Questions about the Early Earth

Participants at the early earth workshop were asked to submit a question about the early earth, along with and answer that includes the current state of what we know.

Some of the questions and answers have been expanded into a longer form and can be found on the Key Questions about the Early Earth page.

Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, and Climate | Life | Solid Earth | Teaching

All the key questions and answers (Microsoft Word 107kB Apr3 07), handy for printing.

Atmosphere, Hydrosphere, and Climate

When did oceans form on Earth? What evidence is preserved in the rock record?

Most of us teach earth science using simple or sophisticated models and imagery that demonstrate to students that the Earth is essentially a blue marble whose surface is dominated by oceans. This vision of a blue Earth has even been espoused by popular science writers such as the non-fiction work 'Pale Blue Dot' by the late Carl Sagan. For many it would be difficult to envision an Earth without its blue blanket of oceans. However this is precisely what the early stages of our planet were like. An ocean-free Earth existed, perhaps for several hundred million years as a consequence of extremely high surface temperatures following planetary accretion. The formation of oceans on Earth represents no less than a global-scale cooling of Earth's surface to temperatures at which water is stable as a liquid phase.

That such a profound transition occurred from the highly energetic conditions of the newly accreted Earth whose surface was dominated by meteorite impacts and transient magma oceans to cooler conditions capable of supporting liquid water and eventually life is not in question. However, the timing of this transition - which has implications for when surface conditions necessary for the development were established - is poorly known. Part of the uncertainty of the timing of this transition is due to the fragmentary nature of the rock record for the first ~500 million years of Earth history. Simply put, not much is preserved in the rock record for this time. It is the 'not much' part of the rock record that hold the clues however. The most promising information has come in two forms: (1) preserved sediments up to ~3800 million years old and (2) oxygen isotope studies of detrital zircons up to 4400 million years old.

So what does the rock record tell us?

The rock record: Isua BIF

The oldest known rocks on Earth are almost exactly 4 billion years old and are comprised of metamorphosed and deformed granitoids from northwestern Canada collectively called the Acasta gneiss. Direct radiometric dating using the U-Pb method on zircons has demonstrated that these rocks crystallized 4030 million years ago. However, these 'oldest rocks' do not record information on surface conditions at the time of their formation. The oldest direct evidence for the presence of surface waters are slightly younger ca. ~3800 million years old sedimentary rocks called banded iron formation (BIF) that are exposed in southwest Greenland at a location called Isua. The very existence of the Isua BIF requires the presence of stable surface water, at least locally for the chemical deposition of the sedimentary components at ca. 3800 Ma. These rocks were deposited in a somewhat analogous way to how limestones or cherts are deposited directly from seawater in modern marine environments.

The mineral record: Detrital zircons

The oldest known Earth materials are actually not rocks. Sand grains comprised of the mineral zircon (ZrSiO4) have been discovered that are almost 400 million years older than the oldest rocks in the rock record. In the Jack Hills of Western Australia detrital igneous zircons with U-Pb crystallization ages as old as 4400 million years occur in Archean clastic sediments deposited at ~3000 Ma. Zircon is a very useful mineral that is mechanically resistant to erosion, chemically resistant to fluids, and can be 'dated' with the U-Pb method owing to the ubiquitous presence of trace amounts of radioactive U and Th that are incorporated in most zircons at the time of crystallization. The very existence of these ancient zircons demonstrates that igneous rock (e.g. crust) was present starting at ca. 4400 Ma. But the evidence of oceans preserved in these grains comes in a different form.

Oxygen isotopes in geologic materials are affected by temperatures present during the formation and alteration of rocks and minerals. In basic terms the oxygen isotope ratio- the ratio of 18O-to-16O (usually expressed in a notation called 'delta', or δ18O, and reported relative to a standard material) of minerals from the mantle varies little due to the high temperatures in the mantle, and is usually around a value of ~5.5‰ (per mil or parts-per-thousand relative to a reference material). In contrast the δ18O composition of surface materials (e.g., minerals and rocks) varies much more widely and can range from values similar to mantle minerals if unaltered (e.g. 5-6‰) up to values of δ18O = >30‰ due to low temperature reactions of minerals with fluids, such as surface waters like oceans. In simple terms mantle materials have 'low' δ18O values, while sediments and other low-T altered materials have 'high' δ18O values.

Analysis of oxygen isotope ratio in zircon can address the nature of the reservoir of oxygen in the magma that is adopted by the zircon during crystallization. In other words δ18O(zircon) provides a reliable record of whether the parental δ18O(magma) was 'mantle-equilibrated' as all primary mantle-derived magmas are prior to interaction with crustal materials, or whether the parental δ18O(magma) was 'crustal' meaning that the magma inherited a component of its oxygen budget from assimilated crustal materials (like sediments or other altered rocks) which results in higher δ18O values in the bulk rock and constituent igneous minerals.

To address our question of when oceans first formed on Earth we can investigate the δ18O values of the ancient zircons to see if they record 'mantle-equilibrated' values, meaning no evidence of a crustal component is detectable in the oxygen or if they record 'crustal' δ18O values meaning that the early magmas assimilated crustal materials that were affected by low-temperature interaction with water prior to melting. Because we can also 'date' the zircon grains, we can place these conditions in a temporal context. What we find is that the oxygen isotope ratios (δ18O) in the oldest detrital igneous zircons record mantle-equilibrated values from 4400 to ~4325 Ma (e.g. ~5.3 to 5.4‰). From 4325 to ~4200 Ma the δ18O values of zircons are slightly elevated up to 6.3‰ (Note: the upper end of this range ~6.3‰ is higher than what is capable of being produced in a mantle melt, however the uncertainty in these analyses overlaps with the mantle). Just after 4200 Ma the story changes. Values of δ18O in the igneous zircons reach values as high as 7.3‰ with uncertainties that exclude a mantle source. We infer that to produce these 'high δ18O' zircons required that the igneous protolith of the zircon must have assimilated or re-melted crustal materials that were altered by low-temperature processes at or near Earth's surface. In other words, surface waters were present by at least 4200 Ma.

What does all this mean? There are now two hypotheses for when oceans originated on Earth.

Hypothesis 1: Oceans first formed at ca. 3800 Ma. The Isua BIF provides definitive 'ground truth' that surface water was indeed stable at 3800 Ma, however no 'boundary condition' can be defined by the Isua BIF. Simply put there is no way to determine if the Isua BIF was deposited in the first ocean on Earth. In that regard the Isua BIF is akin to a geologic 'snapshot'; we can't infer that water existed before the Isua BIF.

Hypothesis 2: Oceans formed much earlier by at least ca. 4200 Ma. The Jack Hills detrital zircons provide an actual timeline that records the magmatic oxygen isotope compositions of magmas on the young Earth. In this record, we can see a time before the influence of low-temperature weathering was recorded in magmas prior to ~4200 Ma and a definitive change in magmatic oxygen as recorded in elevated ?18O (zircon), after 4200 Ma. In this regard, the detrital zircons actually record a boundary condition that marks when surface weathering, and hence the presence of oceans, occurred.

Applications of this Key Question in teaching:

Teach students that we are just NOW starting to write the first chapter of Earth history - that there are lots of exciting areas of research that they can participate in
Create a better vision of the early Hadean - how long was the Earth 'Hell-like'
Challenge the assumption of permanent oceans on Earth (compare with 'Snowball Earth' conditions later in the Precambrian)
Comparison of Earth with the other terran planets (Mercury, Venus, and Mars) implications of oceans on Europa (Europa is a Moon of Jupiter covered in ice but likely with a liquid water ocean)
Increase knowledge and awareness of BIF (the source of most economic iron deposits known only from the Precambrian)
Recognition that the rock record is not complete (not perfect); raise awareness of the older 'mineral record'
Raise awareness of how 'chemistry' and 'geology' are intimately associated in 'geochemistry'.

What was the nature of the pre-biotic terrestrial atmosphere?

Noble gas isotopic compositions show that the present-day terrestrial atmosphere is not a direct descendant of whatever atmosphere the Earth may have acquired during planetary accretion. Virtually all of that primordial atmosphere was lost to space (e.g., Pepin 2006, EPSL 252: 1-14) and was replaced at some point prior to 4.2 Ga by a secondary atmosphere that may have been a combination of late-accreting material and volcanic outgassing. The minimum age for Earth's secondary atmosphere is based on evidence for liquid water at the Earth's surface preserved in the oxygen isotopic composition of detrital zircons (e.g. Valley et al. 2005, Contrib. Min. Petrol. 150: 561-580). If liquid water was present at the surface at that point, then one can conclude that sufficient outgassing and/or late accretion of water had already taken place so a to build up atmospheric pressure above the triple point for water and, perhaps, to enable greenhouse heating to the point where liquid water could exist under "faint young sun" conditions. Pre-biotic evolution and the origin of life took place under that atmosphere. The composition and physical characteristics (pressure, temperature, optical depth, etc) of this "early secondary" atmosphere almost certainly changed with time, perhaps quite significantly. In particular, the oxidation state of this early atmosphere may have changed with time (I am referring to changes in oxidation state within an essentially oxygen-free atmosphere, and not to the "rise of oxygen" that occurred much later). Because atmospheric oxygen fugacity may have been one of the crucial limiting factors in origin-of-life processes, we want to know as much as possible about the nature of the pre-biotic atmosphere, and how it may have changed with time.

The oxidation state of carbon provides a convenient frame of reference to describe the chemical nature of the pre-biotic atmosphere. This could have ranged from a strongly reduced one in which methane was the dominant carbon species (e.g., present day Titan) to a mildly oxidized one in which carbon dioxide was the chief carbon species (e.g., present day Venus and Mars). The consensus appears to be that, although complex organic molecules may be preserved under the oxygen fugacity of a carbon dioxide-dominated atmosphere, pre-biotic evolution leading to the synthesis of complex organic molecules from simple inorganic C-H-O-N-S compounds (and to the eventual origin of life) may only be possible under more reducing conditions. Geochemical evidence from early Archaean lavas suggests that the oxidation state of the Earth's mantle has been close to its present day value (~QFM) since at least 3.9 Ga (Delano 2001, Or. Life Evol. Biosph. 31: 311-341). If the oxidation state of the pre-biotic atmosphere was controlled by the composition of volcanic gases and the date for the origin of life is no earlier than 3.9 Ga, then one must conclude that either (i) life originated in "reducing oases" isolated from the atmosphere (e.g., Russell & Arndt 2005, Biogeosciences 2: 97-111) or (ii) origin-of-life processes are possible under less reducing conditions than currently thought. But there are other possibilities. For example, the Earth's mantle and the volcanically outgassed atmosphere may have been more reducing prior to 3.9 Ga, and life may have originated during that earlier period of more favorable atmospheric conditions. Or, even if the Earth's mantle was at QFM at 3.9 Ga, perhaps the atmosphere was not in equilibrium with volcanic gases (it is hard to see how this could have been the case, however, as a methane-rich atmosphere unsustained by continuous methane recharge is quickly oxidized by photolysis and hydrogen escape (e.g., Catling et al. 2001 Science 293: 839-843). Alternatively, interpretation of the geochemical evidence (largely based on bulk Cr and V contents of mafic lavas) may be in error and volcanic gases at 3.9 Ga were significantly more reducing than QFM, but there are arguments based on the accretionary history of the Earth that support the idea that the current oxidation state of the mantle may be a primordial feature (e.g., Wade & Wood 2005, EPSL 236, 78-95). There may be other, less obvious, alternatives. Narrowing down the field of possible answers requires that we find a way of determining how the Earth's atmosphere evolved from the time when the primordial atmosphere was lost to the origin of life, no later than ~3.5 Ga and perhaps as early as 3.8 - 4.0 Ga.

In addition to its chemical composition we also want to know the mass (or density) of the pre-biotic atmosphere, as this parameter has a strong influence on planetary surface temperatures. Although astrophysical models still have some uncertainty regarding the absolute luminosity and luminosity-wavelength distribution of solar-mass stars shortly after arriving at the main sequence the consensus appears to be in favor of the "faint young sun" paradigm. If this is the case then greenhouse heating of the early Earth is probably required in order to account for the existence of liquid water at the Earth's surface. But depending on how faint the young sun really was, too thick an atmosphere may have led to a runaway greenhouse and a Venus-like environment, which, as best as we can tell, never occurred on Earth. The combination of uncertainties in solar luminosity and atmospheric density may result in a relatively narrow window within which both a snowball and a runaway hothouse can be avoided, or there may be a wide range of variable combinations within which clement conditions are possible. I am not aware of a comprehensive quantitative treatment of this question.

What is the evidence for and against a widespread glaciation event such as the "Snowball Earth"? Is the alternative "Slushball Earth" a viable alternative? Is the difference between the two really matter?

There is a large body of evidence for both a Snowball or a Slushball Earth. Cap carbonates, C12/C13 ratios, BIFs (banded iron formations) are all part of the evidence considered in both camps. The problem I have is determining how important the differences are between the two approaches.

As a sedimentologist, I am interested in how we are using BIF (banded iron formation) deposits to understand the evolution of the atmosphere?

In my introductory-level geology courses BIFs are the focus of one of the topics on the evolution of the atmosphere. I first share with students information about stratigraphy (spatial and temporal distribution) of BIFs. The students also use magnets to examine BIF samples. From this introduction to BIFs the students conclude that these deposits were likely marine in origin (judging from their substantial thickness and lateral extent) and that they contain iron oxide (magnetite) among other minerals. Next, I challenge the students to make a simple (concept) sketch to illustrate the difference between the "pre-BIF", "BIF", and "post-BIF" Earth. A horizontal line in the middle of the sketch symbolizes the interface between the hydrosphere (oceans) below and the atmosphere above. Two vertical lines mark the time periods where abundant BIFs first appeared (about 3.5 to 3 Ga) and disappeared (about 1.8 Ga). With my help the students identify the key components to include in their sketch such as the presence versus absence (or paucity) of free oxygen, abundant iron, and continental red beds. From this exercise the students conclude that: 1) free oxygen was rare or absent on the pre-BIF Earth; 2) oxygen was combining with abundant iron in oceans of the BIF Earth to form BIFs; and 3) formation of abundant BIFs stopped once the majority of iron from oceans was used up, which resulted in buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere as also suggested by the first appearance of common continental red beds of the post-BIF Earth. This "BIF story" also serves as an introduction to the topic of the origin of life on Earth including the importance of photosynthesizing cyanobacteria in oxygenation of the early atmosphere.

Even though this more-or-less standard approach to teaching about BIFs makes for a "nice story", I am concerned that it might represent a gross oversimplification. After all BIFs are one of the least understood and most controversial deposits on Earth. Their temporal distribution is more complicated than stated above: for example, BIFs first appeared about 3.8 Ga and after they disappeared about 1.8 Ga their reappearance between 0.8 and 0.6 Ga suggests a link to "Snowball Earth" conditions. Opinions regarding the alternating BIF banding or the role of microbial and other processes in the formation of BIFs vary greatly. For these reasons, I look forward to the opportunity to consult with experts at the workshop about strategies for developing effective approaches for teaching this and other important and fascinating but potentially poorly understood and controversial subjects.

How can data on the CO2 concentration and isotopic signature of the early atmosphere provide us with more information on processes on and in the early earth?

The relative quantity of CO2 to O2 can provide important information about processes on, in, and above the early earth. Extensive burial of organic matter can result in a decrease in atmospheric CO2 further shown by the remaining atmospheric CO2 being isotopically heavier. This process occurs both on land primarily associated with sea level change an inundation of coastal wetlands and in the sea, primarily associated with the level of oxygen in the ocean (anoxic conditions contribute to organic C buildup less CO2 in the atmosphere and isotopically heavier atmospheric CO2). Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are also affected by the amount of carbonate rocks created or weathered or liberated volcanically. These processes can in turn be mediated by global climate and tectonic activity respectively. Increased chemical weathering of carbonate rocks decreases atmospheric CO2. Mountain building episodes can also be inferred from changes in atmospheric CO2.

Why is the oxygenation of Earth's atmosphere irreversible?

It did not have to be. Time-integrated hydrogen escape to space is the ultimate reason.

What is the geologic evidence for anoxic or very low free oxygen levels during the early history of the Earth and the timing of the transition to a relatively stable free oxygen atmosphere?

The occurrence of unweathered detrital pyrite and uraninite in late Archean and early Proterozoic conglomeratic placer deposits in Canada, South Africa, and India has traditionally been cited as strong evidence for a reducing anoxic atmosphere. However, the detrital origin of these minerals has been challenged and a hydrothermal mechanism for their origin has also been proposed. Subsequent petrographic and isotope studies seem to have convincingly proven the detrital origin of the rounded grains and the anoxic interpretation. The deposition of massive Superior Type Banded Iron Formations (BIF) between 2.5 and 2.0 billion years ago and the cessation of BIF production by around 1.8 billion years ago (elimination of the photosynthetic oxygen sink and burial of photosynthetic carbon), followed by the disappearance of greenstone belts and the appearance of red beds and eukaryotic microbes are evidence that is commonly cited for the timing of stabilization of a free oxygen atmosphere in historical geology textbooks.

Further evidence for low Archean oxygen levels include the mass independently fractionated sulfur isotopes (MIF-S) commonly present in sedimentary rocks older than 2.4 billion yrs and their absence in younger rocks. The interpretation involves the origin of MIF-S from volcanic sulfur dioxide by UV photolysis in an anoxic to very low oxygen atmosphere. The absence of MIF-S in rocks younger than 2.4 billion yrs old is taken as support for a great oxidation event (GOE) between 2.4 and 2.0 billion yrs ago, also a period of massive BIF deposition the early appearance of red beds in Paleoproterozoic rocks in Canada and the onset of global glaciation. This GOE also coincides with: (1) the relative stabilization of continental crust; (2) the occurrence of Grypania (macroscopic filamentous eukaryotic algae); (3) the spread of stromatolites and by extension the increased photosynthetic production of oxygen by cyanobacteria; and (4) the burial of related organic matter. It has recently been demonstrated however that significant sections of marine shale between ~2.76 and 2.92 billion yrs old are lacking MIF-S, suggesting there may have been great fluctuations in Archean oxygen levels or other mechanisms for the production of MIF-S not related to the atmosphere or photochemical processes. Some hypothesize there may have actually been fairly high oxygen levels throughout the Archean.

What mechanisms initiated glaciation in the late Archean and early Proterozoic, and what allowed Earth's climate to recover from these glacial periods?

There is also some, albeit inconclusive, evidence for glaciation in the late Archean at 2.7 Bya. This may be associated with a negative feedback of large quantities of methane in the atmosphere. The formation of organic haze could reduce surface temperatures, thereby making the climate less hospitable for the methanogens that were prominent at the time. It may also be that photosynthetic bacteria were gaining ground, although still not sufficient enough to have a permanent affect on the atmosphere. The sparse evidence makes it difficult to determine if this glaciation was global in scale. There seems to be fairly abundant evidence for glaciation at 2.4 billion years ago, coincident with a rise in atmospheric oxygen level and a drop in methane. It is likely that the increasing abundance of photosynthesizers were responsible for this.

How the Earth's climate recovered from these glacial periods poses a very interesting problem, especially because incoming solar radiation was ~80% of what it is today. During the Archean, it is likely that there was still sufficiently high flux of methane into the atmosphere to allow for recovery. It is also possible that the Archean glaciation was not global in scale. Much has been written about the Neoproterozoic glaciations. By the late Proterozoic solar luminosity was only a few percent lower than it is today yet climate modeling studies suggest that it would be nearly impossible for deglaciation to occur if the Earth were completely covered in ice ('hard' snowball state). Various authors have proposed that during the late Proterozoic Earth was in a 'soft snowball' or 'slushball' state, where open water could have existed in tropical regions and near tropical landmasses, and sea ice may have been relatively thin, with a lower albedo than thick ice. Possibly, the early Proterozoic glaciation was not global. Given the low insolation, it would be difficult to recover even from a 'soft snowball' state.

What do we know about the origin of water and oceans on earth?

There are two theories for the source of water on the planet: (1) volcanic degassing of water vapor from the earth's interior and (2) deposition of ice from incoming comets during the bombardment of the early earth. Both theories have reasonable adherents; as a result the origin of water on the planet is unresolved. Newish data from John Valley's lab (Valley et al., 2002, Geology v. 30, p. 351) shows that the oxygen isotopic compositions of the oldest known minerals (4.4 Ga zircons) are consistent with a surprisingly cool earth surface one capable of sustaining liquid oceans. This research group's survey of Archaean zircon δ18O values suggests that the hydrologic cycle may not have changed much between 4.4 and 2.5 Ga.

What do we know about the origin of the atmosphere/hydrosphere system?

Early earth accretion is generally considered a short period, very energetic event that provided much of the energy for melting and core segregation. This environment is not conducive to retention of volatiles and suggests a delicate balance between accretion rates and planetesimal composition is required to accumulate the primary volatile inventory. Models for this period of earth history must also accommodate moon-formation and the isotopic composition of our volatiles, which is different from other planets and solar abundances. The late veneer model is often cited as the solution to this but must also account for siderophile abundances in the mantle.

How can we extrapolate backwards to understand the conditions of the Hadaean Earth?

The Hadaean Eon, by definition, is the span of time from the accretion of the Earth to the oldest rock record. Therein lies the conundrum for a geologist used to interpreting Earth history from rock data and using the well-founded principles of cross-cutting relationships, superposition, and original horizontality. On one hand, we can apply a paradigm approach, tweaking physical, chemical, and biological principles to fit the conditions most likely for the early Earth - namely, increased heat flow, meteoric bombardment, low solar luminosity, etc. Another method would be to look around the solar system at the planets that have not had as much surficial modification, derive consistencies in lithospheric and atmospheric composition, and build up a model for the Hadaean Earth. Also of use would be meteorites available for chemical and mineralogical analysis. By applying both approaches, students and researchers can build many alternate models for the Hadaean while also appreciating the benefits and pitfall of each method. Interestingly, a review of any of the Historical Geology texts widely in use in undergraduate courses will reveal a rhetoric that announces the answers are clear and the model as presented is accepted. However, current literature shows that many of the fundamental questions are still being hotly debated. What was the original composition of the atmosphere? When did oceans first appear? Was the original continental crust felsic, mafic, or ultramafic? When did lithospheric recycling in a matter recognizable as 'plate tectonics' first appear? Before we can address these questions in a classroom setting, we need to be clear on where 'data' ends and how our model is developed.

How deep and what was the temperature of the ocean in the Archean time?

Less than 2000m. There were no continents and warm condition. The average depth was lower than that of today's ocean.

The fascinating thing about the Precambrian is its uniqueness with respect to today's environments on Earth. There are so many possible topics. My interest in teaching aspects of the Early Earth is mostly in regard to undergraduate general education students so I am looking for sources and techniques that would allow for some exploration of these aspects through exercises or very small projects worked by individuals or groups. But! The directions demand one question so: The oxygenation of the Earth's atmosphere.

I am several years out of date with the answer, but here's my current understanding. The oxygenation of the Early Earth took place in several sizable steps. The most accepted interpretation of the first significant oxygenation in the atmosphere was about 2.5 Ga, when sulfur isotopic signals within pyrite start shifting from mass independent values to mass dependent values, supposedly indicating the presence of small about of oxygen in the atmosphere. At 2.1 to 2.0 Ga sulfur isotopic values change to entirely mass dependent values showing even more oxygen in the atmosphere. This is also when the first redbeds appear in the geologic record, as there is enough oxygen in the atmosphere to rust iron compounds (and to oxygenate the uppers layer of the ocean). Even more oxygen migrates through the surface Earth system as the Canfield oxygen (anoxic bottom waters) transform to oxygen-containing waters at depth, at or about at the end of the Gaskiers glaciation, the last glaciation of Snowball Earth, at about 580 Ma. This is more detail than I use in my intro class (GLY 109), but recently we explored several papers in our undergraduate capstone class (GLY 550) that read papers by Kasting, Canfield, and Ohmoto (see references below).

I approach this question from a source and sink standpoint. What are the sources of oxygen (photolysis and photosynthesis)? What are the sinks of oxygen (iron oxide minerals in banded iron formations and reduced compounds in the atmosphere?)? If photosynthesis occurred on the planet very early in its history (3.45 Ga, North Pole, Aust. stromatolites or common stromatolites by 3 Ga), why doesn't oxygen occur in the atmosphere until 2.5 or 2.0 Ga? My answer for this is based on Canfield's work that suggests that sulfate reducing bacteria create an alternate sink for Fe in the form of sulfide, which forms pyrite. [I am unclear on whether sulfate becomes more abundant in the ocean over time or whether SRBs evolve at this time.] As iron is used in forming pyrite, BIFs gradually cease to form so that oxygen is locked up as iron oxide minerals. It then starts accumulating in the atmosphere.


How have changes in two important environmental variables, temperature and salinity, influenced the evolution of microbes in the Precambrian ocean?

Oxygen isotope data indicate surface ocean temperatures of 55—85 degrees C throughout the Archean, indicating that thermophilic microbes were global in distribution. Increased salinities (1.5—2 x modern ocean salinities) occurred in the absence of continental cratons required to sequester salt from the water. Increased temperature would also indicate an anoxic state in the ocean because of reduced oxygen solubility. Lowering of temperature and salinities in the latest Precambrian allowed dissolved oxygen in the ocean. This changed the anaerobic microbial habitat and allowed Metazoans to then develop in these environments.

What is the current status in our understanding of RNA world, a possible precursor to DNA based life forms? Is this hypothetical world still a viable way for us to understand the origin of life?

RNA world was first proposed by Walter Gilbert in 1986 and two scientists Sidney Altman and Thomas Cech shared Nobel Prizes (1989) for their discoveries relating to this hypothesis.

In the hypothetical RNA world, RNA carries out the information storage tasks similar to the role of DNA and performs the full range of tasks necessary to produce self-replicating life. In the early 21st Century scientists have continued studying RNA and elevated RNA from the task of lowly cellular messenger to being nearly capable of producing primitive life-like structures. At this time, I don't have any alternative hypotheses to RNA world to consider.

What do we know about the origin of life on Earth?

There is relevant information from studies of life in extreme environments and studies of primitive life forms. These move our knowledge forward substantially but I don't know to where.

Where do we currently stand as to where and when life evolved on early earth?

Different models exist as to the environment in which life originally evolved, including a tide pool model to a deep-sea hydrothermal vent model. It seems that most recent data appears to support a hydrothermal model. With regard to the timing we have microfossil evidence going back 3.5 Ga and chemical biomarker data going back to 3.8 Ga. What does the latest research on these topic say?

Is the early evolution of life on Earth the key to resolving the Faint Young Sun paradox?

Clues to the composition of Earth's pre-biotic atmosphere composition as well as surface temperatures prior to the end of late bombardment ca. 3.9 Ga are sparse and inconclusive. Recent perspectives have suggested that an initial CO2/H2-rich atmosphere (Tian et al., 2005, Science, 308, 1014) would have countered the effects of a Sun that was 25-30% dimmer than at present, and permitted a temperate surface environment. An atmosphere composed chiefly of CO and H2 would also avoid the photo-dissociation problems that a methane-rich atmosphere would have had so early in solar system history, when the Sun would have been emitting large amounts of extreme UV radiation (e.g. Rai et al. 2005 Science 309:1062). However, many researchers have adopted the view that a very thick CO2 atmosphere was not plausible or sufficient to have fully compensated for the lower solar luminosity. The addition of abundant biogenic methane to the atmosphere is seen as necessary for providing an adequate greenhouse effect and avoiding a permanent icehouse condition (e.g., Zahnle and Sleep, 2002, Geol. Soc. London Spec. Pub. 199:231-257).

The requirement for biogenic methane implies that anaerobic methane-generating organisms (methanogens) would have evolved very early in Earth history, and would have been present in sufficient mass to alter the chemistry of the atmosphere "in time" to compensate for loss of H2 via thermal escape and the inadequacy of CO2 as a sole greenhouse gas. Battistuzzi et al. (2004, BMC Evol. Biol., 4:44) have estimated a genomic timescale of metabolic innovations and prokaryote evolution that suggests an origin of life by 4.1 Ga and the existence of methanogens by 3.8 Ga. Such dates could mesh with estimates for the rate of loss of an early CO2/H2 atmosphere, in terms of when greenhouse compensation via methane would be needed.

However, there have been as yet no definitive fossils (biochemical or otherwise) recovered from rocks to support genomic timescales such as that of Battistuzzi et al. (2004). It is also not clear as to whether the evolution of methanogens fortuitously allowed the Earth to avoid a permanent icehouse as greenhouse capacity was reduced by purely external and/or physical means (e.g. heavy bombardment thermal escape), or if the replacement of an early CO2/H2 atmosphere by methane wasn't in fact largely biologically mediated.

An interesting line of questioning for students could include a calculation of the amount of methanogen biomass needed to produce an atmosphere with as much as 100 ppm methane, and how quickly that might have developed given any sinks for atmospheric methane and nutrient limitations for the methanogens. (I don't have answers to those questions, by the way!)

What is the current best model for the evolution of organic life from non-living organic molecules? What environmental conditions were most likely present at that time how did they promote the formation of living organisms and what is the evidence to support this?

I understand the process of abiogenesis through the development of self-replicating microspheres. I understand the evolution from simple bacterial forms to present. I would like to know about the leading hypotheses linking the two. If panspermia is considered to be a valid hypothesis, what was brought in, where did it come from and how did it originate elsewhere?

I am aware of a variety of hypotheses regarding the conditions of the Earth at the time and how that would impact the development of life but I would like to know which candidates have the strongest evidence. (ie. deep-sea vents vs. ponds near volcanic vents vs. shallow marine bays)

As the focus of my appointment is on teaching, I do not have the time I would like to look into this as deeply as I would like.

What factors (physical/chemical/biological) triggered the evolution of eukaryotes after a lengthy dominance of early Earth by prokaryotes?

It is recognized that eukaryotes came into being by endosymbiosis of one cell by another. One hypothesis as to why endosymbiosis occurred at all is that the host cell became energy-limited and engulfed another cell that produced the energy source required by the host (ie, H2); a second idea is that the host engulfed another cell that was able to detoxify the local environment (ie, O2 respirer) (K. Konhauser (ed.), Geomicrobiology, 2006, Blackwell). The accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere has also been proposed as a driving force for eukaryotic evolution.

How is the discovery of hydrothermal vent communities and chemosynthetic archaea changing our views of the early evolution of life on earth?

In the past, discussions of the evolution of life were centered on the evolution of photosynthetic organisms and thus, the temperature ranges etc. necessary for their development.

With the discovery of hydrothermal vent communities and the chemosynthetic archaea that form the base of this ecosystem, our ideas of the nature of early life must change. Some early earth environments were probably similar to hydrothermal vent conditions. Hydrothermal vents may have been a very suitable habitat for early life with the combination of water and volcanic activity. Some research also suggests that archaea have a genetic signature consistent with other ancient life.

So, what is the "link" between chemosynthetic and photosynthetic organisms? Did they co-evolve, or was the first life chemosynthetic? If the evolution of chemosynthetic organisms was first, did this life in any way "pave the way" for photosynthetic life?

Banded Iron Formation (BIF) and stromatolites: evidence for shallow water environment and organic theory of BIF? An oversimplification?

In my courses (primarily intro level, non-major) when discussing the early earth and BIF, I have not taken advantage of these interesting deposits and the various hypotheses out there to explain their formation as a way to look at how science works. I talk about them and their significance, show images of them, and then end by saying they are still not well understood, hence oversimplification. I hate this! And why do I do it like this? I do not have a strong understanding of the hypotheses myself. I know that there is evidence for deposition in both deep and shallow depositional settings. And I have recently come to learn a bit about their formation under both anoxic and oxic conditions. I would like to develop a more rigorous understanding of these interesting and important rocks, so as to be able to create a way for students to examine the evidence (make observations) and evaluate the pros and cons of the various hypotheses for their formation and for their relationship with early life.


Solid Earth

How well do carbonaceous chondrites approximate the bulk composition of the Earth?

Carbonaceous chondrites have long been assumed to approximate the composition of the solar system (except for the most volatile elements), and their non-volatile elemental abundances also have been used to estimate the bulk composition of the Earth. But how close is this approximation? If this assumption is not quite correct, what are the implications for our estimates for the composition of the upper and lower mantle and our understanding of crust-mantle evolution?

Some workers have suggested that the bulk Earth is depleted in moderately volatile elements, such as the alkali elements (K, Rb, Cs; Ringwood 1991; McDonough and Sun 1995 and others). There also may be depletions in Si and Mg relative to chondrites and enrichments in highly refractory elements (Hart and Zindler 1986).

What are the implications of these possibilities for models of accretion and differentiation of the Earth? Hamilton (1998) challenged geochemists with assertions that the Earth is more refractory than a chondritic composition and the chondritic model does not account for additions from cometary materials. He adds, "Most modeling incorporates the additional dubious assumption that the Earth has fractionated unidirectionally throughout geologic time."

Are there ways geologists can evaluate further the assumption of a chondritic Bulk Earth?

When and how did continental crust form? What evidence supports models that call for a) early extraction of all the crust from the mantle, b) long-term growth, or c) episodic periods of crustal growth? Did most of the crust form by the end of the Late Archean? Has there been a secular change in the composition of the Archean crust compared with the Phanerozoic crust?

For a summary of the crustal growth models, see figure 10.1 in Taylor (1985) The Continental Crust, its composition and evolution: an examination of the geochemical record preserved in sedimentary rocks, Blackwell, 312pp.
Models for the formation of Archean crust include:
1) Early differentiation of virtually all of the continental crust at ca. 3.9 Ga ago, and subsequent steady state recycling of this crust. Proponents of this model are:

Fyfe W. S. (1978) Evolution of the Earth's crust: modern plate tectonics to ancient hot spot tectonics? Chemical Geology, 23, 89.
Armstrong R. L. 1981 Radiogenic isotopes: the case for crustal recycling on a near steady-state no continental growth Earth. Phil. Trans. Roy. Soc. Lond. A301, 443.
2) Uniform growth rate or accelerated growth rate was proposed by:
Hurley P. M. 1968 Absolute abundance and distribution of Rb, K, and Sr in the Earth. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, 32, 273.
Hurley P. M. and Rand J. R. 1969 Pre-drift continental nuclei, Science, 164 1229.
3) Episodic growth of continental crust was proposed by:
Veizer J. and Jansen S.L. 1979 Basement and sedimentary recycling and continental evolution, Jour. Geol., 87, 341.
McLellan S.M. and Taylor R. S. 1982 Geochemical constraints on the growth of the continental crust. Jour. Geol., 90, 342.
A good summary of the question of continental crustal evolution can be found in the review article by Taylor S. R. and McLennan S. M. 1995 The Geochemical Evolution of the Continental Crust, Reviews of Geophysics, 22, #2 May, p. 241-265.

A critical reading of this collection of articles will provide students with a good opportunity to evaluate the chemical, isotopic, and physical evidence that has led to the development of these models of continental crustal growth.

What was the structure of the crust like when the first major continent formation occurred? What changed circa 3.5 Ga to allow preservation of crust? Considering that the oldest types of rocks we see today are high-grade gneisses does that mean that there was a thick felsic crust? How could that form in the early scenario of reworked crust?

Due to the hotter geotherm, the Archean oceanic crust was thicker than the modern oceanic crust. The 1st major episode of continental growth seems to have started circa 3.8-3.5 Ga. This was presumably the time when the earth cooled enough for the optimal conditions so that the entire oceanic crust was not completely recycled. One possibility is that the Archean oceanic crust had stratified layers, more comparable to present-day continental crust. The delamination of the top layers could be responsible for some of the early continent formation. This does not explain the old felsic gneisses.

When did the earth's crust form and what was its initial composition?

Very little is actually known about the how the earth's first crust was formed and how widespread it may have been or what its composition would have been. The oldest rocks date from ~3.96 Ga and the oldest minerals ~4.4 Ga. Portions of the lunar crust (and presumably other terrestrial planets) date back to 4.4 - 4.5 Ga. Why are we missing the early crustal record on the earth?

It is possible that an early crust never formed on the earth it seems unlikely with respect to the similarity in composition and thermal histories of the other terrestrial planets. Another possibility is that meteorite impacts totally obliterated the earth's early crust, yet our moon's crust is heavily cratered and remnant pieces of 4.4 Ga crust survived suggesting that the total obliteration of the early crust is unlikely. The most likely possibility is that the early crust was recycled.

Exactly what processes were responsible for the production and recycling of the earth's early crust and what the composition of the earliest crust was is still open to debate.

What is the significance of the Jack Hills zircons?

The Jack Hills zircons are the oldest terrestrial materials found so far. These detrital grains from a quartzite / metaconglomerate unit in western Australia clock in at between ~4.0-4.4 Ga, with a single grain dating at ~4.4 Ga in age. Oxygen isotopic studies (yielding high isotopic ratios) indicate that the magma from which these zircons originated was derived from recycled rock that had interacted with surface waters and not from a mantle source. As Mark Harrison commented, "These zircons tell us that they melted from an earlier rock that had been to the Earth's surface and interacted with cold water." The presence of quartz inclusions as well as results from neodymium and hafnium isotopic studies support a felsic source, suggesting that continental crust may have been forming very early in Earth's history and that tectonic processes like subduction were operating as well. Implications are profound including the presence of continents, oceans, and perhaps life very early on in Earth's history.

When did plate tectonics begin on the earth?

Plate tectonics is a feature that makes planet Earth unique in our solar system. However, there is controversy over how and when plate tectonics begin. Most workers agree that plate tectonics did not exist in the earliest stages of Earth's history. Therefore there was likely a period of time over which the process of plate tectonics was conceived and evolved. Some workers argue that plate tectonics begin in the Archean whereas others argue for a much later onset of plate-like behavior of the lithosphere. "Modern-style" plate tectonics may have evolved form some earlier proto-plate tectonic regime. This is evidenced in the nature of metamorphic rocks that suggest a hotter Earth in the Archean where plates did not subduct to the depths required to form rocks such as coesite-bearing eclogites. Subduction and seafloor spreading are primary drivers of plate motions and the warmer early Earth may have had a weaker, less dense lithosphere and thus mantle convection processes may have been different in the early Earth. Zircons as old as 4.4 Ga have recently been identified and indicate that continental crust was formed very early in Earth's history, but this is not necessarily clear evidence that plate tectonics and crustal recycling was taking place.

Arguments for a later onset of plate tectonics are based on the logic that plate tectonics could not begin until the crust was cool enough, and that and that very few ophiolites are preserved that are older than 1 Ga, indicating that modern style subduction may have started relatively late in Earth history. Blueschist rocks characteristic of subduction zones are generally less than about 800 Ma and the oldest UHP metamorphic rocks are around 620 Ma.

Key questions to resolve this debate include 1) understanding the thermal history of the earth through time, 2) understanding the important "plate drivers", and 3) examining the secular distribution of distinctive rock types characteristic of plate tectonic processes.

From the perspective of the geosphere, what changed during the transition from Archean to Proterozoic time? Did the Earth cool to some critical threshold? Was it a gradual and continuous process, or were there events or processes that perturbed mantle processes (such as the introduction of recycled water back into the mantle)? What evidence do geologists, geophysicists, and geochemists have for changing mantle processes across the Archean-Proterozoic transition?

The Archean-Proterozoic transition was a critical time in early Earth history. The relatively rapid growth of continental crust changed everything. But how rapid? By providing widespread shallow water habitat for various forms of life including cyanobacteria, the chemical composition of our atmosphere, ocean, and sedimentary rocks was set on a course that facilitated the evolution and diversification of life. Did the rate of atmospheric oxygenation increase dramatically? What do models tell us about this transition? I'm very interested in exploring this transition with other participants and developing related teaching materials.

How old is the Earth?

Mainstream scientists believe that the Earth is 4.5 +/- .05 billion years old based on uranium-series dating of meteorites since the 1950's) and of zircon crystals found in younger metamorphic rocks (much more recent).

Many meteorites have been found to be 4.5 billion years old. Uranium-series dating could be used for materials that are much older, but none have yet been found! These and the asteroids are believed to have been crystallized at the same time as the surface of the rocky planets, about 4.5 billion years ago. The oldest rocks on Earth have been subject to the rock cycle: some have been melted back into magma, some have been metamorphosed many are buried under younger rocks. However, zircons, very hard and durable minerals (can be distinguished from diamonds only by jewelers and geologists), have resisted metamorphosis, and have been dated to 4.4 billion years old.

If the Earth's mantle was hotter during Archean times (as suggested by the abundance of komatiites in greenstone belts), how would this affect global tectonic regimes during the Archean?

First-order effects: Mantle plumes may have been more numerous, Oceanic ridges may have been more numerous, Oceanic plates may have been smaller, Oceanic lithosphere may have been thicker and more buoyant, Oceanic ridges may have been higher

Plate-force effects: Ridge push forces may have been greater (depending on the balance of relative ridge elevation and lower lithosphere density), Slab pull forces may have been lower

Plate subduction effects: Subduction of relatively warm, buoyant oceanic lithosphere (if forces are sufficient) may have been much shallower than during Phanerozoic time. Shallow subduction may have produced more far-field stresses affecting the subducted plate great distances from a subduction zone (Laramide/Sierras Pampeanas models?)

Petrologic Implications: Slab melting may have been more important. Slab dehydration and metasomatism of overlying asthenosphere may have been less important. Volcanic arcs may have extended over a broader span of a subducted plated

When did Phanerozoic-style plate tectonics (lateral motion of rigid lithospheric plates) begin?

This appears to be an actively debated question and was the subject of a recent Penrose Conference (June 2006). Meso- and Neoproterozoic orogens, such as the Grenville (and worldwide temporal equivalents, ca. 1 Ga) and Pan African/Brazilide (ca. 0.6 Ga) orogenies, contain strong evidence for subduction and collision, and thus lateral motion, of continents. The Grenville Orogen is commonly cited as a classic example of an ancient continent-continent collision. Paleomagnetic data from Meso- and Neoproterozoic rocks demonstrate that cratons have moved across the surface of the earth relative to one another. Paleoproterozoic (ca. 2.0 Ga) orogens, such as the Trans Hudson Orogen, preserve ophiolites, island arc assemblages and accretionary structures similar to those of later orogens. From as early as the Mesoarchean (ca. 3.0 Ga), the rock record contains features that resemble those formed during Phanerozoic plate tectonics, such as accretionary wedges.

That said, there are clearly significant differences between the rocks that formed during the Archean and those that form today. For example, granite and greenstone belts are a prominent feature of Archean terranes and are absent in younger crustal provinces. Certain rock types and/or lithologic associations appear to form more commonly within particular periods of geologic time. Presumably this temporal variation is related to the continuous cooling of the earth and consequent thickening of the lithosphere. If compositions of rocks have varied with time, then the processes, by which they form, namely plate tectonics, may also have evolved through time.

A corollary to the original question is "What processes existed prior to the establishment of lateral motion of rigid plates?" I know very little about the current state of research on this topic, but intend to learn more.


It is part of the standard procedure of teaching general geology to students to explain the past in terms of the present processes i.e. "The Present is the Key to the Past". This uniformitarian viewpoint has served us well for many years. However there are many processes in the Early Earth that are non-uniformitarian. How do we address that viewpoint when talking about the Early Earth to students and colleagues?

Frankly, I don't know the answer. Perhaps, using the evolution of other planets and moons without the Earth-centric reference frame is one approach.

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