Other things on Earth being equal, with so little energy reaching the planet's surface, all water on the planet should been have frozen. But ancient rocks hold ample evidence that the early Earth was awash in liquid water – a planetary ocean of it. So something must have compensated for the reduced solar output and kept Earth's water wet.
To explain this apparent paradox, a popular theory holds there must have been higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, most likely carbon dioxide, which would have helped retain a greater proportion of the solar energy that arrived.
But a team of earth scientists including researchers from Stanford have analyzed the mineral content of 3.8-billion-year-old marine rocks from Greenland and concluded otherwise.
"There is no geologic evidence in these rocks for really high concentrations of a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide," said Dennis Bird, professor of geological and environmental sciences.
Instead, the team proposes that the vast global ocean of early Earth absorbed a greater percentage of the incoming solar energy than today's oceans, enough to ward off a frozen planet. Because the first landmasses that formed on Earth were small – mere islands in the planetary sea – a far greater proportion of the surface of was covered with water than today.
The study is detailed in a paper published in the April 1 issue of Nature. Bird and Norman Sleep, a professor of geophysics, are among the four authors. The lead author is Minik Rosing, a geology professor at the Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, and a former Allan Cox Visiting Professor at Stanford's School of Earth Sciences.
The crux of the theory is that because oceans are darker than continents, particularly before plants and soils covered landmasses, seas absorb more sunlight.
"It's the same phenomenon you will experience if you drive to Wal-Mart on a hot day and step out of your car onto the asphalt," Bird said. "It's really hot walking across the blacktop until you get onto the white concrete sidewalk."
Another key component of the theory is in the clouds. "Not all clouds are the same," Bird said.
Clouds reflect sunlight back into space to a degree, cooling Earth, but how effective they are depends on the number of tiny particles available to serve as nuclei around which the water droplets can condense. An abundance of nuclei means more droplets of a smaller size, which makes for a denser cloud and a greater reflectivity, or albedo, on the part of the cloud.
Most nuclei today are generated by plants or algae and promote the formation of numerous small droplets. But plants and algae didn't flourish until much later in Earth's history, so their contribution of potential nuclei to the early atmosphere circa 4 billion years ago would have been minimal. The few nuclei that might have been available would likely have come from erosion of rock on the small, rare landmasses of the day and would have caused larger droplets that were essentially transparent to the solar energy that came in to Earth, according to Bird.
"We put together some models that demonstrate, with the slow continental growth and with a limited amount of clouds, you could keep water above freezing throughout geologic history," Bird said.
"What this shows is that there is no faint early sun paradox," said Sleep.
The modeling work was done with climate modeler Christian Bjerrum, a professor in the Department of Geography and Geology, University of Copenhagen, also a co-author of the Nature paper.
The rocks that the team analyzed are a type of marine sedimentary rock called a banded iron formation. It is characterized by thin alternating bands of quartz, magnetite, an iron-rich mineral, and siderite, a mineral with a high carbon content, but also some iron.
"Any rock carries a memory of the environment in which it formed," Rosing said. "These ancient rocks that are about 3.8 billion years old, they actually carry a memory of the composition of the ocean and atmosphere at the time when they were deposited."
The critical part of the rocks' memory was the banding and that iron was found chemically bound to oxygen rather than CO2 in the bands. The alternating bands would only have been deposited if the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere kept shifting back and forth across a threshold that controlled which mineral was deposited. But that also meant that the amount of carbon dioxide couldn't stray too far from that threshold. If there had been either substantially more or less carbon dioxide, only one of the minerals would have been laid down.
Another constraint on early carbon dioxide levels came from life itself.
In the days before photosynthetic organisms spread across the globe, most life forms were methanogens, single-celled organisms that consumed hydrogen and carbon dioxide and produced methane as a digestive byproduct.
But to thrive, methanogens need a balanced diet. If the concentration of either of their foodstuffs veers too far below their preferred proportions, methanogens won't survive. Their dietary restrictions, specifically the minimum concentration of hydrogen, provided another constraint on the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and it falls well below the level needed for a greenhouse effect sufficient to compensate for a weak early sun.
"The conclusion from all this is that we can't solve a faint sun paradox and also satisfy the geologic and metabolic constraints by having high carbon dioxide values," Bird said.
But the theory of a lower Earthly albedo meets those constraints.
"The lower albedo counterbalanced the fainter sun and provided Earth with clement conditions without the need for dramatically higher concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere," Rosing said.
Louis Bergeron | EurekAlert!
Monitoring lava lake levels in Congo volcano
16.05.2018 | Seismological Society of America
Ice stream draining Greenland Ice Sheet sensitive to changes over past 45,000 years
14.05.2018 | Oregon State University
So-called quantum many-body scars allow quantum systems to stay out of equilibrium much longer, explaining experiment | Study published in Nature Physics
Recently, researchers from Harvard and MIT succeeded in trapping a record 53 atoms and individually controlling their quantum state, realizing what is called a...
The historic first detection of gravitational waves from colliding black holes far outside our galaxy opened a new window to understanding the universe. A...
A team led by Austrian experimental physicist Rainer Blatt has succeeded in characterizing the quantum entanglement of two spatially separated atoms by observing their light emission. This fundamental demonstration could lead to the development of highly sensitive optical gradiometers for the precise measurement of the gravitational field or the earth's magnetic field.
The age of quantum technology has long been heralded. Decades of research into the quantum world have led to the development of methods that make it possible...
Cardiovascular tissue engineering aims to treat heart disease with prostheses that grow and regenerate. Now, researchers from the University of Zurich, the Technical University Eindhoven and the Charité Berlin have successfully implanted regenerative heart valves, designed with the aid of computer simulations, into sheep for the first time.
Producing living tissue or organs based on human cells is one of the main research fields in regenerative medicine. Tissue engineering, which involves growing...
A team of scientists of the Max Planck Institute for the Structure and Dynamics of Matter (MPSD) at the Center for Free-Electron Laser Science in Hamburg investigated optically-induced superconductivity in the alkali-doped fulleride K3C60under high external pressures. This study allowed, on one hand, to uniquely assess the nature of the transient state as a superconducting phase. In addition, it unveiled the possibility to induce superconductivity in K3C60 at temperatures far above the -170 degrees Celsius hypothesized previously, and rather all the way to room temperature. The paper by Cantaluppi et al has been published in Nature Physics.
Unlike ordinary metals, superconductors have the unique capability of transporting electrical currents without any loss. Nowadays, their technological...
02.05.2018 | Event News
13.04.2018 | Event News
12.04.2018 | Event News
18.05.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering
18.05.2018 | Information Technology
18.05.2018 | Information Technology