Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Banded Rocks Reveal Early Earth Conditions, Changes

The strikingly banded rocks scattered across the upper Midwest and elsewhere throughout the world are actually ambassadors from the past, offering clues to the environment of the early Earth more than 2 billion years ago.

Called banded iron formations or BIFs, these ancient rocks formed between 3.8 and 1.7 billion years ago at what was then the bottom of the ocean. The stripes represent alternating layers of silica-rich chert and iron-rich minerals like hematite and magnetite.

First mined as a major iron source for modern industrialization, BIFs are also a rich source of information about the geochemical conditions that existed on Earth when the rocks were made. However, interpreting their clues requires understanding how the bands formed, a topic that has been controversial for decades, says Huifang Xu, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A study appearing today (Oct. 11) as an advance online publication in Nature Geoscience offers a new picture of how these colorful bands developed and what they reveal about the composition of the early ocean floor, seawater, and atmosphere during the evolution of the Earth.

Previous hypotheses about band formation involved seasonal fluctuations, temperature shifts, or periodic blooms of microorganisms, all of which left many open questions about how BIFs dominated the global marine landscape for two billion years and why they abruptly disappeared 1.7 billion years ago.

With Yifeng Wang of Sandia National Laboratories, Enrique Merino of Indiana University and UW-Madison postdoc Hiromi Konishi, Xu developed a BIF formation model that offers a more complete picture of the environment at the time, including interactions between rocks, water, and air.

“They are all connected,” Xu explains. “The lithosphere affects the hydrosphere, the hydrosphere affects the atmosphere, and all those eventually affect the biosphere on the early Earth.”

Their model shows how BIFs could have formed when hydrothermal fluids, from interactions between seawater and hot oceanic crust from deep in the Earth’s mantle, mixed with surface seawater. This mixing triggered the oscillating production of iron- and silica-rich minerals, which were deposited in layers on the seafloor.

They used a series of thermodynamic calculations to determine that the source material for BIFs must have come from oceanic rocks with a very low aluminum content, unlike modern oceanic basalts that contain high levels of aluminum.

“The modern-day ocean floor is basalt, common black basalt like the Hawaiian islands. But during that time, there was also a strange kind of rock called komatiites,” says Xu. “When ocean water reacts with that kind of rock, it can produce about equal amounts of iron and silica” — a composition ideally suited to making BIFs.

Such a mixture can create distinct alternating layers — which range in thickness from 10 micrometers to about 1 centimeter — due to a constantly shifting state that, like a competition between two well-matched players, resists resolving to a single outcome and instead see-saws between two extremes.

BIFs dominated the global oceans 3.8 to 1.7 billion years ago, a time period known to geologists as the Archaean-Early Proterozoic, then abruptly disappeared from the geologic record. Their absence in more recent rocks indicates that the geochemical conditions changed around 1.7 billion years ago, Xu says.

This change likely had wide-ranging effects on the physical and biological composition of the Earth. For example, the end of BIF deposition would have starved iron-dependent bacteria and shifted in favor of microbes with sulfur-based metabolisms. In addition, chemical and pH changes in the ocean and rising atmospheric oxygen may have allowed the emergence and spread of oxygen-dependent organisms.

The new study was partly funded by the NASA Astrobiology Institute, and Xu hopes to look for biosignatures trapped in the rock bands for additional clues to the changes that occurred 1.7 billion years ago and what may have triggered them.

Additional support was provided by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy.

CONTACT: Huifang Xu,, 608-265-5887

Jill Sakai | Newswise Science News
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht UCI and NASA document accelerated glacier melting in West Antarctica
26.10.2016 | University of California - Irvine

nachricht Ice shelf vibrations cause unusual waves in Antarctic atmosphere
25.10.2016 | American Geophysical Union

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Novel light sources made of 2D materials

Physicists from the University of Würzburg have designed a light source that emits photon pairs. Two-photon sources are particularly well suited for tap-proof data encryption. The experiment's key ingredients: a semiconductor crystal and some sticky tape.

So-called monolayers are at the heart of the research activities. These "super materials" (as the prestigious science magazine "Nature" puts it) have been...

Im Focus: Etching Microstructures with Lasers

Ultrafast lasers have introduced new possibilities in engraving ultrafine structures, and scientists are now also investigating how to use them to etch microstructures into thin glass. There are possible applications in analytics (lab on a chip) and especially in electronics and the consumer sector, where great interest has been shown.

This new method was born of a surprising phenomenon: irradiating glass in a particular way with an ultrafast laser has the effect of making the glass up to a...

Im Focus: Light-driven atomic rotations excite magnetic waves

Terahertz excitation of selected crystal vibrations leads to an effective magnetic field that drives coherent spin motion

Controlling functional properties by light is one of the grand goals in modern condensed matter physics and materials science. A new study now demonstrates how...

Im Focus: New 3-D wiring technique brings scalable quantum computers closer to reality

Researchers from the Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) at the University of Waterloo led the development of a new extensible wiring technique capable of controlling superconducting quantum bits, representing a significant step towards to the realization of a scalable quantum computer.

"The quantum socket is a wiring method that uses three-dimensional wires based on spring-loaded pins to address individual qubits," said Jeremy Béjanin, a PhD...

Im Focus: Scientists develop a semiconductor nanocomposite material that moves in response to light

In a paper in Scientific Reports, a research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute describes a novel light-activated phenomenon that could become the basis for applications as diverse as microscopic robotic grippers and more efficient solar cells.

A research team at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) has developed a revolutionary, light-activated semiconductor nanocomposite material that can be used...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Event News

#IC2S2: When Social Science meets Computer Science - GESIS will host the IC2S2 conference 2017

14.10.2016 | Event News

Agricultural Trade Developments and Potentials in Central Asia and the South Caucasus

14.10.2016 | Event News

World Health Summit – Day Three: A Call to Action

12.10.2016 | Event News

Latest News

Prototype device for measuring graphene-based electromagnetic radiation created

28.10.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering

Gamma ray camera offers new view on ultra-high energy electrons in plasma

28.10.2016 | Physics and Astronomy

When fat cells change their colour

28.10.2016 | Life Sciences

More VideoLinks >>>