As DNA is to tracing human evolution and migration, so various isotope systems are to the evolution of the Earth. One of the most fruitful is the samarium-neodymium (Sm-Nd) system. The decay of 147Sm to 143Nd is used in dating rocks across the full range of Earth history, given coeval rocks with a suitable range of Sm/Nd ratios, because the decay has a long half life (1.06 x 1011 years). However, samarium has another radioactive isotope 147Sm with a half life that is a thousand times shorter (1.06 x 108 years). So it remains only as a minute proportion of the total Sm in rocks, most having decayed since it was formed in a pre-Solar System supernova. But its daughter isotope 142Nd is present in easily measurable quantities, having accumulated from 147Sm decay over the first few hundred million years of Earth’s history; i.e. during the Hadean and earliest Archaean Eons. It is this fact that allows geochemists to get an indirect ‘handle’ on events that took place in the Earth’s earliest, largely vanished history. The principle behind this approach is that when an ancient rock undergoes partial melting to produce a younger magma the rock that crystallizes from it inherits the relative proportions of Nd isotopes of its source and thereby carries a record of the earlier history.
Metamorphosed volcanosedimentary rocks from the Porpoise Cove locality, Nuvvuagittuq supracrustal belt, Canada. Possibly the oldest rocks on Earth. (credit: Wikipedia)
The eastern shore of Hudson Bay in Canada hosts the oldest tangible geology known, in form of some metamorphosed basaltic rocks dated at 4200 Ma old known as the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt – the only known Hadean rocks. They occur in a tiny (20 km2) patch associated with gneisses of tonalite-trondjhemits-granodiorite composition that are dated between 3760 and 3350 Ma. Engulfing both are younger (2800 to 2500 Ma) Archaean plutonic igneous rocks of felsic composition. Jonathan O’Neil and Richard Carlson of the University of Ottawa, Canada and the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC, USA respectively, measured proportions of Nd isotopes in both sets of felsic igneous rocks (O’Neil, J. & Carlson, R.W. 2017. Building Archean cratons from Hadean mafic crust. Science, v. 355, p. 1199-1202; doi:10.1126/science.aah3823).
The oldest gneisses contained relative proportions of 142Nd commensurate with them having been formed by partial melting of the Hadean mafic rocks about a few hundred million years after they had been erupted to form the oldest known crust; no surprise there. However, the dominant components of the local continental crust that are about a billion years younger also contain about the same relative proportions of 142Nd. A reasonable conclusion is that the Archaean continental crust of NE Canada formed by repeated melting of mafic crust of Hadean age over a period of 1.5 billion years. The modern Earth continually replenishes its oceanic crust over about 200 Ma due to plate tectonics. During the Archaean mantle dynamics would have been driven faster by much higher internal heat production. Had this involved simply faster plate tectonics the outermost skin of mafic crust would have been resorbed into the mantle even faster. By the end of the Archaean (2500 Ma) barely any Hadean crust should have been available to produce felsic magmas. But clearly at least some did linger, adding more weight to the idea that plate tectonics did not operate during the Hadean and Archaean Eons. See Formation of continents without subduction below.
Tectonics on any rocky planet is an expression of the way heat is transferred from its deep interior to the surface to be lost by radiation to outer space. Radiative heat loss is vastly more efficient than either conduction or convection since the power emitted by a body is proportion to the fourth power of its absolute temperature. Unless it is superheated from outside by its star, a planet cannot stay molten at its surface for long because cooling by radiation releases all of the heat that makes its way to the surface. Any football supporter who has rushed to get a microwaved pie at half time will have learned this quickly: a cool crust can hide a damagingly hot centre.
Thermal power is delivered to a planet’s surface by convection deep down and conduction nearer the surface because rocks, both solid and molten, are almost opaque to radiation. The vigour of the outward flow of heat might seem to be related mainly to the amount of internal heat but it is also governed by limits imposed by temperature on the form of convection. Of the Inner Planets only Earth shows surface signs of deep convection in the form of plate tectonics driven mainly by the pull exerted by steep subduction of cool, dense slabs of old oceanic lithosphere. Only Jupiter’s moon Io shows comparable surface signs of inner dynamics, but in the form of immense volcanoes rather than lateral movements of slabs. Io has about 40 times the surface heat flow of Earth, thanks largely to huge tidal forces imposed by Jupiter. So it seems that a different mode of convection is needed to shift the tidal heat production; similar in many ways to Earth’s relatively puny and isolated hot spots and mantle plumes.
An analogy for the early Earth, Jupiter’s moon Io is speckled with large active volcanoes; signs of vigorous internal heat transport but not of plate tectonics. Its colour is dominated by various forms of sulfur rather than mafic igneous rocks. (credit: Wikipedia)
Shortly after Earth’s accretion it would have contained far more heat than now: gravitational energy of accretion itself; greater tidal heating from a close Moon and up to five times more from internal radioactive decay. The time at which plate tectonics can be deduced from evidence in ancient rocks has been disputed since the 1970s, but now an approach inspired by Io’s behaviour approaches the issue from the opposite direction: what might have been the mode of Earth’s heat transport shortly after accretion (Moore, W.B. & Webb, A.A.G. 2013. Heat-pipe Earth. Nature, v. 501, p. 501-505). The two American geophysicists modelled Rayleigh-Bénard convection – multicelled convection akin to that of the ‘heat pipes’ inside Io – for a range of possible thermal conditions in the Hadean. The modelled planet, dominated by volcanic centres turned out to have some surprising properties.
The sheer efficiency of heat-pipe dominated heat transfer and radiative heat lost results in development of a thick cold lithosphere between the pipes, that advects surface material downwards. Decreasing the heat sources results in a ‘flip’ to convection very like plate tectonics. In itself, this notion of sudden shift from Rayleigh-Bénard convection to plate tectonics is not new – several Archaean specialists, including me, debated this in the late 1970s – but the convincing modelling is. The authors also assemble a plausible list of evidence for it from the Archaean geological record: the presence in pre- 3.2 Ga greenstone belts of abundant ultramafic lavas marking high fractions of mantle melting; the dome-trough structure of granite-greenstone terrains; granitic magmas formed by melting of wet mafic rocks at around 45 km depth, extending back to second-hand evidence from Hadean zircons preserved in much younger rocks. They dwell on the oldest sizeable terranes in West Greenland (the Itsaq gneiss complex), South Africa and Western Australia (Barberton and the Pilbara) as a plausible and tangible products of ‘heat-pipe’ tectonics. They suggest that the transition to plate-tectonic dominance was around 3.2 Ga, yet ‘heat pipes’ remain to the present in the form of plumes so nicely defined in the preceding item Mantle structures beneath the central Pacific.
There is something deeply unsatisfying, even untidy, about a geoscientific history from which the first half billion years is more or less a blank. Every likely stone has been turned and every isotope hurled as a curve-ball through a mass spectrometer in the quest for either direct evidence of Hadean events or an acrid whiff that lingers in later matter. All, that is, except for one…
Formed in a proposed supernova that likely helped trigger formation of the Sun and Solar System, 150Gd quickly decayed to produce 146Sm, which itself had a half-life of about 68 Ma. That is too short for any significant trace of that radioactive rare-earth element to remain in terrestrial rocks, but its daughter isotope 142Nd bears witness to its former existence. Checking the proportion of 142Nd against the heavier 144Nd is a means of assessing isotopic fractionation according to atomic mass between a solid source of a magma, and between residual magma and solids that crystallised from it.
A popular and well-supported view of the Hadean is that shortly after accretion of the Earth a stupendous impact left a deep ‘ocean’ of magma and flung off mass that produced the Moon. Solidification of that ocean, which would have involved denser minerals sinking and lighter ones rising to higher levels, has been suggested to have resulted in differentiation of the mantle into two portions, one enriched, the other depleted; an event on which the entire later geochemical history of our planet has depended. Should either part of the mantle melt again, the igneous rocks that would result should carry a neodymium isotope signature of one or the other. Little sign of either emerges from studies of igneous rocks younger than 2.5 Ga, but older rocks from Greenland that go back to 3.8 Ga demonstrate that almost all of them melted from the Hadean depleted mantle. Without rocks carrying 142Nd/144Nd ratios signifying the other side of the more ancient mantle division, an enriched source, the grand idea was flawed. But this one-sidedness appears now to have been balanced by other Archaean igneous rocks (Rizo, H. et al. 2012. The elusive Hadean enriched reservoir revealed by 142Nd deficits in Isua Archaean rocks. Nature, v. 491, p. 96-100).
3.8 billion year-old Amitsoq gneisses, West Greenland (Image credit: Stephen Moorbath, via Royal Society)
The analysed rocks are interesting for another reason, for they are 3.4 Ga old vertical sheets of basalt or dykes that cut through the more ancient west Greenland crust. They are the first evidence of a brittle crust that cracked under tension to be followed by mantle-derived magma. Some members of the Ameralik dyke swarm show just the isotopic signature predicted for the enriched member of the postulated fundamental mantle division. However, for some yet to be recognised reason, few post-Archaean rocks show any sign of widespread mantle heterogeneity. Such matters could be addressed with any confidence only after mass spectrometry allowed precise discrimination between isotopes of a whole variety of both common and rare elements. That was not so long ago, so a rich trove of future revelations can be anticipated.
Archaean gneisses from West Greenland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When continents first appeared; the pace at which they grew; the tectonic and magmatic processes responsible for continental crust, and whether or not crustal material is consumed by the mantle to any great extent have been tough issues for geologists and geochemists to ponder on for the last four decades. Clearly, continental material was rare if not absent in the earliest days of the solid Earth, otherwise Hadean crust should have been found by now. Despite the hints at some differentiated, high silica rocks that may have hosted >4 billion-year old zircon crystals from much younger sediments, the oldest tangible crust – the Acasta Gneiss of northern Canada – just breaks the 4 Ga barrier: half a billion years short of the known age of the Earth (https://earth-pages.co.uk/2008/11/01/at-last-4-0-ga-barrier-broken/). Radiometric ages for crustal rocks steadily accumulated following what was in the early 1970s the astonishing discovery by Stephen Moorbath and colleagues at Oxford University and the Geological Survey of Greenland of a 3.8 billion year age for gneisses from West Greenland. For a while it seemed as if there had been great pulses that formed new crust, such as one between 2.8 and 2.5 Ga (the Neoarchaean) separated by quieter episodes. Yet dividing genuinely new material coming from the mantle from older crust that later thermal and tectonic events had reworked and remelted required – and still does – lengthy and expensive radiometric analysis of rock samples with different original complements of radioactive isotopes.
One approach to dating has been to separate tiny grains of zircon from igneous and metamorphic rocks and date them using the U-Pb method as a route to the age at which the rock formed, but that too was slow and costly. Yet zircons, being among the most intransigent of Earth materials, end up in younger sedimentary rocks after their parents have been weathered and eroded. It was an investigation of what earlier history a sediment’s zircons might yield that lead to the discovery of grains almost as old as the Earth itself (https://earth-pages.co.uk/2011/12/21/mistaken-conclusions-from-earths-oldest-materials/ https://earth-pages.co.uk/2005/05/01/zircon-and-the-quest-for-life%E2%80%99s-origin/). That approach is beginning to pay dividends as regards resolving crustal history as a whole. Almost 7000 detrital zircon grains separated from sediments have been precisely dated using lead and hafnium isotopes. Using the age distribution alone suggests that the bulk of continental crust formed in the Precambrian, between 3 and 1 Ga ago, at a faster rate than it formed during the Phanerozoic. However, that assumes that a zircon’s radiometric age signifies the time of separation from the mantle of the magmas from which the grain crystallised. Yet other dating methods have shown that zircon-bearing magmas also form when old crust is remelted, and so it is important to find a means of distinguishing zircons from entirely new blocks of crust and those which result from crustal reworking. It turns out that zircons from mantle-derived crust have different oxygen isotope compositions from those which crystallised from remelted crust.
An example of ages of detrital zircons from sediments, in this case from five Russian rivers (credit: Wikipedia)
Bruno Dhuime and colleagues from St.Andrew’s and Bristol universities in the UK measures hafnium model ages and δ18O values in a sample of almost 1400 detrital zircons collected across the world from sediments of different ages (Dhuime, B. et al. 2012. A change in the geodynamics of continental growth 3 billion years ago. Science, v. 335, p. 1334-1336). Plotting δ18O against Hf model age reveals two things: there are more zircons from reworked crust than from mantle-derived materials; plotting the proportion of new crust ages to those of reworked crust form 100 Ma intervals through geological time reveals dramatic changes in the relative amounts of ‘mantle-new’ crust being produced. Before 3 Ga about three quarters of all continental crust emerged directly from the mantle. Instead of the period from 3 to 1 Ga being one of massive growth in the volume of the crust, apparently the production rate of new crust fell to about a fifth of all crust in each 100 Ma time span by around 2 Ga and then rose to reach almost 100% in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. This suggests that the late Archaean and most of the Proterozoic were characterised by repeated reworking of earlier crust, perhaps associated with the repeated formation and break-up of supercontinents by collision orogeny and then tectonic break up and continental drift.
Dhuine and colleagues then use the record of varying new crust proportions to ‘correct’ the much larger database of detrital zircon ages. What emerges is a well-defined pattern in the rate of crustal growth through time. In the Hadean and early Archaean the net growth of the continents was 3.0 km3 yr-1, whereas throughout later time this suddenly fell to and remained at 0.8 km3 yr-1. Their explanation is that the Earth only came to be dominated by plate tectonic processes mainly driven by slab-pull at subduction zones after 3 Ga. Subduction not only produces mantle-derived magmas but inevitably allows continents to drift and collide, thereby leading to massive deformation and thermal reworking of older crust in orogenic belts and an apparent peak in zircon ages. The greater rate of new crust generation before 3 Ga may therefore have been due to other tectonic processes than the familiar dominance of subduction. Yet, since there is convincing evidence for subduction in a few ancient crustal blocks, such as west Greenland and around Hudson’s Bay in NE Canada, plate tectonics must have existed but was overwhelmed perhaps by processes more directly linked to mantle plumes.
More on continental growth can be found here
The oldest materials on the planet are tiny zircon grains that were washed into conglomerate in Western Australia about 2650 to 3050 Ma ago. It wasn’t the fact that the grains are zircons, which are among the most durable materials around, but the range of ages that they revealed when routinely analysed. U-Pb dating of detrital zircons is a well tested means of finding the provenance of sedimentary materials as an indicator of orogenic and igneous events that formed the crust from which they were eroded. In the original study of the Jack Hills zircons some showed ages that might reasonably have been expected from late sediments in an Archaean craton: around 3.5 billion years is about the maximum age for orogenic events there. What astonished all geoscientists was that a proportion of the grains gave ages of more than 4 billion years, some as old as 4.4 Ga: here was a window on the missing first half billion years of Earth history, the Hadean.
Subsequent work on yet more zircons confirmed the original age span but other kinds of analysis led to a variety of claims: that continental crust was around in abundance within 100 Ma of Earth having formed; geothermal heat =flow was not especially high; liquid water was available for geological processes, including the origin of life; plate tectonics may have started early…. The topic has cropped up several times in EPN since the issue of 1 January 2001. Quite a lot of the claims emerged from studies of other minerals enclosed by the ancient zircons, such as quartz and micas, and now they have been checked again by geochemists from Western Australia (Rasmussen, B. et al. 2011. Metamorphic replacement of mineral inclusions in detrital zircons from Jack Hills, Australia: Implications for the Hadean Earth. Geology, v. 39, p. 1143-1146). It turns out that the inclusions formed at temperatures well below those of magmas, between 350 to 490°C: more like those of metamorphism. Indeed, uranium-bearing rare-earth phosphate minerals, xenotime and monazite, also locked in the zircons not only turn out to be metamorphic in origin too (both are also formed magmatically) but date to between 2700 and 800 Ma.
While the Hadean zircon dates remain robust, a closer look at their inclusions shows that they did not remain geochemically closed systems thereafter. It was on the assumption of zircons being geological ‘time capsules’ that much of the excitement rested. Even using the presence of zircons from 4.4 Ga – they are most common in granites but do occur in mafic and intermediate igneous rocks – to suggest early ‘sialic’ continental crust is suspect. Despite having some tiny bits from Earth’s early days, it seems we are none the wiser.
- Earth’s ‘Time Capsules’ May Be Flawed (news.sciencemag.org)
- Geological Dating Discovered To Be Flawed (thebibleistheotherside.wordpress.com) One for the gullible…