Apart from ancient detrital zircons no dated materials from the Earth’s crust come anywhere near the age when our home world formed, which incidentally was derived by indirect means. Hutton’s famous saying towards the close of the 18th century, ‘The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning, – no prospect of an end’ seems irrefutable. Hardly surprising, you might think, considering the frantic pace of events that have reworked the geological record for four billion years and convincing evidence that not long after accretion the Moon-forming collision may have melted most of the early mantle. But there is a way of peering beyond even that definitive catastrophe. The metal tungsten, as anyone from the steel town of Rotherham will tell you, alloys very nicely with iron and makes it harder, stronger and more temperature resistant. Most of the Earth’s original complement of tungsten probably ended up in the core; it is a siderophile element. But traces can be detected in virtually any rock and, of course, in W-rich ore bodies. Its interest to modern-day geochemists lies in its naturally occurring isotopes, particularly 182W, a proportion of which forms by decay of a radioactive isotope of hafnium (182Hf). Or rather it did, for 182Hf has a half-life of about 9 million years. Only a vanishingly small amount from a nearby supernova that may have triggered formation of the solar system remains undecayed.
Artistic impression of the early Earth before Moon formation. (Source: Creative Commons)
A sign of the former presence of 182Hf in the early Earth comes from higher amounts of its daughter isotope 182W in some Archaean rocks (3.96 Ga) than in younger rocks. That excess is probably from undecayed 182Hf in asteroidal masses that bombarded the Earth between 4.1 and 3.8 Ga. Now it turns out that some much younger flood basalts from the Ontong Java Plateau on the floor of the West Pacific Ocean (~120 Ma) and Baffin Island in northern Canada (~60 Ma) also contain anomalously high 182W/184W ratios (Rizo, H. et al. 2016. Preservation of Earth-forming events in the tungsten isotopic composition of modern flood basalts. Science, v. 352, p. 809-812; see also: Dahl, T.W. 2016. Identifying remnants of early Earth. Science, v. 352, p. 768-769). A different explanation is required for these occurrences. The flood basalts must have melted from chemically anomalous mantle, which originally contained undecayed 182Hf. The researchers have worked out that this heterogeneity stems from a silicate-rich planetesimal that had formed in the first 50 Ma of the solar system’s history, and was accreted to the Earth before the Moon-forming event – lunar rocks formed after 182Hf became extinct. That catastrophe and the succeeding 4.51 Ga of mantle convection failed to mix the ancient anomaly with the rest of the Earth.
At the end of the 1970’s I was invited by the Deputy Director of the Geological Survey of India (Southern Region) to participate in the Great Postal Symposium on the Cuddapah Basin: a sort of harbinger of the Internet and Skype, but using snail-mail. Feeling pretty honoured and most intrigued I accepted; not that I knew the first thing about the subject. A regular stream of foolscap mimeographed contributions kept me nipping out of my office to check my pigeon hole for about 6 months. I learned a lot, but felt unable to comment. Four years on I was taken across the Cuddapahs by my first research student – a budding moto-cross driver with a morbid fear of bullock carts – en route from the Archaean low-grade greenstone-granite terrains of Karnataka for a peek at the fabled charnockites near Chennai (then Madras). A bit of a round-about route but spurred by my memories of the Great Postal Symposium. Sadly, the detour was marred for me by a severe case of sciatica brought on by manic driving, the state of the trans-Cuddapah highway and a misplaced gamma-globulin shot to ward off several varieties of hepatitis: I mainly blamed the nurse who demanded that I drop my drawers and bravely take the huge needle in a buttock – they do these things more humanely these days. Anyhow, apart from seeing many dusty villages build of slates perfect enough to make a full-size snooker table, my mind was elsewhere and I have long regretted that.
Landsat image mosaic showing part of the Cuddapah Basin.
Hosting possibly the world’s only diamondiferous Precambrian conglomerate, the Cuddapah Basin contains a 5 km thickness of diverse sedimentary strata, but no tangible fossils. It rests unconformably on the Archaean greenstone-granite terrain of the Dharwar Craton and so is Proterozoic in age; an Eon that spans 2 billion years. The middle of the lowest sedimentary formations (the Papaghni and Chitravati Groups) contains volcanic rocks dated at ~1.9 Ga; another group is cut by a ~1.5 Ga granite, and hitherto the youngest dateable event is the emplacement of 1.1 Ga kimberlites that sourced the diamonds in the conglomerate. Until recently the stratigraphy has been known in some detail, but how to partition it in Proterozoic time is barely conceivable with just three dates in the middle parts that span 800 Ma. All that can be said about the base of the Cuddapah sediments is that they are younger than the 3.1 to 2.6 Ga Archaean rocks beneath. Since the uppermost beds are truncated by a huge thrust system that shoved deep crustal granulites over them their minimum age is equally vague.
Structurally, the Basin began to form on a stable continent underpinned by the Dharwar Craton, but when that collided with Enderbyland in Antarctica, as part of the accretion of the Gondwana supercontinent, sedimentation may have been in an entirely different setting. Indeed, some of the sediments have been carried over the undisturbed part of the basin by a major thrust system. To explore both sedimentary and tectonic evolution Australian, Indian and Canadian geoscientists combined to sample and radiometrically date the entire pile (Collins, A.S. and 13 others 2015. Detrital mineral age, radiogenic isotopic stratigraphy and tectonic significance of the Cuddapah Basin, India. Gondwana Research, v. 28, p. 1294-1309). By precisely dating detrital micas and zircons from the sediments the team was able to check the source region of sedimentary grains as well as to establish a maximum age for each major stratigraphic unit. This helped establish a 3-part sedimentary and tectonic history. The earliest sediments came from the cratonic area to the west, but there are signs that collisional orogeny between 1590 and 1659 Ma produced a new sedimentary source in metamorphic rocks forming to the east. A return to westward provenance marked the youngest sedimentary setting. This enabled the team to suggest a dual evolution of the Basin, first as an extensional rift opening at the east of what is now the Dharwar craton followed by collisional orogeny that transformed the setting to that of a foreland basin, analogous to the Molasse basin in front of the Alps during Cenozoic times, ending with tectonic inversion when extension changed to compression and thrusting.
But to what extent did the work improve the age subdivision of the Cuddapah Basin? Apparently very little, which may be down to a problem with dating detrital minerals. If magmatic and metamorphic evolution was continuous in the areas from which sediments moved, then the youngest grain is a good guide to the maximum age of the sediment being analysed. The more strata are analysed in this way the better the detail of sedimentary timing. But two tectonic terrains are unlikely to produce zircons time and time again during a period approaching a billion years. The data indicate only 3 or 4 episodes of ‘zirconogenesis’ in the sedimentary hinterlands, between about 900 to 1940 Ma. Apart from helping correlate sedimentary formations that were previously deemed stratigraphically different – which did help in tectonically unravelling this complex major feature – several hundred isotopic analyses of zircons and micas have give much the same timing as was known already in more precise terms from stratigraphy assisted by a few dozen conventional radiometric dates.
The Period that lasted from 850 to 635 million years ago, the Cryogenian, takes its name from evidence for two and perhaps three episodes of glaciation at low latitudes. It has been suggested that, in some way, they were instrumental in the decisive stage of biological evolution from which metazoan eukaryotes emerged: the spectacular Ediacaran fossil assemblages follow on the heels of the last such event Although controversies about the reality of tropical latitudes experiencing ice caps have died away, there remains the issue of synchronicity of such frigid events on all continents, which is the central feature of so-called ‘Snowball Earth’ events. While each continent does reveal evidence for two low latitude glaciations – the Sturtian (~710 Ma) and the later Marinoan (~635 Ma) – in the form of diamictites (sediments probably dropped from floating ice and ice caps) it has proved difficult to date their start and duration. That is, the cold episodes may have been diachronous – similar conditions occurring at different localities at different times. Geochronology has, however, moved on since the early disputes over Snowball Earths and more reliable and precise dates for beginnings and ends are possible and have been achieved in several places (Rooney, A.D. et al. 2015. A Cryogenian chronology: Two long-lasting synchronous Neoproterozoic glaciations. Geology, v. 43, p. 459-462).
Computer simulation of conditions during a Snowball Earth period. (credit: Macmillan Publishers Ltd: Hyde et al., Nature 405:425-429, 2000)
Rooney and colleagues from Harvard and the University of Houston in the USA used rhenium-osmium radiometric dating in Canada, Zambia and Mongolia. The Re-Os method is especially useful for sulfide minerals as in the pyritic black shales that occur extensively in the Cryogenian, generally preceding and following the glacial diamictites and their distinctive carbonate caps. Combined with a few ages obtained by other workers using the Re-Os method and U-Pb dating of volcanic units that fortuitously occur immediately beneath or within diamictites, Rooney et al. establish coincident start and stop dates and thus durations of both the Sturtian and Marinoan glacial events: 717 to 660 Ma and 640 to 635 Ma respectively on all three continents. Their data is also said to refute the global extent and even the very existence of an earlier, Kaigas glacial event (~740 Ma) previous recorded from diamictites in Namibia, the Congo, Canada and central Asia. This assertion is based on the absence of diamictites with that age in the area that they studied in Canada and their own dating of a diamictite in Zambia, which is one that others assigned to the Kaigas event
The dating is convincing evidence for global glaciation on land and continental margins in the Cryogenian, as all the dates are from areas based on older continental crust. But the concept of Snowball Earth, in its extreme form, is that the oceans were ice-capped too as the name suggests, which remains to be convincingly demonstrated. That would only be achieved by suitably dated diamictites located on obducted oceanic crust in an ophiolite complex. Moreover, there are plenty more Cryogenian diamictites on other palaeo-continents and formed at different palaeolatitudes that remain to be dated (see here)
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.