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, email@example.com, 608-265-5887
Jill Sakai | Newswise Science News
Volcanoes and glaciers combine as powerful methane producers
20.11.2018 | Lancaster University
Massive impact crater from a kilometer-wide iron meteorite discovered in Greenland
15.11.2018 | Faculty of Science - University of Copenhagen
Max Planck researchers revel the nano-structure of molecular trains and the reason for smooth transport in cellular antennas.
Moving around, sensing the extracellular environment, and signaling to other cells are important for a cell to function properly. Responsible for those tasks...
Researchers at the University of New Hampshire have captured a difficult-to-view singular event involving "magnetic reconnection"--the process by which sparse particles and energy around Earth collide producing a quick but mighty explosion--in the Earth's magnetotail, the magnetic environment that trails behind the planet.
Magnetic reconnection has remained a bit of a mystery to scientists. They know it exists and have documented the effects that the energy explosions can...
Biochips have been developed at TU Wien (Vienna), on which tissue can be produced and examined. This allows supplying the tissue with different substances in a very controlled way.
Cultivating human cells in the Petri dish is not a big challenge today. Producing artificial tissue, however, permeated by fine blood vessels, is a much more...
Faster and secure data communication: This is the goal of a new joint project involving physicists from the University of Würzburg. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research funds the project with 14.8 million euro.
In our digital world data security and secure communication are becoming more and more important. Quantum communication is a promising approach to achieve...
On Saturday, 10 November 2018, the research icebreaker Polarstern will leave its homeport of Bremerhaven, bound for Cape Town, South Africa.
19.11.2018 | Event News
09.11.2018 | Event News
06.11.2018 | Event News
21.11.2018 | Power and Electrical Engineering
20.11.2018 | Life Sciences
20.11.2018 | Life Sciences