The ‘real’ Flood

At the end of the Miocene tectonic uplift in the region of the present Straits of Gibraltar cut the Mediterranean Sea off from the Atlantic. The only water able to flow into the isolated marine basin was that carried by the major rivers: the Rhône, Danube, Dneiper and Nile. Their volume was exceeded by evaporation, so the Mediterranean became more and more salty, eventually almost drying out completely to leave thick evaporite deposits that still underlie its deepest parts. 5.33 Ma ago, the tectonic barrier was breached so that Atlantic water flooded the whole Mediterranean basin. The Zanclean flood at the start of the Pliocene has been rated as the greatest catastrophic event in the Phanerozoic history of the oceans, but just how dramatic it was has previously only been guessed at. Seismic profiles across and along the line of flooding reveal channels several kilometres across, about 200 km long and up to 250 m deep, now filled with debris (Garcia-Castellanos, D. et al. 2009. Catastrophic flood of the Mediterranean after the Messinian salinity crisis. Nature, v. 462, p. 778-781). Using a well-established model of river incision in mountain rivers, the authors have suggested how the flooding proceeded. From an initial trickle when the original barrier subsided below Atlantic sea level, flow grew exponentially over a few thousand years to about three times that of the modern Amazon discharge (~108 m s-1), at which rate incision reached more than 0.4 m per day. Around 90% of the Mediterranean basin’s entire volume was flooded in a matter of a few months to two years, sea level rising at up to 10 m per day.

Formation of BIFs halted by Sudbury impact

The peculiar story of banded iron formations (BIFs) is one that ‘runs and runs’, as journalists say. Most of the steel on which North American capital was built comes from gigantic BIF deposits around Lake Superior that formed during the Palaeoproterozoic. Apart from a brief return in the Neoproterozoic, associated with conditions peculiar to ‘Snowball Earth’ conditions, the Superior Province BIFs are the last of any consequence. Most geologists look to a gradual shift in the oxygen content of ocean water as photosynthetic life grew to dominate the Earth after about 2.4 Ga, but the BIFs around Lake Superior turn out to be capped by a blanket of ejecta from a massive extraterrestrial impact that formed the Sudbury Complex (Slack, J.F. & Cannon, W.F. 2009. Extraterrestrial demise of banded iron formations 1.85 billion years ago. Geology, v. 37, p. 1011-1014). But how could even a monstrous bolide have changed ocean chemistry so decisively? John Slack and William Cannon of the US Geological Survey believe that the impact was so violent that it resulted in wholesale mixing of oxygen-bearing surface waters with those of the deep ocean. The evidence they cite is a coincident change in the nature of deep-water hydrothermal deposits from sulfide-bearing to those dominated by iron-oxides.

The Sudbury impact produced a crater around 150 to 270 km across (one of the three largest known on Earth), and it is dominated by remelted basaltic rocks so almost certainly struck the Palaeoproterozoic ocean floor. Its ejected debris probably covered almost 2 million km2 and is found up to 800 km from Sudbury, Ontario. Yet, even with impact cavitation and massive tsunamis it seems barely feasible that an impact of a size dwarfed by those of the Lunar surface could completely remix the oceans. However, it is likely that in the Palaeoproterozoic continental crust was gathered together in a supercontinent so that tsunamis could scour much of the surrounding ocean. A plume of vaporised seawater may also have scavenged oxygen from the atmosphere. The evidence seems compelling, and another possibility is that Sudbury was not the only impact site…

And another oddity…

That a major climatic warming occurred at the end of the Palaeocene (55 Ma) is now undoubted, as is its probable cause by emission from the ocean floor of vast amounts of methane. Yet oddly the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) coincides with a brief geomagnetic reversal 53 ka long (Lee, Y.S. & Kodama, K. 2009. A possible link between the geomagnetic field and catastrophic climate at the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum. Geology, v. 37, p. 1047-1050). Both events were short, so a coincidence seems unlikely, in the authors’ opinion. They suggest a connection through the massive power imparted to climatic processes by the PETM (at least a terawatt and perhaps orders of magnitude more), including the deep thermohaline circulation of the oceans that did shift during the event. Had they exceeded a threshold power for circulation of the liquid outer core they may have triggered the brief reversal, which quickly reverted to its previous magnetic polarity. Ths association is not unique, detailed magnetic studies of the K-T boundary event at 65 Ma has revealed a similar short reversal spanning the duration of the iridium peak ascribed to the Chicxulub impact. However, Chicxulub delivered a power of the order a year’s solar radiation in about one second: vastly larger than the climate perturbation of the PETM. Are we seeing here a hidden signal of an extraterrestrial impact behind the methane release? Impacts are no longer as popular as they once were…


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