isotopic Microanalysis run by co-author Richard Stern, which was instrumental to the discovery.

“That lab is producing some of the best data of its kind in the world. That was very key to this project.”