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.”

North Atlantic signalled Ice Age thaw 1,000 years before it happened, reveals new research

The Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths may have given out early warning signals – 1,000 years in advance – that the last Ice Age was going to end, scientists report today in the journal Paleoceanography.

Scientists had previously known that at the end of the last Ice Age, around 14,700 years ago, major changes occurred to the Atlantic Ocean in a period known as the Bolling-Allerod interval. During this period, as glaciers melted and the Earth warmed, the currents of the Atlantic Ocean at its deepest levels changed direction.

The researchers have analysed the chemistry of 24 ancient coral fossils from the North Atlantic Ocean to learn more about the circulation of its waters during the last Ice Age. They found that the corals recorded a high variability in the currents of the Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths, around 2km below the surface, up to 1,000 years prior to the Bolling-Allerod interval. The team suggests that these changes may have been an early warning signal that the world was poised to switch from its glacial state to the warmer world we know today, and that the changes happened first at mid-depths.

The study was carried out by researchers from Imperial College London in conjunction with academics from the Scottish Marine Institute, the University of Bristol and Caltech Division of Geology and Planetary Sciences.

Dr David Wilson, from the Department of Earth Science and Engineering at Imperial College London, said: “The world’s oceans have always been an important barometer when it comes to changes in our planet. Excitingly, the coral fossils we’ve studied are showing us that the North Atlantic Ocean at mid-depths was undergoing changes up to 1,000 years earlier than we had expected. The tantalising prospect is that this high variability may have been a signal that the last Ice Age was about to end.”

The fossil corals analysed by the team come from a species called Desmophyllum dianthus, which are often around 5cm in diameter and look like budding flowers. They typically only live for 100 years, giving the team a rare insight into what was happening to the ocean’s currents during this relatively brief time. Thousands of years ago they grew on the New England Seamounts, which are a chain of undersea mountains approximately 1000km off the east coast of the US, located at mid-depths 2km beneath the surface. This underwater area is important for understanding the North Atlantic’s currents.

While some of the corals analysed by the team come from historical collections, most have been collected by researchers from previous expeditions in 2003 and 2005 to the New England Seamounts. The researchers used deep sea robotic submergence vehicles called Hercules and Alvin to collect the ancient coral fossils.

These ancient coral fossils accumulated rare earth elements from seawater, including neodymium, which leached from rocks on land into the Atlantic Ocean and circulated in its currents, eventually ending up in the coral skeletons. Neodymium isotopes in different regions of the world have specific signatures, created by radioactive decay over billions of years. The scientists studied the chemistry of the coral fossils to determine where the neodymium isotopes had come from, giving them a glimpse into the circulation of the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the Ice Age.

Since the world’s oceans are connected by currents, the next step will see the team integrating the evidence they gathered from the North Atlantic Ocean into a picture of global changes in the mid-depths of oceans around the world. In particular, the team is interested in exploring how the Southern Ocean around Antarctica changed around the same time by analysing neodymium isotopes in a collection of Southern Ocean corals.

Earth’s most abundant mineral finally has a name

An ancient meteorite and high-energy X-rays have helped scientists conclude a half century of effort to find, identify and characterize a mineral that makes up 38 percent of the Earth.

And in doing so, a team of scientists led by Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist at the University of Las Vegas, clarified the definition of the Earth’s most abundant mineral – a high-density form of magnesium iron silicate, now called Bridgmanite – and defined estimated constraint ranges for its formation. Their research was performed at the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The mineral was named after 1964 Nobel laureate and pioneer of high-pressure research Percy Bridgman. The naming does more than fix a vexing gap in scientific lingo; it also will aid our understanding of the deep Earth.

To determine the makeup of the inner layers of the Earth, scientists need to test materials under extreme pressure and temperatures. For decades, scientists have believed a dense perovskite structure makes up 38 percent of the Earth’s volume, and that the chemical and physical properties of Bridgmanite have a large influence on how elements and heat flow through the Earth’s mantle. But since the mineral failed to survive the trip to the surface, no one has been able to test and prove its existence – a requirement for getting a name by the International Mineralogical Association.

Shock-compression that occurs in collisions of asteroid bodies in the solar system create the same hostile conditions of the deep Earth – roughly 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800 degrees Farenheit) and pressures of about 240,000 times greater than sea-level air pressure. The shock occurs fast enough to inhibit the Bridgmanite breakdown that takes place when it comes under lower pressure, such as the Earth’s surface. Part of the debris from these collisions falls on Earth as meteorites, with the Bridgmanite “frozen” within a shock-melt vein. Previous tests on meteorites using transmission electron microscopy caused radiation damage to the samples and incomplete results.

So the team decided to try a new tactic: non-destructive micro-focused X-rays for diffraction analysis and novel fast-readout area-detector techniques. Tschauner and his colleagues from Caltech and the GeoSoilEnviroCARS, a University of Chicago-operated X-ray beamline at the APS at Argonne National Laboratory, took advantage of the X-rays’ high energy, which gives them the ability to penetrate the meteorite, and their intense brilliance, which leaves little of the radiation behind to cause damage.

The team examined a section of the highly shocked L-chondrite meteorite Tenham, which crashed in Australia in 1879. The GSECARS beamline was optimal for the study because it is one of the nation’s leading locations for conducting high-pressure research.

Bridgmanite grains are rare in the Tenhma meteorite, and they are smaller than 1 micrometer in diameter. Thus the team had to use a strongly focused beam and conduct highly spatially resolved diffraction mapping until an aggregate of Bridgmanite was identified and characterized by structural and compositional analysis.

This first natural specimen of Bridgmanite came with some surprises: It contains an unexpectedly high amount of ferric iron, beyond that of synthetic samples. Natural Bridgmanite also contains much more sodium than most synthetic samples. Thus the crystal chemistry of natural Bridgmanite provides novel crystal chemical insights. This natural sample of Bridgmanite may serve as a complement to experimental studies of deep mantle rocks in the future.

Prior to this study, knowledge about Bridgmanite’s properties has only been based on synthetic samples because it only remains stable below 660 kilometers (410 miles) depth at pressures of above 230 kbar (23 GPa). When it is brought out of the inner Earth, the lower pressures transform it back into less dense minerals. Some scientists believe that some inclusions on diamonds are the marks left by Bridgmanite that changed as the diamonds were unearthed.

The team’s results were published in the November 28 issue of the journal Science as “Discovery of bridgmanite, the most abundant mineral in Earth, in a shocked meteorite,” by O. Tschauner at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, N.V.; C. Ma; J.R. Beckett; G.R. Rossman at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.; C. Prescher; V.B. Prakapenka at University of Chicago in Chicago, IL.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF.

Himalaya tectonic dam with a discharge

The Himalaya features some of the most impressive gorges on Earth that have been formed by rivers. The geologic history of the famous Tsangpo Gorge, in the eastern Himalaya, now needs to be rewritten.

A team of German, Chinese, and American geoscientists have namely discovered a canyon, filled with more than 500 m of sediments beneath the bed of the present-day Yarlung Tsangpo River upstream from the gorge. Using drill cores, the scientists were able to reconstruct the former valley floor of this river, which allowed them to reconstruct the geological history of the Tsangpo Gorge (Science, 21.11.2014). They discovered that the gorge obtained its steep form in response to rapid tectonic uplift in the Himalaya, two to three million years ago. “Because of its high gradient, the river incises its bed very rapidly”, explains Dirk Scherler from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. “The rocks here are eroded at annual rates of up to one centimeter per year which is matched by tectonic uplift of the same rate.” The collision of India with the Eurasian continent has created a tectonic dam here.

This barrier caused a lower flow velocity of the Yarlung Tsangpoupstream. Previously, the river had deeply incised into the Tibetan Plateau. Due to the reduced flow rate the sediments which the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributaries eroded from the highlands were deposited in the river bed along hundreds of kilometers.

The scientists estimated that these deposits are up to 1000 m thick. “Five drillings have been conducted over a distance of 300 km upstream of the gorge”, says Dirk Scherler. “One of the drillings encountered bedrock after 540 meters of sediments. From the drill cores, we were able to infer the reduction in stream flow velocity and date the initiation of sedimentation using cosmogenic nuclides. These are rare isotopes that are produced by cosmic rays near the Earth’s surface. Three Million years ago, the river was still incising into Himalayan bedrock.” But today the once huge canyon is buried by sediments.

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the largest high mountain river on Earth. It flows along a distance of 1700 km across the Tibetan Plateau, at an elevation of around 4000 meters and follows the boundary between India and Eurasia. In the eastern Himalaya, the river leaves the high plateau and breaks through the world famous, horseshoe-shaped Tsangpo Gorge for the plains of India.

The new findings show that rapid incision of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the development of the Tsangpo Gorge occurred in response to tectonic uplift, and not, as previously thought, the other way round. In addition, these observations refute existing hypotheses that relate the origin of the Tsangpo Gorge to river capture of the Yarlung Tsangpo by the Brahmaputra River.

Geologists discover ancient buried canyon in South Tibet

This photo shows the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley close to the Tsangpo Gorge, where it is rather narrow and underlain by only about 250 meters of sediments. The mountains in the upper left corner belong to the Namche Barwa massif. Previously, scientists had suspected that the debris deposited by a glacier in the foreground was responsible for the formation of the steep Tsangpo Gorge -- the new discoveries falsify this hypothesis. -  Ping Wang
This photo shows the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley close to the Tsangpo Gorge, where it is rather narrow and underlain by only about 250 meters of sediments. The mountains in the upper left corner belong to the Namche Barwa massif. Previously, scientists had suspected that the debris deposited by a glacier in the foreground was responsible for the formation of the steep Tsangpo Gorge — the new discoveries falsify this hypothesis. – Ping Wang

A team of researchers from Caltech and the China Earthquake Administration has discovered an ancient, deep canyon buried along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in south Tibet, north of the eastern end of the Himalayas. The geologists say that the ancient canyon–thousands of feet deep in places–effectively rules out a popular model used to explain how the massive and picturesque gorges of the Himalayas became so steep, so fast.

“I was extremely surprised when my colleagues, Jing Liu-Zeng and Dirk Scherler, showed me the evidence for this canyon in southern Tibet,” says Jean-Philippe Avouac, the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech. “When I first saw the data, I said, ‘Wow!’ It was amazing to see that the river once cut quite deeply into the Tibetan Plateau because it does not today. That was a big discovery, in my opinion.”

Geologists like Avouac and his colleagues, who are interested in tectonics–the study of the earth’s surface and the way it changes–can use tools such as GPS and seismology to study crustal deformation that is taking place today. But if they are interested in studying changes that occurred millions of years ago, such tools are not useful because the activity has already happened. In those cases, rivers become a main source of information because they leave behind geomorphic signatures that geologists can interrogate to learn about the way those rivers once interacted with the land–helping them to pin down when the land changed and by how much, for example.

“In tectonics, we are always trying to use rivers to say something about uplift,” Avouac says. “In this case, we used a paleocanyon that was carved by a river. It’s a nice example where by recovering the geometry of the bottom of the canyon, we were able to say how much the range has moved up and when it started moving.”

The team reports its findings in the current issue of Science.

Last year, civil engineers from the China Earthquake Administration collected cores by drilling into the valley floor at five locations along the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Shortly after, former Caltech graduate student Jing Liu-Zeng, who now works for that administration, returned to Caltech as a visiting associate and shared the core data with Avouac and Dirk Scherler, then a postdoc in Avouac’s group. Scherler had previously worked in the far western Himalayas, where the Indus River has cut deeply into the Tibetan Plateau, and immediately recognized that the new data suggested the presence of a paleocanyon.

Liu-Zeng and Scherler analyzed the core data and found that at several locations there were sedimentary conglomerates, rounded gravel and larger rocks cemented together, that are associated with flowing rivers, until a depth of 800 meters or so, at which point the record clearly indicated bedrock. This suggested that the river once carved deeply into the plateau.

To establish when the river switched from incising bedrock to depositing sediments, they measured two isotopes, beryllium-10 and aluminum-26, in the lowest sediment layer. The isotopes are produced when rocks and sediment are exposed to cosmic rays at the surface and decay at different rates once buried, and so allowed the geologists to determine that the paleocanyon started to fill with sediment about 2.5 million years ago.

The researchers’ reconstruction of the former valley floor showed that the slope of the river once increased gradually from the Gangetic Plain to the Tibetan Plateau, with no sudden changes, or knickpoints. Today, the river, like most others in the area, has a steep knickpoint where it meets the Himalayas, at a place known as the Namche Barwa massif. There, the uplift of the mountains is extremely rapid (on the order of 1 centimeter per year, whereas in other areas 5 millimeters per year is more typical) and the river drops by 2 kilometers in elevation as it flows through the famous Tsangpo Gorge, known by some as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon because it is so deep and long.

Combining the depth and age of the paleocanyon with the geometry of the valley, the geologists surmised that the river existed in this location prior to about 3 million years ago, but at that time, it was not affected by the Himalayas. However, as the Indian and Eurasian plates continued to collide and the mountain range pushed northward, it began impinging on the river. Suddenly, about 2.5 million years ago, a rapidly uplifting section of the mountain range got in the river’s way, damming it, and the canyon subsequently filled with sediment.

“This is the time when the Namche Barwa massif started to rise, and the gorge developed,” says Scherler, one of two lead authors on the paper and now at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany.

That picture of the river and the Tibetan Plateau, which involves the river incising deeply into the plateau millions of years ago, differs quite a bit from the typically accepted geologic vision. Typically, geologists believe that when rivers start to incise into a plateau, they eat at the edges, slowly making their way into the plateau over time. However, the rivers flowing across the Himalayas all have strong knickpoints and have not incised much at all into the Tibetan Plateau. Therefore, the thought has been that the rapid uplift of the Himalayas has pushed the rivers back, effectively pinning them, so that they have not been able to make their way into the plateau. But that explanation does not work with the newly discovered paleocanyon.

The team’s new hypothesis also rules out a model that has been around for about 15 years, called tectonic aneurysm, which suggests that the rapid uplift seen at the Namche Barwa massif was triggered by intense river incision. In tectonic aneurysm, a river cuts down through the earth’s crust so fast that it causes the crust to heat up, making a nearby mountain range weaker and facilitating uplift.

The model is popular among geologists, and indeed Avouac himself published a modeling paper in 1996 that showed the viability of the mechanism. “But now we have discovered that the river was able to cut into the plateau way before the uplift happened,” Avouac says, “and this shows that the tectonic aneurysm model was actually not at work here. The rapid uplift is not a response to river incision.”


The other lead author on the paper, “Tectonic control of the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge, revealed by a 2.5 Myr old buried canyon in Southern Tibet,” is Ping Wang of the State Key Laboratory of Earthquake Dynamics, in Beijing, China. Additional authors include J├╝rgen Mey, of the University of Potsdam, in Germany; and Yunda Zhang and Dingguo Shi of the Chengdu Engineering Corporation, in China. The work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the State Key Laboratory for Earthquake Dynamics, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Geologists shed light on formation of Alaska Range

Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. -  Syracuse University
Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. – Syracuse University

Geologists in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences have recently figured out what has caused the Alaska Range to form the way it has and why the range boasts such an enigmatic topographic signature. The narrow mountain range is home to some of the world’s most dramatic topography, including 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a team of students and fellow scientists have been studying the Alaska Range along the Denali fault. They think they know why the fault is located where it is and what accounts for the alternating asymmetrical, mountain-scale topography along the fault.

Their findings were the subject of a recent paper in the journal Tectonics (American Geophysical Union, 2014).

In 2002, the Denali fault, which cuts across south-central Alaska, was the site of a magnitude-7.9 earthquake and was felt as far away as Texas and Louisiana. It was the largest earthquake of its kind in more than 150 years.

“Following the earthquake, researchers flocked to the area to examine the effects,” says Fitzgerald, who serves as professor of Earth Sciences and an associate dean for the College. “They were fascinated by how the frozen ground behaved; the many landslides [the earthquake] caused; how bridges responded; and how the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline survived, as it was engineered to do so.”

Geologists were also surprised by how the earthquake began on a previously unknown thrust-fault; then propagated eastward, along the Denali fault, and finally jumped onto another fault, hundreds of kilometers away.

“From our perspective, the earthquake has motivated analyses of why the highest mountains in the central Alaska Range occur south of the Denali fault and the highest mountains in the eastern Alaska Range occur north of the fault–something that has puzzled us for years,” Fitzgerald adds. “It’s been an enigma staring us in the face.”

He attributes the Alaska Range’s alternating topographic signatures to a myriad of factors: contrasting lithospheric strength between large terranes (i.e., distinctly different rock units); the location of the curved Denali fault; the transfer of strain inland from southern Alaska’s active plate margin; and the shape of the controlling former continental margin against weaker suture-zone rocks.

It’s no secret that Alaska is one of the most geologically active areas on the planet. For instance, scientists know that the North American Plate is currently overriding the Pacific Plate at the latter’s southern coast, while the Yakutat microplate is colliding with North America.

As a result of plate tectonics, Alaska is an amalgamation of terranes that have collided with the North American craton and have accreted to become part of North America.

Cratons are pieces of continents that have been largely stable for hundreds of millions of years.

Terranes often originate as volcanic islands (like those of Hawaii) and, after colliding with one another or a continent, are separated by large discrete faults. When terranes collide and accrete, they form a suture, also known as a collision zone, which is made up of weak, crushed rock. During deformation, suture-zone rocks usually deform first, especially if they are adjacent to a strong rock body.

“Technically, the Denali fault is what we’d call an ‘intercontinental right-lateral strike-slip fault system,'” says Fitzgerald, adding that a strike-slip fault occurs when rocks move horizontally past one another, usually on a vertical fault. “This motion includes a component of slip along the fault and a component of normal motion against the fault that creates mountains. Hence, the shape of the fault determines which of the two components is predominant and where mountains form.”

In Alaska, the shape of the accreted terranes generally controls the location of the Denali fault and the mountains that form along it, especially at the bends in the trace of the fault.

Fitzgerald: “Mount McKinley and the central Alaska Range lie within the concave curve of the Denali fault. There, higher topography and greater exhumation [uplift of rock] occur south of the Denali fault, exactly where you’d expect a mountain range to form, given the regional tectonics. In the eastern Alaska Range, higher topography and greater exhumation are found north of the fault, on its convex side–not an expected pattern at all and very puzzling.”

Using mapped surface geology, geophysical data, and thermochronology (i.e., time-temperature history of the rocks), Fitzgerald and colleagues have determined that much of Alaska’s uplift and deformation began some 25 million years ago, when the Yakutat microplate first started colliding with North America. The bold, glacier-clad peaks comprising the Alaska Range actually derive from within the aforementioned “weak suture-zone rocks” between the terranes.

While mountains are high and give the impression of strength, they are built largely from previously fractured rock units. Rock movement along the Denali fault drives the uplift of the mountains, which form at bends in the fault, where previously fractured suture-zone rocks are pinned against the stronger former North American continental margin.

“The patterns of deformation help us understand regional tectonics and the formation of the Alaska Range, which is fascinating to geologists and non-geologists alike,” says Fitzgerald. “Being able to determine patterns or how to reveal them, while others see chaos, is often the key to finding the answer to complex problems. … To us scientists, the real significance of this work is that it helps us understand the evolution of our planet, how faults and mountain belts form, and why earthquakes happen. It also provides a number of hypotheses about Alaskan tectonics and rock deformation that we can test, using the Alaska Range as our laboratory.”

In addition to Fitzgerald, the paper was co-authored by Sarah Roeske, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis; Jeff Benowitz, a research scientist at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; Steven Riccio and Stephanie Perry, graduate students in Earth Sciences at Syracuse; and Phillip Armstrong, professor and chair of geological sciences at California State University, Fullerton.

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

Prehistoric landslide discovery rivals largest known on surface of Earth

David Hacker, Ph.D., points to pseudotachylyte layers and veins within the Markagunt gravity slide. -  Photo courtesy of David Hacker
David Hacker, Ph.D., points to pseudotachylyte layers and veins within the Markagunt gravity slide. – Photo courtesy of David Hacker

A catastrophic landslide, one of the largest known on the surface of the Earth, took place within minutes in southwestern Utah more than 21 million years ago, reports a Kent State University geologist in a paper being to be published in the November issue of the journal Geology.

The Markagunt gravity slide, the size of three Ohio counties, is one of the two largest known continental landslides (larger slides exist on the ocean floors). David Hacker, Ph.D., associate professor of geology at the Trumbull campus, and two colleagues discovered and mapped the scope of the Markagunt slide over the past two summers.

His colleagues and co-authors are Robert F. Biek of the Utah Geological Survey and Peter D. Rowley of Geologic Mapping, Inc. of New Harmony, Utah.

Geologists had known about smaller portions of the Markagunt slide before the recent mapping showed its enormous extent. Hiking through the wilderness areas of the Dixie National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land, Hacker identified features showing that the Markagunt landslide was much bigger than previously known.

The landslide took place in an area between what is now Bryce Canyon National Park and the town of Beaver, Utah. It covered about 1,300 square miles, an area as big as Ohio’s Cuyahoga, Portage and Summit counties combined.

Its rival in size, the “Heart Mountain slide,” which took place around 50 million years ago in northwest Wyoming, was discovered in the 1940s and is a classic feature in geology textbooks.

The Markagunt could prove to be much larger than the Heart Mountain slide, once it is mapped in greater detail.

“Large-scale catastrophic collapses of volcanic fields such as these are rare but represent the largest known landslides on the surface of the Earth,” the authors wrote.

The length of the landslide – over 55 miles – also shows that it was as fast moving as it was massive, Hacker said. Evidence showing that the slide was catastrophic – occurring within minutes – included the presence of pseudotachylytes, rocks that were melted into glass by the immense friction. Any animals living in its path would have been quickly overrun.

Evidence of the slide is not readily apparent to visitors today. “Looking at it, you wouldn’t even recognize it as a landslide,” he said. But internal features of the slide, exposed in outcrops, yielded evidence such as jigsaw puzzle rock fractures and shear zones, along with the pseudotachylytes.

Hacker, who studies catastrophic geological events, said the slide originated when a volcanic field consisting of many strato-volcanoes, a type similar to Mount St. Helens in the Cascade Mountains, which erupted in 1980, collapsed and produced the massive landslide.

The collapse may have been caused by the vertical inflation of deeper magma chambers that fed the volcanoes. Hacker has spent many summers in Utah mapping geologic features of the Pine Valley Mountains south of the Markagunt where he has found evidence of similar, but smaller slides from magma intrusions called laccoliths.

What is learned about the mega-landslide could help geologists better understand these extreme types of events. The Markagunt and the Heart Mountain slides document for the first time how large portions of ancient volcanic fields have collapsed, Hacker said, representing “a new class of hazards in volcanic fields.”

While the Markagunt landslide was a rare event, it shows the magnitude of what could happen in modern volcanic fields like the Cascades. “We study events from the geologic past to better understand what could happen in the future,” he said.

The next steps in the research, conducted with his co-authors on the Geology paper, will be to continue mapping the slide, collect samples from the base for structural analysis and date the pseudotachylytes.

Hacker, who earned his Ph.D. in geology at Kent State, joined the faculty in 2000 after working for an environmental consulting company. He is co-author of the book “Earth’s Natural Hazards: Understanding Natural Disasters and Catastrophes,” published in 2010.

View the abstract of the Geology paper, available online now.

Learn more about research at Kent State:

Fountain of youth underlies Antarctic Mountains

Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. -  Tim Creyts
Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. – Tim Creyts

Time ravages mountains, as it does people. Sharp features soften, and bodies grow shorter and rounder. But under the right conditions, some mountains refuse to age. In a new study, scientists explain why the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains in the middle of Antarctica looks as young as they do.

The Gamburtsevs were discovered in the 1950s, but remained unexplored until scientists flew ice-penetrating instruments over the mountains 60 years later. As this ancient hidden landscape came into focus, scientists were stunned to see the saw-toothed and towering crags of much younger mountains. Though the Gamburtsevs are contemporaries of the largely worn-down Appalachians, they looked more like the Rockies, which are nearly 200 million years younger.

More surprising still, the scientists discovered a vast network of lakes and rivers at the mountains’ base. Though water usually speeds erosion, here it seems to have kept erosion at bay. The reason, researchers now say, has to do with the thick ice that has entombed the Gamburtsevs since Antarctica went into a deep freeze 35 million years ago.

“The ice sheet acts like an anti-aging cream,” said the study’s lead author, Timothy Creyts, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It triggers a series of thermodynamic processes that have almost perfectly preserved the Gamburtsevs since ice began spreading across the continent.”

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, explains how the blanket of ice covering the Gamburtsevs has preserved its rugged ridgelines.

Snow falling at the surface of the ice sheet draws colder temperatures down, closer to protruding peaks in a process called divergent cooling. At the same time, heat radiating from bedrock beneath the ice sheet melts ice in the deep valleys to form rivers and lakes. As rivers course along the base of the ice sheet, high pressures from the overlying ice sheet push water up valleys in reverse. This uphill flow refreezes as it meets colder temperature from above. Thus, ridgelines are cryogenically preserved.

The oldest rocks in the Gamburtsevs formed more than a billion years ago, in the collision of several continents. Though these prototype mountains eroded away, a lingering crustal root became reactivated when the supercontinent Gondwana ripped apart, starting about 200 million years ago. Tectonic forces pushed the land up again to form the modern Gamburtsevs, which range across an area the size of the Alps. Erosion again chewed away at the mountains until earth entered a cooling phase 35 million years ago. Expanding outward from the Gamburtsevs, a growing layer of ice joined several other nucleation points to cover the entire continent in ice.

The researchers say that the mechanism that stalled aging of the Gamburtsevs at higher elevations may explain why some ridgelines in the Torngat Mountains on Canada’s Labrador Peninsula and the Scandinavian Mountains running through Norway, Sweden and Finland appear strikingly untouched. Massive ice sheets covered both landscapes during the last ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago, but many high-altitude features bear little trace of this event.

“The authors identify a mechanism whereby larger parts of mountains ranges in glaciated regions–not just Antarctica–could be spared from erosion,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University who was not involved in the study. “This is important because these uplands are nucleation centers for ice sheets. If they were to gradually erode during glacial cycles, they would become less effective as nucleation points during later ice ages.”

Ice sheet behavior, then, may influence climate change in ways that scientists and computer models have yet to appreciate. As study coauthor Fausto Ferraccioli, head of the British Antarctic Survey’s airborne geophysics group, put it: “If these mountains in interior East Antarctica had been more significantly eroded then the ice sheet itself
may have had a different history.”

Other Authors

Hugh Carr and Tom Jordan of the British Antarctic Survey; Robin Bell, Michael Wolovick and Nicholas Frearson of Lamont-Doherty; Kathryn Rose of University of Bristol; Detlef Damaske of Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources; David Braaten of Kansas University; and Carol Finn of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Copies of the paper, “Freezing of ridges and water networks preserves the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains for millions of years,” are available from the authors.

Scientist Contact

Tim Creyts


Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”


This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014:

James Farquhar home page

Alan J. Kaufman home page

Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845,

Writer: Heather Dewar

Life in Earth’s primordial sea was starved for sulfate

This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia -- a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth's early oceans. -  Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.
This is a research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans. – Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.

The Earth’s ancient oceans held much lower concentrations of sulfate–a key biological nutrient–than previously recognized, according to research published this week in Science.

The findings paint a new portrait of our planet’s early biosphere and primitive marine life. Organisms require sulfur as a nutrient, and it plays a central role in regulating atmospheric chemistry and global climate.

“Our findings are a fraction of previous estimates, and thousands of time lower than current seawater levels,” says Sean Crowe, a lead author of the study and an assistant professor in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology, and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia.

“At these trace amounts, sulfate would have been poorly mixed and short-lived in the oceans–and this sulfate scarcity would have shaped the nature, activity and evolution of early life on Earth.”

UBC, University of Southern Denmark, CalTech, University of Minnesota Duluth, and University of Maryland researchers used new techniques and models to calibrate fingerprints of bacterial sulfur metabolisms in Lake Matano, Indonesia — a modern lake with chemistry similar to Earth’s early oceans.

Measuring these fingerprints in rocks older than 2.5 billion years, they discovered sulfate 80 times lower than previously thought.

The more sensitive fingerprinting provides a powerful tool to search for sulfur metabolisms deep in Earth’s history or on other planets like Mars.


Previous research has suggested that Archean sulfate levels were as low as 200 micromolar– concentrations at which sulfur would still have been abundantly available to early marine life.

The new results indicate levels were likely less than 2.5 micromolar, thousands of times lower than today.

What the researchers did

Researchers used state-of-the-art mass spectrometric approaches developed at California Institute of Technology to demonstrate that microorganisms fractionate sulfur isotopes at concentrations orders of magnitude lower than previously recognized.

They found that microbial sulfur metabolisms impart large fingerprints even when sulfate is scarce.

The team used the techniques on samples from Lake Matano, Indonesia–a sulfate-poor modern analogue for the Earth’s Archean oceans.

“New measurements in these unique modern environments allow us to use numerical models to reconstruct ancient ocean chemistry with unprecedented resolution” says Sergei Katsev an Associate Professor at the Large Lakes Observatory, University of Minnesota Duluth.

Using models informed by sulfate isotope fractionation in Lake Matano, they established a new calibration for sulfate isotope fractionation that is extensible to the Earth’s oceans throughout history. The researchers then reconstructed Archean seawater sulfate concentrations using these models and an exhaustive compilation of sulfur isotope data from Archean sedimentary rocks.


Crowe initiated the research while a post-doctoral fellow with Donald Canfield at the University of Southern Denmark.