If a time machine could take us back 4.6 billion years to the Earths birth, wed see our sun shining 20 to 25 percent less brightly than today. Without an earthly greenhouse to trap the suns energy and warm the atmosphere, our world would be a spinning ball of ice. Life may never have evolved.
But life did evolve, so greenhouse gases must have been around to warm the Earth. Evidence from the geologic record indicates an abundance of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Methane probably was present as well, but that greenhouse gas doesnt leave enough of a geologic footprint to detect with certainty. Molecular oxygen wasnt around, indicate rocks from the era, which contain iron carbonate instead of iron oxide. Stone fingerprints of flowing streams, liquid oceans and minerals formed from evaporation confirm that 3 billion years ago, Earth was warm enough for liquid water.
Now, the geologic record revealed in some of Earths oldestrocks is telling a surprising tale of collapse of that greenhouse -- and its subsequent regeneration. But even more surprising, say the Stanford scientists who report these findings in the May 25 issue of the journal Geology, is the critical role that rocks played in the evolution of the early atmosphere.
Dawn Levy | Stanford University
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