Early Earth less hellish than previously thought

Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. -  Tamara Carley
Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. – Tamara Carley

Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have been surprisingly similar to the present day, complete with oceans, continents and active crustal plates.

This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, which has been proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.

The study was conducted by a team of geologists directed by Calvin Miller, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, and published online this weekend by the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters in a paper titled, “Iceland is not a magmatic analog for the Hadean: Evidence from the zircon record.”

From the early 20th century up through the 1980’s, geologists generally agreed that conditions during the Hadean period were utterly hostile to life. Inability to find rock formations from the period led them to conclude that early Earth was hellishly hot, either entirely molten or subject to such intense asteroid bombardment that any rocks that formed were rapidly remelted. As a result, they pictured the surface of the Earth as covered by a giant “magma ocean.”

This perception began to change about 30 years ago when geologists discovered zircon crystals (a mineral typically associated with granite) with ages exceeding 4 billion years old preserved in younger sandstones. These ancient zircons opened the door for exploration of the Earth’s earliest crust. In addition to the radiometric dating techniques that revealed the ages of these ancient zircons, geologists used other analytical techniques to extract information about the environment in which the crystals formed, including the temperature and whether water was present.

Since then zircon studies have revealed that the Hadean Earth was not the uniformly hellish place previously imagined, but during some periods possessed an established crust cool enough so that surface water could form – possibly on the scale of oceans.

Accepting that the early Earth had a solid crust and liquid water (at least at times), scientists have continued to debate the nature of that crust and the processes that were active at that time: How similar was the Hadean Earth to what we see today?

Two schools of thought have emerged: One argues that Hadean Earth was surprisingly similar to the present day. The other maintains that, although it was less hostile than formerly believed, early Earth was nonetheless a foreign-seeming and formidable place, similar to the hottest, most extreme, geologic environments of today. A popular analog is Iceland, where substantial amounts of crust are forming from basaltic magma that is much hotter than the magmas that built most of Earth’s current continental crust.

“We reasoned that the only concrete evidence for what the Hadean was like came from the only known survivors: zircon crystals – and yet no one had investigated Icelandic zircon to compare their telltale compositions to those that are more than 4 billion years old, or with zircon from other modern environments,” said Miller.

In 2009, Vanderbilt doctoral student Tamara Carley, who has just accepted the position of assistant professor at Layfayette College, began collecting samples from volcanoes and sands derived from erosion of Icelandic volcanoes. She separated thousands of zircon crystals from the samples, which cover the island’s regional diversity and represent its 18 million year history.

Working with Miller and doctoral student Abraham Padilla at Vanderbilt, Joe Wooden at Stanford University, Axel Schmitt and Rita Economos from UCLA, Ilya Bindeman at the University of Oregon and Brennan Jordan at the University of South Dakota, Carley analyzed about 1,000 zircon crystals for their age and elemental and isotopic compositions. She then searched the literature for all comparable analyses of Hadean zircon and for representative analyses of zircon from other modern environments.

“We discovered that Icelandic zircons are quite distinctive from crystals formed in other locations on modern Earth. We also found that they formed in magmas that are remarkably different from those in which the Hadean zircons grew,” said Carley.

Most importantly, their analysis found that Icelandic zircons grew from much hotter magmas than Hadean zircons. Although surface water played an important role in the generation of both Icelandic and Hadean crystals, in the Icelandic case the water was extremely hot when it interacted with the source rocks while the Hadean water-rock interactions were at significantly lower temperatures.

“Our conclusion is counterintuitive,” said Miller. “Hadean zircons grew from magmas rather similar to those formed in modern subduction zones, but apparently even ‘cooler’ and ‘wetter’ than those being produced today.”

How much magma is hiding beneath our feet?

Molten rock (or magma) has a strong influence on our planet and its inhabitants, causing destructive volcanic eruptions and generating some of the giant mineral deposits. Our understanding of these phenomena is, however, limited by the fact that most magma cools and solidifies several kilometres beneath our feet, only to be exposed at the surface, millions of years later, by erosion. Scientists have never been able to track the movements of magma at such great depths? that is, until a team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) discovered an innovative technique, details of which will be published in the next issue of the journal Nature.

It is a story of three scientists: a modelling specialist, an expert in a tiny mineral known as “zircon”, and a volcanologist. Following a casual conversation, the researchers stumbled upon an idea, and eventually a new method to estimate the volume and flow of magma required for the construction of magma chambers was shaped. The technique they developed makes it possible to refine predictions of future volcanic eruptions as well as identifying areas of the planet that are rich in magma-related natural resources.

Zircon: a valuable mineral for scientists

Professor Urs Schaltegger has been studying zircon for more than ten years in his laboratory at UNIGE, one of the world’s few labs in this field. «The zircon crystals that are found in solidified magma hold key information about the injection of molten rock into a magma chamber before it freezes underground,» explains the professor. Zircon contains radioactive elements that enable researchers to determine its age. As part of the study, the team from the Section of Earth and Environmental Sciences of UNIGE paired data collected using natural samples and numerical simulation. As Guy Simpson, a researcher at UNIGE further explains: «Modelling meant that we could establish how the age of crystallised zircon in a cooled magma reservoir depends on the flow rate of injected magma and the size of the reservoir.»

Applications for society and industry


In the Nature article, the researchers propose a model that is capable of determining with unprecedented accuracy the age, volume and injection rate of magma that has accumulated at inaccessible depths. As a result, they have established that the formation of Earth’s crust, volcanic super eruptions and mineral deposits occur under very specific yet different conditions. Professor Luca Caricchi adds: «When we determine the age of a family of zircons from a small sample of solidified magmatic rock, using results from the mathematical model we have developed, we can tell what the size of the entire magma chamber was, as well as how fast the magma reservoir grew». The professor continues: «This information means that we can determine the probability of an explosive volcanic eruption of a certain size to occur. In addition, the model will be of interest to industry because we will be able to identify new areas of our planet that are home to large amounts of natural resources such as copper and gold.»

Most of the sand in Alberta’s oilsands came from eastern North America, study shows

Christine Benyon is completing her Master's degree in Geoscience in the Faculty of Science. -  Riley Brandt, University of Calgary
Christine Benyon is completing her Master’s degree in Geoscience in the Faculty of Science. – Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

They’re called the Alberta oilsands but most of the sand actually came from the Appalachian region on the eastern side of the North American continent, a new University of Calgary-led study shows.

The oilsands also include sand from the Canadian Shield in northern and east-central Canada and from the Canadian Rockies in western Canada, the study says.

This study is the first to determine the age of individual sediment grains in the oilsands and assess their origin.

“The oilsands are looked at as a Western asset,” says study lead author Christine Benyon, who is just completing her Master’s degree in Geoscience in the Faculty of Science.

“But we wouldn’t have oilsands without the sand, and some of that sand owes its origin to the Appalachians and other parts of Canada.”

The research, which also involved study sponsor Nexen Energy ULC and the University of Arizona LaserChron Center, was published last week in the Journal of Sedimentary Research.

The findings contribute to geologists’ fundamental understanding of the oilsands.

They also help oilsands companies better understand the stratigraphy, or layers, of sand and the ancient valleys where sediment was deposited, “and that could lead to better production techniques,” Benyon says.

To determine the origin of the sand, the researchers used a relatively new technique called “detrital zircon uranium-lead geochronology.”

They used a mass spectrometer to date the age of tiny and extremely durable crystallized minerals called zircons that are present in the oilsands.

“The age of those zircons tells us how long since they crystallized. And knowing that, we can infer their place of origin,” Benyon explains.

Researchers dated the zircons in nine core samples from three wells drilled into the oilsands’ McMurray Formation.

Lowermost deposits contained zircons ranging from 1,800 to 2,800 million years old. These zircons, and thereby the associated sand, originally came from the Canadian Shield, which contains rocks of those ages, Benyon says.

Most of the oilsands’ sediment contains zircons that range from 300 to 1,200 million years old – the same zircon signature found in Appalachian sources in eastern North America.

The uppermost oilsands contain zircons that are less than 250 million years old, indicating the Canadian Rockies as their most likely place of origin.

So how did so much of the sand, deposited during the Cretaceous geological time period about 145 to 66 million years ago (before the sand was emplaced with oil), get to Alberta from the other side of the continent?

No one knows for sure, but Benyon and her co-authors propose three theories, all involving sediment transported by a continental-sized river system:

  • The massive river system transported the sediment directly from eastern North America to the present-day oilsands region during the Cretaceous;

  • The river system transported the sediment from eastern North America during an earlier geological time period and deposited it in the southwestern United States; later, in the Cretaceous, rivers flowing northward ‘recycled’ the sediment and deposited it in western Canada;
  • An older (perhaps Jurassic or Permian) river system coming from the Appalachians deposited the sediment in western Canada; later, during the Cretaceous, the sediment was eroded by smaller rivers and re-deposited in northeastern Alberta.

No matter how and when the sand got to the present location of the oilsands, “the study tells us that the Appalachians were an important source of sediment in the geological history of North America,” Benyon says.

Oldest bit of crust firms up idea of a cool early Earth

A 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal is providing new insight into how the early Earth cooled from a ball of magma and formed continents just 160 million years after the formation of our solar system, much earlier than previously believed. The zircon, pictured here, is from the Jack Hills region of Australia and is now confirmed to be the oldest bit of the Earth's crust. -  John Valley
A 4.4 billion-year-old zircon crystal is providing new insight into how the early Earth cooled from a ball of magma and formed continents just 160 million years after the formation of our solar system, much earlier than previously believed. The zircon, pictured here, is from the Jack Hills region of Australia and is now confirmed to be the oldest bit of the Earth’s crust. – John Valley

With the help of a tiny fragment of zircon extracted from a remote rock outcrop in Australia, the picture of how our planet became habitable to life about 4.4 billion years ago is coming into sharper focus.

Writing today (Feb. 23, 2014) in the journal Nature Geoscience, an international team of researchers led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geoscience Professor John Valley reveals data that confirm the Earth’s crust first formed at least 4.4 billion years ago, just 160 million years after the formation of our solar system. The work shows, Valley says, that the time when our planet was a fiery ball covered in a magma ocean came earlier.

“This confirms our view of how the Earth cooled and became habitable,” says Valley, a geochemist whose studies of zircons, the oldest known terrestrial materials, have helped portray how the Earth’s crust formed during the first geologic eon of the planet. “This may also help us understand how other habitable planets would form.”

The new study confirms that zircon crystals from Western Australia’s Jack Hills region crystallized 4.4 billion years ago, building on earlier studies that used lead isotopes to date the Australian zircons and identify them as the oldest bits of the Earth’s crust. The microscopic zircon crystal used by Valley and his group in the current study is now confirmed to be the oldest known material of any kind formed on Earth.

The study, according to Valley, strengthens the theory of a “cool early Earth,” where temperatures were low enough for liquid water, oceans and a hydrosphere not long after the planet’s crust congealed from a sea of molten rock. “The study reinforces our conclusion that Earth had a hydrosphere before 4.3 billion years ago,” and possibly life not long after, says Valley.

The study was conducted using a new technique called atom-probe tomography that, in conjunction with secondary ion mass spectrometry, permitted the scientists to accurately establish the age and thermal history of the zircon by determining the mass of individual atoms of lead in the sample. Instead of being randomly distributed in the sample, as predicted, lead atoms in the zircon were clumped together, like “raisins in a pudding,” notes Valley.

The clusters of lead atoms formed 1 billion years after crystallization of the zircon, by which time the radioactive decay of uranium had formed the lead atoms that then diffused into clusters during reheating. “The zircon formed 4.4 billion years ago, and at 3.4 billion years, all the lead that existed at that time was concentrated in these hotspots,” Valley says. “This allows us to read a new page of the thermal history recorded by these tiny zircon time capsules.”

The formation, isotope ratio and size of the clumps – less than 50 atoms in diameter – become, in effect, a clock, says Valley, and verify that existing geochronology methods provide reliable and accurate estimates of the sample’s age. In addition, Valley and his group measured oxygen isotope ratios, which give evidence of early homogenization and later cooling of the Earth.

“The Earth was assembled from a lot of heterogeneous material from the solar system,” Valley explains, noting that the early Earth experienced intense bombardment by meteors, including a collision with a Mars-sized object about 4.5 billion years ago “that formed our moon, and melted and homogenized the Earth. Our samples formed after the magma oceans cooled and prove that these events were very early.”

Giant mass extinction may have been quicker than previously thought

The largest mass extinction in the history of animal life occurred some 252 million years ago, wiping out more than 96 percent of marine species and 70 percent of life on land – including the largest insects known to have inhabited the Earth. Multiple theories have aimed to explain the cause of what’s now known as the end-Permian extinction, including an asteroid impact, massive volcanic eruptions, or a cataclysmic cascade of environmental events. But pinpointing the cause of the extinction requires better measurements of how long the extinction period lasted.

Now researchers at MIT have determined that the end-Permian extinction occurred over 60,000 years, give or take 48,000 years – practically instantaneous, from a geologic perspective. The new timescale is based on more precise dating techniques, and indicates that the most severe extinction in history may have happened more than 10 times faster than scientists had previously thought.

“We’ve got the extinction nailed in absolute time and duration,” says Sam Bowring, the Robert R. Shrock Professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at MIT. “How do you kill 96 percent of everything that lived in the oceans in tens of thousands of years? It could be that an exceptional extinction requires an exceptional explanation.”

In addition to establishing the extinction’s duration, Bowring, graduate student Seth Burgess, and a colleague from the Nanjing Institute of Geology and Paleontology also found that, 10,000 years before the die-off, the oceans experienced a pulse of light carbon, which likely reflects a massive addition of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. This dramatic change may have led to widespread ocean acidification and increased sea temperatures by 10 degrees Celsius or more, killing the majority of sea life.

But what originally triggered the spike in carbon dioxide? The leading theory among geologists and paleontologists has to do with widespread, long-lasting volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps, a region of Russia whose steplike hills are a result of repeated eruptions of magma. To determine whether eruptions from the Siberian Traps triggered a massive increase in oceanic carbon dioxide, Burgess and Bowring are using similar dating techniques to establish a timescale for the Permian period’s volcanic eruptions that are estimated to have covered over five million cubic kilometers.

“It is clear that whatever triggered extinction must have acted very quickly,” says Burgess, the lead author of a paper that reports the results in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “fast enough to destabilize the biosphere before the majority of plant and animal life had time to adapt in an effort to survive.”

Pinning dates on an extinction


In 2006, Bowring and his students made a trip to Meishan, China, a region whose rock formations bear evidence of the end-Permian extinction; geochronologists and paleontologists have flocked to the area to look for clues in its layers of sedimentary rock. In particular, scientists have focused on a section of rock that is thought to delineate the end of the Permian, and the beginning of the Triassic, based on evidence such as the number of fossils found in surrounding rock layers.

Bowring sampled rocks from this area, as well as from nearby alternating layers of volcanic ash beds and fossil-bearing rocks. After analyzing the rocks in the lab, his team reported in 2011 that the end-Permian likely lasted less than 200,000 years. However, this timeframe still wasn’t precise enough to draw any conclusions about what caused the extinction.

Now, the team has revised its estimates using more accurate dating techniques based on a better understanding of uncertainties in timescale measurements.

With this knowledge, Bowring and his colleagues reanalyzed rock samples collected from five volcanic ash beds at the Permian-Triassic boundary. The researchers pulverized rocks and separated out tiny zircon crystals containing a mix of uranium and lead. They then isolated uranium from lead, and measured the ratios of both isotopes to determine the age of each rock sample.

From their measurements, the researchers determined a much more precise “age model” for the end-Permian extinction, which now appears to have lasted about 60,000 years – with an uncertainty of 48,000 years – and was immediately preceded by a sharp increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans.

‘Spiraling toward the truth’


The new timeline adds weight to the theory that the extinction was triggered by massive volcanic eruptions from the Siberian Traps that released volatile chemicals, including carbon dioxide, into the atmosphere and oceans. With such a short extinction timeline, Bowring says it is possible that a single, catastrophic pulse of magmatic activity triggered an almost instantaneous collapse of all global ecosystems.

To confirm whether the Siberian Traps are indeed the extinction’s smoking gun, Burgess and Bowring plan to determine an equally precise timeline for the Siberian Traps eruptions, and will compare it to the new extinction timeline to see where the two events overlap. The researchers will investigate additional areas in China to see if the duration of the extinction can be even more precisely determined.

“We’ve refined our approach, and now we have higher accuracy and precision,” Bowring says. “You can think of it as slowly spiraling in toward the truth.”

Diamonds in Earth’s oldest zircons are nothing but laboratory contamination

This image explains how synthetic diamond can be distinguished from natural diamond. -  Dobrzhinetskaya Lab, UC Riverside.
This image explains how synthetic diamond can be distinguished from natural diamond. – Dobrzhinetskaya Lab, UC Riverside.

As is well known, the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. No rocks exist, however, that are older than about 3.8 billion years. A sedimentary rock section in the Jack Hills of western Australia, more than 3 billion years old, contains within it zircons that were eroded from rocks as old as about 4.3 billion years, making these zircons, called Jack Hills zircons, the oldest recorded geological material on the planet.

In 2007 and 2008, two research papers reported in the journal Nature that a suite of zircons from the Jack Hills included diamonds, requiring a radical revision of early Earth history. The papers posited that the diamonds formed, somehow, before the oldest zircons – that is, before 4.3 billion years ago – and then were recycled repeatedly over a period of 1.2 billion years during which they were periodically incorporated into the zircons by an unidentified process.

Now a team of three researchers, two of whom are at the University of California, Riverside, has discovered using electron microscopy that the diamonds in question are not diamonds at all but broken fragments of a diamond-polishing compound that got embedded when the zircon specimen was prepared for analysis by the authors of the Nature papers.

“The diamonds are not indigenous to the zircons,” said Harry Green, a research geophysicist and a distinguished professor of the Graduate Division at UC Riverside, who was involved in the research. “They are contamination. This, combined with the lack of diamonds in any other samples of Jack Hills zircons, strongly suggests that there are no indigenous diamonds in the Jack Hills zircons.”

Study results appear online this week in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“It occurred to us that a long-term history of diamond recycling with intermittent trapping into zircons would likely leave some sort of microstructural record at the interface between the diamonds and zircon,” said Larissa Dobrzhinetskaya, a professional researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at UCR and the first author of the research paper. “We reasoned that high-resolution electron microscopy of the material should be able to distinguish whether the diamonds are indeed what they have been believed to be.”

Using an intensive search with high-resolution secondary-electron imaging and transmission electron microscopy, the research team confirmed the presence of diamonds in the Jack Hills zircon samples they examined but could readily identify them as broken fragments of diamond paste that the original authors had used to polish the zircons for examination. They also observed quartz, graphite, apatite, rutile, iron oxides, feldspars and other low-pressure minerals commonly included into zircon in granitic rocks.

“In other words, they are contamination from polishing with diamond paste that was mechanically injected into silicate inclusions during polishing” Green said.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Green and Dobrzhinetskaya were joined in the research by Richard Wirth at the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, Germany.

Dobrzhinetskaya and Green planned the research project; Dobrzhinetskaya led the project; she and Wirth did the electron microscopy.

Crystals in Picabo’s rocks point to ‘recycled’ super-volcanic magma chambers

University of Oregon geologist Ilya Bindeman, left, and graduate student Dana Drew, working in Bindeman's stable isotope laboratory say that the composition of zircon bits in igneous rocks in the Yellowstone hotspot track tell a new story on how super volcanoes recycle magma. -  University of Oregon
University of Oregon geologist Ilya Bindeman, left, and graduate student Dana Drew, working in Bindeman’s stable isotope laboratory say that the composition of zircon bits in igneous rocks in the Yellowstone hotspot track tell a new story on how super volcanoes recycle magma. – University of Oregon

A thorough examination of tiny crystals of zircon, a mineral found in rhyolites, an igneous rock, from the Snake River Plain has solidified evidence for a new way of looking at the life cycle of super-volcanic eruptions in the long track of the Yellowstone hotspot, say University of Oregon scientists.

The pattern emerging from new and previous research completed in the last five years under a National Science Foundation career award, said UO geologist Ilya N. Bindeman, is that another super-eruption from the still-alive Yellowstone volcanic field is less likely for the next few million years than previously thought (see related story, “Not in a million years, says Oregon geologist about Yellowstone eruption“). The last eruption 640,000 years ago created the Yellowstone Caldera and the Lava Creek Tuff in what is now Yellowstone National Park.

The Yellowstone hotspot creates a conveyor belt style of volcanism because of the southwest migration of the North American plate at 2-4 centimeters (about .8 to 1.6 inches) annually over the last 16 million years of volcanism. Due to the movement of the North American plate, the plume interaction with the crust leaves footprints in the form of caldera clusters, in what is now the Snake River Plain, Bindeman said.

The Picabo volcanic field of southern Idaho, described in a new paper by a six-member team, was active between 10.4 and 6.6 million years ago and experienced at least three, and maybe as many as six, violent caldera-forming eruptions. The field has been difficult to assess, said lead author Dana Drew, a UO graduate student, because the calderas have been buried by as much as two kilometers of basalt since its eruption cycle died.

The work at Picabo is detailed in a paper online ahead of publication in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

The team theorized that basalt from the mantle plume, rocks from Earth’s crust and previously erupted volcanoes are melted together to form the rhyolites erupted in the Snake River Plain. Before each eruption, rhyolite magma is stored in dispersed pockets throughout the upper crust, which are later mixed together, according to geochemical evidence. “We think that this batch-assembly process is an important part of caldera-forming eruptions, and generating rhyolites in general,” Drew said.

In reaching their conclusions, Drew and colleagues analyzed radiogenic and stable isotopic data — specifically oxygen and hafnium — in zircons detected in rhyolites found at the margins of the Picabo field and from a deep borehole. That data, in combination with whole rock geochemistry and zircon uranium-lead geochronology helped provide a framework to understand the region’s ancient volcanic past.

Previous research on the related Heise volcanic field east of Picabo yielded similar results. “There is a growing database of the geochemistry of rhyolites in the Yellowstone hotspot track,” Drew said. “Adding Picabo provides a missing link in the database.

Drew and colleagues, through their oxygen isotope analyses, identified a wide diversity of oxygen ratios occurring in erupted zircons near the end of the Picabo volcanic cycle. Such oxygen ratios are referred to as delta-O-18 signatures based on oxygen 18 levels relative to seawater. (Oxygen 18 contains eight protons and 10 neutrons; Oxygen 16, with eight protons and eight neutrons, is the most commonly found form of oxygen in nature)

The approach provided a glimpse into the connection of surface and subsurface processes at a caldera cluster. The interaction of erupted rhyolite with groundwater and surface water causes hydrothermal alteration and the change in oxygen isotopes, thereby providing a fingerprinting tool for the level of hydrothermal alteration, Drew said.

“Through the eruptive sequence, we begin to generate lower delta-O-18 signatures of the magmas and, with that, we also see a more diverse signature,” Drew said. “By the time of the final eruption there is up to five per mil diversity in the signature recorded in the zircons.” The team attributes these signatures to the mixing of diverse magma batches dispersed in the upper crust, which were formed by melting variably hydrothermally altered rocks — thus diverse delta-O-18 — after repeated formation of calderas and regional extension or stretching of the crust.

When the pockets of melt are rapidly assembled, the process could be the trigger for caldera forming eruptions, Bindeman said. “That leads to a homogenized magma, but in a way that preserves these zircons of different signatures from the individual pockets of melt,” he said. This research, he added, highlights the importance of using new micro-analytical isotopic techniques to relate geochemistry at the crystal-scale to processes occurring at the crustal-wide scale in generating and predicting large-volume rhyolitic eruptions.

“This important research by Dr. Bindeman and his team demonstrates the enormous impact an NSF CAREER award can have,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the graduate school at the University of Oregon. “The five-year project is providing new insights into the eruption cycles of the Yellowstone hotspot and helping scientists to better predict future volcanic activity.”

Geochemical ‘fingerprints’ leave evidence that megafloods eroded steep gorge

This 2005 image shows a concentration of grains of zircon taken from sand deposits, where it occurs with other heavy minerals such as magnetite and ilmenite. -  U.S. Geological Survey
This 2005 image shows a concentration of grains of zircon taken from sand deposits, where it occurs with other heavy minerals such as magnetite and ilmenite. – U.S. Geological Survey

The Yarlung-Tsangpo River in southern Asia drops rapidly through the Himalaya Mountains on its way to the Bay of Bengal, losing about 7,000 feet of elevation through the precipitously steep Tsangpo Gorge.

For the first time, scientists have direct geochemical evidence that the 150-mile long gorge, possibly the world’s deepest, was the conduit by which megafloods from glacial lakes, perhaps half the volume of Lake Erie, drained suddenly and catastrophically through the Himalayas when their ice dams failed at times during the last 2 million years.

“You would expect that if a three-day long flood occurred, there would be some pretty significant impacts downstream,” said Karl Lang, a University of Washington doctoral candidate in Earth and space sciences.

In this case, the water moved rapidly through bedrock gorge, carving away the base of slopes so steep they already were near the failure threshold. Because the riverbed through the Tsangpo Gorge is essentially bedrock and the slope is so steep and narrow, the deep flood waters could build enormous speed and erosive power.

As the base of the slopes eroded, areas higher on the bedrock hillsides tumbled into the channel, freeing microscopic grains of zircon that were carried out of the gorge by the fast-moving water and deposited downstream.

Uranium-bearing zircon grains carry a sort of geochemical signature for the place where they originated, so grains found downstream can be traced back to the rocks from which they eroded. Lang found that normal annual river flow carries about 40 percent of the grains from the Tsangpo Gorge downstream. But grains from the gorge found in prehistoric megaflood deposits make up as much as 80 percent of the total.

He is the lead author of a paper documenting the work published in the September edition of Geology. Co-authors are Katharine Huntington and David Montgomery, both UW faculty members in Earth and space sciences.

The Yarlung-Tsangpo is the highest major river in the world. It begins on the Tibetan Plateau at about 14,500 feet, or more than 2.5 miles, above sea level. It travels more than 1,700 miles, crossing the plateau and plunging through the Himalayas before reaching India’s Assam Valley, where it becomes the Brahmaputra River. From there it continues its course to the Ganges River delta and the Bay of Benga

At the head of the Tsangpo Gorge, the river makes a sharp bend around Namche Barwa, a 25,500-foot peak that is the eastern anchor of the Himalayas. Evidence indicates that giant lakes were impounded behind glacial dams farther inland from Namche Barwa at various times during the last 2.5 million years ago.

Lang matched zircons in the megaflood deposits far downstream with zircons known to come only from Namche Barwa, and those signature zircons turned up in the flood deposits at a much greater proportion than they would in sediments from normal river flows. Finding the zircons in deposits so far downstream is evidence for the prehistoric megafloods and their role in forming the gorge.

Lang noted that a huge landslide in early 2000 created a giant dam on the Yiggong River, a tributary of the main river just upstream from the Gorge. The dam failed catastrophically in June 2000, triggering a flood that caused numerous fatalities and much property damage downstream.

That provided a vivid, though much smaller, illustration of what likely occurred when large ice dams failed millions of years ago, he said. It also shows the potential danger if humans decide to build dams in that area for hydroelectric generation.

“We are interested in it scientifically, but there is certainly a societal element to it,” Lang said. “This takes us a step beyond speculating what those ancient floods did. There is circumstantial evidence that, yes, they did do a lot of damage.”

The process in the Tsangpo Gorge is similar to what happened with Lake Missoula in Western Montana 12,000 to 15,000 years ago. That lake was more than 10,000 feet lower in elevation than lakes associated with the Tsangpo Gorge, though its water discharge was 10 times greater. Evidence suggests that Lake Missoula’s ice dam failed numerous times, unleashing a torrent equal to half the volume of Lake Michigan across eastern Washington, where it carved the Channeled Scablands before continuing down the Columbia River basin.

“This is a geomorphic process that we know shapes the landscape, and we can look to eastern Washington to see that,” Lang said.

Tiny pieces of ‘deep time’ brought to the surface


Three-billion-year-old zircon microcrystals found in northern Ontario are proving to be a new record of the processes that form continents and their natural resources, including gold and diamonds.



The discovery was made recently by an international research team led by Earth Sciences professor Desmond Moser at The University of Western Ontario. Measuring no more than the width of a human hair, the 200-million-year growth span of these ancient microcrystals is longer than any previously discovered.



The findings provide a new record of planetary evolution and contradict previous experimental predictions that the crystals would change when exposed to heat and pressure upon burial in the deep Earth. Instead, they have an incredible ‘memory’ of their time below volcanoes, of transport to the shores of ancient oceans and of their burial beneath now-extinct mountain ranges billions of years before the time of dinosaurs. “This research shows that these crystals are incredibly resistant to change and proves for the first time that the growth zones we see inside them contain an accurate record of their movements through and around the Earth,” says Moser.


Containing trace amounts of uranium, the crystals continued to grow over hundreds of millions of years, even as the planet evolved and underwent a series of dramatic shifts. “The oldest pieces of our planet are crystals of zircon,” says Moser. “These crystals are the memory cells of the Earth and with our study we can now say they are an accurate recorder of planetary evolution over eons – in the same way that rings on an old growth tree can record changes in a forest over hundreds of years.”



Keeping with the tree analogy, Moser found that these crystals had roughly circular growth zones that he was able to date and analyze with specialized ion probes. These zones track the formation of the early North American continent, from its beginning as a series of volcanic island chains, to its eventual fusion into a large, thick continental plate that became the core of North America.



As the crystals formed around the same time as gold, diamond and other metal deposits, this research provides not only insight into the formation of Earth itself, it can also help answer the question, “Did plate tectonics operate early in our planet’s history or did some other process create the large metal and diamond deposits of the Canadian Shield?” “It also provides a new tool for dating the appearance of oceans on other rocky planets like Mars, where Rover results indicate zircon crystals should exist” says Moser.



Over the course of millions of years, the crystals have been pushed back to the surface from depths of 30 kilometres by a series of pushes on the edges of the original continent, which give us globally-rare exposures in northern Ontario. “It’s not every day you find a piece of the deep Earth that you can walk around on and explore,” Moser says.