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.”

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.

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.

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”.

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.”

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.”