Early Earth Was Almost Entirely Underwater, With Just A Few Islands

Earth's Hadean Eon is a bit of a mystery to us, because geologic evidence from that time is scarce. Researchers at the Australian National University have used tiny zircon grains to get a better picture of early Earth. Credit: NASA

It might seem unlikely, but tiny grains of minerals can help tell the story of early Earth. And researchers studying those grains say that 4.4 billion years ago, Earth was a barren, mountainless place, and almost everything was under water. Only a handful of islands poked above the surface.

Scientists at the Australian National University are behind this study, led by researcher Dr. Antony Burnham. The mineral grains in the study are the oldest rocks ever found. They’re 4.4 billion year old zircon mineral grains from the Jack Hills of Western Australia, where they were preserved in sandstone formations.

4.4 billion years ago, the Earth was in what is called the ‘Hadean Eon’. This time period is poorly understood, because there is no rock record dating from that time. This is where the zircon mineral grains come in.

“The history of the Earth is like a book with its first chapter ripped out with no surviving rocks from the very early period, but we’ve used these trace elements of zircon to build a profile of the world at that time.” – Lead Researcher Dr. Antony Burnham, Australian National University

In a sense, these zircon grains are the missing pages.

Zircon’s chemical name is zirconium silicate, and it’s found almost everywhere in the Earth’s crust. This study focuses on what’s called detrital zircon, which is formed in igneous rocks, but then survives over time until deposited in sedimentary rocks. Zircon grains are typically very small, about 0.1 to 0.3 mm in size.

Zircon crystals from the Jack Hills in western Australia are the oldest rock fragments ever found. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU
Zircon crystals from the Jack Hills in western Australia are the oldest rock fragments ever found. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU

Zircon commonly contains traces of thorium and uranium, which means they can be easily dated by modern dating methods. Zircon can survive a lot of geologic processes like metamorphism, which explains their usefulness in studying the early Earth. They’re not easily destroyed, and they have a story to tell us.

The zircon grains were crystallized in magma about 500 million years after the Earth formed. As a result, they offer rare insights into conditions on Earth at the time. The zircon grains in question are referred to as detritus, because they formed in magma but were deposited in the geologically-important sandstone at Jack Hills, Australia. The detritus grains were compared to a second type of zircon grain which were formed directly in the sedimentary formations.

By distinguishing between the two types, researchers gain a new geochemical tool to understand early Earth.

The Jack Hills in Western Australia contain the oldest rocks known to exist on Earth. A team studying them concludes that early Earth was mostly a water world. By NASA Earth Observatory - http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/zircon.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=738512
The Jack Hills in Western Australia contain the oldest rocks known to exist on Earth. A team studying them concludes that early Earth was mostly a water world. By NASA Earth Observatory – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/zircon.html, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=738512

“We used the granites of southeast Australia to decipher the link between zircon composition and magma type, and built a picture of what those missing rocks were,” he said.

“Our research indicates there were no mountains and continental collisions during Earth’s first 700 million years or more of existence – it was a much more quiet and dull place,” says Dr. Burnham from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.

The detrital zircons formed elsewhere, but were deposited in the Jack Hills formation. By Robert Simmon, NASA - http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4258701
The detrital zircons formed elsewhere, but were deposited in the Jack Hills formation. By Robert Simmon, NASA – http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Study/Zircon/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4258701

“Our findings also showed that there are strong similarities with zircon from the types of rocks that predominated for the following 1.5 billion years, suggesting that it took the Earth a long time to evolve into the planet that we know today.” The team’s results are published in the journal Nature Geoscience, and is titled “Formation of Hadean granites by melting of igneous crust.”

Dr. Antony Burnham from the Australian National University's Research School of Earth Sciences, led this study. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU.
Dr. Antony Burnham from the Australian National University’s Research School of Earth Sciences, led this study. Image: Stuart Hay, ANU.

This is not the first time that ancient, detrital zircons have been at the center of scientific studies of early Earth. In a previous study, they were used to conclude that Earth had a significant hydrosphere 4.3 billion years ago.

Is Earth Running Out Of Crust?

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Earth just doesn’t make crust like it used to… at least, not according to new research by a team of scientists in the UK.

Researchers with the Universities of Bristol, St Andrews and Portsmouth have studied elements trapped within zircon samples gathered from all over the planet to peer billions of years back in time at how Earth’s crust was being produced.

Zircon, a mineral found in granite, can be dated with precision and is thus an accurate measure for geologic timescales.

What they found was that 65% of our planet’s current crust had already existed 3 billion years ago. Since rocks older than 2.5 billion years are rare on Earth today, this means that some process began to take place that either reworked — or destroyed — a large portion of the older crust, and changed how new crust was formed.

During the first 1.5 billion years of Earth’s history, the team reports, the rate of crust formation was high — approximately 3 cubic kilometers was added to the continents each year. After that the rate dropped substantially, falling to about 0.8 cubic kilometers per year for the next 3 billion years — right up to the present day.

The cause is yet unknown, but it may be the result of the onset of plate tectonics driven by subduction — the process by which sections of Earth’s crust (“plates”) slide beneath other sections, sinking into the underlying mantle to be liquefied into magma by pressure and heat. New crust is created when the magma rises again where the plates separate… Earth’s current “conveyor belt” of crust formation.

Whatever process was in place prior to 3 billion years ago, it was much more efficient at creating crust.

“Such a sharp decrease in the crustal growth rate about 3 billion years ago indicates a dramatic change in the way the continental crust was generated and preserved,” said Dr. Bruno Dhuime of the University of Bristol’s School of Earth Sciences. “This change may in turn be linked to the onset of subduction-driven plate tectonics and discrete subduction zones as observed at the present day.  The next challenge is to determine which tectonic regime shaped the Earth’s crust in the planet’s first 1.5 billion years before this change.”

The team’s paper “A Change in the Geodynamics of Continental Growth 3 Billion Years Ago” (Bruno Dhuime, Chris J. Hawkesworth,  Peter A. Cawood, Craig D. Storey) was published March 16 in Science.

Read more on the University of Bristol’s press release here.

Ancient Zircons Help Reveal Early Earth Atmosphere

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Roughly 2.4 billion years ago, Earth’s atmosphere underwent a huge change known as the “Great Oxidation Event”. This switch from an oxygen-poor to an oxygen-rich environment may be accountable for giving rise to life. However, scientists are extremely curious about what our atmosphere may have been like not long after our planet formed. Now researchers from the New York Center for Astrobiology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute are using some of the oldest minerals known to exist to help understand what may have occurred some five million years after Earth arose.

For the most part, scientists have theorized that early-Earth atmosphere was dominated by noxious methane, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, and ammonia. This highly reduced mixture results in a limited amount of oxygen and has led to a wide variety of theories about how life may have started in such a hostile environment. However, by taking a closer look at ancient minerals for oxidation levels, scientists at Rensselaer have proved the early-Earth atmosphere wasn’t like that at all… but held copious amounts of water, carbon dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.

“We can now say with some certainty that many scientists studying the origins of life on Earth simply picked the wrong atmosphere,” said Bruce Watson, Institute Professor of Science at Rensselaer.

How can they be so sure? Their findings depend on the theory that Earth’s atmosphere was formed volcanically. Each time magma flows to the surface, it releases gases. If it doesn’t come to the top, then it interacts with the surrounding rocks where it cools and becomes a rocky deposit in its own right. These deposits – and their elemental construction – allows science to paint an accurate portrait of the conditions at the time of their formation.

“Most scientists would argue that this outgassing from magma was the main input to the atmosphere,” Watson said. “To understand the nature of the atmosphere ‘in the beginning,’ we needed to determine what gas species were in the magmas supplying the atmosphere.”

One of the most important of all magma components is zircon – a mineral nearly as old as Earth itself. By determining the oxidation levels of the magmas that formed these ancient zircons, scientists are able to deduce how much oxygen was being released into the atmosphere.

“By determining the oxidation state of the magmas that created zircon, we could then determine the types of gases that would eventually make their way into the atmosphere,” said study lead author Dustin Trail, a postdoctoral researcher in the Center for Astrobiology.

To enable their work, the team set about cooking up magma in a laboratory setting – which led to the creation of an oxidation gauge to assist them in comparing their artificial specimens against natural zircons. Their study also included a watchful eye for a rare Earth metal called cerium that can exist in two oxidation states. By exposing cerium in zircon, the team can be confident the atmosphere was more oxidized after their creation. These new findings point to an atmospheric state more like our present day conditions… setting the stage for a new starting point on which to base life’s beginnings on Earth.

“Our planet is the stage on which all of life has played out,” Watson said. “We can’t even begin to talk about life on Earth until we know what that stage is. And oxygen conditions were vitally important because of how they affect the types of organic molecules that can be formed.”

While “life as we know it” is highly dependent on oxygen, our current atmosphere probably isn’t the ideal model for spawning primordial life. It’s more likely a methane-rich atmosphere might “have much more biologic potential to jump from inorganic compounds to life-supporting amino acids and DNA.” This leaves the door wide open to alternate theories, such as panspermia. But don’t sell the team’s results short. They still reveal the beginning nature of gases here on Earth, even if they don’t solve the riddle of the Great Oxidation Event.

Original Story Source: Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute News Release.