The Moon may have water resources in its soil

Apart from signs of water ice in permanently shadowed areas of some polar craters, the Moon’s surface has generally been considered to be very dry. Rocks returned by the various Apollo missions contain minute traces of water by comparison with similar rocks on Earth. They consist only of anhydrous minerals such as feldspars, pyroxenes and olivines. But much of the lunar surface is coated by regolith: a jumble of rock fragments and dust ejected from a vast number of impact craters over billions of years. It is estimated to be between 3 and 12 m deep. Much of the finer grained regolith is made up of silicate-glass spherules created by the most powerful impacts.

The lunar regolith at Tranquillity Base bearing an astronaut’s bootprint (Credit: Buzz Aldrin, NASA Apollo 11, Photo ID AS11-40-5877)

The scientific and economic (i.e. mining) impetus for the establishment of long term human habitation on the lunar surface hangs on the possibility of extracting water from the Moon itself. It is needed for human consumption and as a source through electrolysis of both oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and also for rocket fuel. The stupendous cost, in both monetary and energy terms, of shifting mass from Earth to the Moon clearly demands self-sufficiency in water for a lunar base occupied for more than a few weeks.

Remote sensing that focussed on the ability of water molecules and hydroxyl (OH) ions to absorb solar radiation with a wavelength of 2.8 to 3.0 micrometres was deployed by the Indian lunar orbiter Chandrayaan-1 that collected data for several months in 2008-9. The results suggested that OH and H2O were detectable over a large proportion of the lunar surface at concentrations estimated at between 10 parts per million (ppm) up to about 0.1%. Where did these hydroxyl ions and water molecules come from and what had locked them up? There are several possibilities for their origin: volcanic activity that tapped the Moon’s mantle (magma could not have formed had some water not been present at great depths); impacts of icy bodies such as comets; even the solar wind that carries protons, i.e. hydrogen atoms stripped of their electrons. Conceivably, protons could react with oxygen in silicate material at the surface to produce both OH and H2O to be locked within solid particles. To assess the possibilities a group of researchers at Chinese and British institutions have examined in detail the 1.7 kg of lunar-surface materials collected and returned to Earth by the 2020 Chinese Chang’e 5 lunar sample return mission (He, H. and 27 others 2023. A solar wind-derived water reservoir on the Moon hosted by impact glass beads. Nature Geoscience, online article; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-023-01159-6)

He et al. focussed on glass spherules formed by impact melting of lunar basalts, whose bulk composition they retain. The glass ‘beads’ contain up to 0.2 % water, mainly concentrated in their outermost parts. This alone suggests that the water and hydroxyl ions were formed by spherules being bathed in the solar wind rather than being of volcanic or cometary origin and trapped in the glass. An abnormally low proportion of deuterium (2H) relative to the more abundant 1H isotope of hydrogen in the spherules is consistent with that hypothesis. Indeed, the high temperatures involved in impact melting would be expected to have driven out any ‘indigenous’ water in the source rocks. The water and OH ions seem to have built up over time, diffusing into the glass from their surfaces rather than gradually escaping from within.

An awful lot of regolith coats the lunar surface, as many of the images taken by the Apollo astronauts amply show. So how much water might be available from the lunar regolith? The Chinese-British team reckon between 3.0 × 108 to 3.0 × 1011 metric tons. But how much can feasibly be extracted at a lunar base camp? The data suggest that a cubic metre (~2 t) of regolith could yield enough to fill 4 shot glasses (~0.13 litres). Using a solar furnace and a condenser – the one in full sunlight the other in the shade – is not, as they say, ‘rocket science’. But for a minimum 3 litres per day intake of fluids per person, a team of 4 astronauts would need to shift and process roughly 100 m3 of regolith every day. Over a year, this would produce a substantial pit. But that assumes all the regolith contains some water, yet the data are derived from the surface alone …See also:Glass beads on moon’s surface may hold billions of tonnes of water, scientists say. The Guardian, 27 March 2023.

How humans might have migrated into the Americas

When and how humans first migrated into the Americas are issues that have exercised anthropologists for the last two decades, often sparking off acrimonious debate. In the 20th century both seemed to well established: hunters using the celebrated Clovis fluted spear blades arrived first, no earlier than 13 ka ago. The Beringia land bridge across what is now the Bering Strait was exposed by falling sea level as early as 30 thousand years ago in the lead-up to the last glacial maximum (LGM) to link eastern Siberia and Alaska. However, ice sheets expanding to the south-west of the main area of glaciation on the Canadian Shield barred passage through Interior Alaska and NW Canada. Only around 13 ka had a N-S ice-free corridor opened through the mountains during glacial retreat. Nevertheless, humans had entered Alaska at least ten thousand years earlier, during the LGM, to occupy caves in its western extremity: Alaska was habitable but they were stuck there.

In the early 21st century, it became clear that the ‘Clovis First’ hypothesis was mistaken. Sediments in Texas that contained Clovis blades were found to be underlain by those of an older culture, reliably dated to about 15.5 ka. Furthermore, analysis of the DNA of all groups of native Americans (north and south) indicated a last common ancestor in Siberia more than 30 ka ago: they descended from that ancestor outside of Asia. More recently excavated sites in Mexico and Chile point to human populations having reached there as early at 33 ka (see: Earliest Americans, and plenty of them; July 2020), and there is a host of pre-Clovis sites in North and Central America dating back to 18.2 ka. Such ancient groups could not have walked from the Beringia land bridge because the present topographic grain in the Western Cordillera would have been blocked by ice since about 25 thousand years ago. The only viable possibility was that they followed the Alaskan coast to move southwards, either in boats or over sea ice.

Dated pre-Clovis sites in Mexico and North America and possible expanding distribution of people from 31.3 to 14.2 ka (Credit; Becerra-Valdivia and Higham; Extended Data Fig. 4)

A new focus on when such journeys would have been feasible was published in February 2023 (Praetorius, S.K et al. 2023. Ice and ocean constraints on early human migrations into North America along the Pacific coast. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, v. 120, article e2208738120; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2208738120). One advantage of moving along the coast is that, though it would be pretty cold, the warming effect of the Pacific Ocean would make it more bearable than travelling inland, where winter temperatures even today regularly reach -50°C. More important, there would be no shortage of food; fish, marine mammals and shellfish abound at the ice margin or onshore, at any season. But a coastal route may not have been possible at all times during the period either side of the LGM. Large glaciers still reach the ocean from Alaska and there is little more perilous than crossing the huge crevasse fields that they present. Boating would have been highly dangerous because of continual calving of icebergs from extensive ice shelves. Moreover, the Alaska Coastal Current flows northwards and would likely have sped up during episodes of glacial melting as the current is affected by fresh water influx. Yet there may sometimes have been episodes of open water at the ice front frozen to relatively flat sea ice in winter. That would making boat- or foot travel relatively safe. Sea ice would also make glacier-free islands accessible for encampments over the harsh winters or even for hundreds of years, with plenty of marine food resources.

Summer Praetorius of the US Geological Survey and colleagues from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Oregon State University, and the Universities of California (Santa Cruz) and Oregon have attempted to model conditions since 32.5 ka ago in coastal waters off Northwest America. They used simulations of the behaviour of the Alaska Coastal Current during varying climate conditions before and during the LGM, while glaciers were in  retreat that followed and during the Holocene. Their modelling is based on the effects of changing sea level and water salinity on general circulation in the Northern Pacific. The relative abundance of sea ice can be tracked using variation in an alkenone produced by phytoplankton that wax and wane according to sea-surface temperature and sea-ice cover. The other input is the well-documented changing extent of continental glaciation in Alaska and the Yukon Territory. Based on their model they estimate that the most favourable environmental conditions for coastal migration occurred just before the LGM (24.5 to 22 ka) and between 16.4 and 14.8 ka during the initial stages of warming and extensive melting of ice sheets. The Alaskan Coastal Current probably doubled in intensity during the LGM making the use of boats highly dangerous

By 35 ka ocean-going boats are known to have been used by people in northern Japan. Traversing sea-ice was the way in which Inuit people occupied all the Arctic coastal areas of North America and Greenland during the last five thousand years, and is the form of travel favoured by the authors. It is not yet possible to prove and date such coastal journeys because campsites or settlements along the coast would now be inundated by 100 m of post-glacial sea-level rise. Yet such migration was necessary to establish settlements at lower latitudes in North America and Mexico in the period when overland routes from Beringia were blocked by ice sheets. By 32.5 ka falling sea level probably made it possible to cross the Bering Strait for the first time and for the next 7.5 ka an ice-free corridor made it possible for the rest of North America and points further south to be reached on-foot from Alaska. That window of opportunity might have allowed humans to have reached Mexico and South America, where the earliest dates of occupation have been found. But many of the early sites across North America date to the period (25 to 13 ka) when overland access was blocked. Of course, those sites might have been established by expansion from the very earliest migrants who crossed the Beringia land bridge and took advantage of overland passage before 25 ka. But if later migrants from Asia could follow the coastal route, then it seems likely that they did. Later Inuit spread along  the shores of the Arctic Ocean since 5000 years ago probably with a material culture little different from that of the earlier migrants from Siberia.

Naturally occurring hydrogen: an abundant green fuel?

Burning hydrogen produces only water vapour, so it is not surprising that it has been touted as the ultimate ‘green’ energy source, and increasingly attracts the view that the ‘Hydrogen Economy’ may replace that based on fossil fuels. It is currently produced from natural gas by ‘steam reforming’ of methane that transforms water vapour and CH4 to hydrogen and carbon monoxide. That clearly doesn’t make use of the hydrogen ‘green’ as the CO becomes carbon dioxide because it reacts with atmospheric oxygen; it is termed ‘grey hydrogen’. But should it prove possible to capture CO and store it permanently underground in some way then that can be touted as ‘blue hydrogen’ thereby covering up the carbon footprint of all the rigmarole in getting the waste CO into a safe reservoir. However, if carbon-free electricity from renewables is used to electrolyse water into H and O the hydrogen aficionados can safely call it ‘green hydrogen’.   It seem there is a bewildering colour coding for hydrogen that depends on the various options for its production: ‘yellow’ if produced using solar energy; ‘red’ if made chemically from biowaste; ‘black’ by coking coal using steam; ‘pink’ is electrolysis using nuclear power; and even ‘turquoise’ hydrogen if methane is somehow turned into hydrogen and solid carbon using renewables – a yet-to-be-developed technology! Very jolly but confusing: almost suspiciously so!

But not to be forgotten is the ‘white’ variety, applied to hydrogen that is emitted by natural processes within the Earth. Eric Hand, the European news editor for the major journal Science has written an excellent Feature article about ‘white’ hydrogen in a recent issue (Hand, E. 2023. Hidden hydrogen. Science, v. 379, article adh1460; DOI: 10.1126/science.adh1460). Hand’s feature is quirky, but well-worth a read. It is based on the proceedings of a Geological Society of America mini-conference about non-petroleum, geological energy resources  held in October 2022. He opens with a bizarre anecdote related by a farmer who lives in rural Mali. The only drilling that ever went on in his village was for water, and many holes were dry. But one attempt resulted in ‘wind coming out of the hole’. When a driller looked in the hole, the ‘wind’ burst into flame – he had a cigarette in his mouth. The fire burned for months. Some 20 years later the story reached a Malian company executive who began prospecting the area’s petroleum potential, believing the drilling had hit natural gas. Analysis of the gas revealed that it was 98% hydrogen – now the village has electricity generated by ‘white’ hydrogen.

Mantle rock in the Oman ophiolite, showing cores of fresh peridotite, surrounded by brownish serpentinite and white magnesium carbonate veins (credit: Juerg Matter, Oman Drilling Project, Southampton University, UK)

So how is hydrogen produced by geological processes? Some springs in the mountains of Oman also release copious amounts of the gas. The springs emerge from ultramafic rocks of the vast ophiolite that was emplaced onto the Arabian continental crust towards the end of the Cretaceous. The lower part of this obducted mass of oceanic lithosphere is mantle rock dominated by iron- and magnesium-rich silicates, mainly olivine [(Mg,Fe)2SiO4 – a solid solution of magnesium and iron end members]. When saturated with groundwater in which CO2 is dissolved olivine breaks down slowly but relentlessly. The hydration reaction is exothermic and generates heat, so is self-sustaining. Olivine’s magnesium end member is hydrated to form the soft ornamental mineral serpentine (Mg3Si2O5(OH)4) and magnesium carbonate. Under reducing conditions the iron end member reacts with water to produce an iron oxide, silica and hydrogen:

3Fe2SiO4 + 2H2O → 2 Fe3O4 + 3SiO­2 +3H2

Gases emanating from mid-ocean ridges contain high amounts of hydrogen produced in this way, for example from Icelandic geothermal wells. But Mali is part of an ancient craton, so similar reactions involving iron-rich ultramafic rocks deep in the continental crust are probably sourcing hydrogen in this way too. Hydrogen production on the scale of that discovered in Mali seems to be widespread, with discoveries in Australia, the US, Brazil and the Spanish Pyrenees that have pilot-scale production plants. The US Geological Survey has estimated that around 1 trillion tonnes of ‘white’ hydrogen may be available for extraction and use

Hydrogen, like other natural gases, may be trapped below the surface in the same ways as in commercial petroleum fields. But petroleum-gas wells emit little if any hydrogen mixed in with methane. That absence is probably because petroleum fields occur in deep sedimentary basins well above any crystalline basement. The geophysical exploration that discovers and defines the traps in petroleum fields has never been deployed over areas of crystalline continental crust because as far as the oil companies are concerned they are barren. That may be about to change. There is another exploration approach: known hydrogen seepage seems to deter vegetation so that the sites are in areas of bare ground, which have been called ‘fairy circles’. These could be detected easily using remote sensing techniques.

Artificially increasing serpentine formation by pumping water into the mantle part of ophiolites, such as that in Oman, and other near-surface ultramafic rocks is also a means of carbon sequestration, which should produce hydrogen as a by-product (see: Global warming: Can mantle rocks reduce the greenhouse effect?, July 2021). A ‘two-for-the-price-of-one’ opportunity?

Who invented stone tools? A great surprise from Kenya

Up to now the earliest stone tools are objects dated to about 3.3 Ma (Late Pliocene) found in the Turkana basin of Kenya in 2015. They are sharp-edged pieces of rock that seem to have been made simply by striking two lumps of rock together (see: Stone tools go even further back; May 2015). These Lomekwian artefacts are similar to the basic tools made today by some chimpanzees in parts of Africa. Their age matches that for the earliest known animal bones that show signs of having meat cut from them, which were unearthed in Dikika, Ethiopia (see: Another big surprise; September 2010) which, like the Lomekwian tools, are not accompanied by tools or hominin remains. The earliest tools associated with members of the genus Homo are significantly more sophisticated. They were found in close association with H. habilis at what seems to have been a well-used butchering site, dated at 2.0 Ma, in Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, hence their designation as the Oldowan ‘industry’. The Oldowan ‘tool kit’ includes choppers and blades deliberately shaped to be wielded by hand and made by striking large cobbles with distinctive hammer stones. Earlier tools with this level of deliberate crafting come from the 2.6 Ma Ledi-Geraru site in the Afar Depression of NE Ethiopia but with no sign of their makers.

Oldowan tools used for pounding and cutting from Nyayanga, Kenya (Credit: Thomas Plummer, James Oliver and Emma Finestone/Homa Peninsula Paleoanthropology Project/SWNS)

The presence of Oldowan tools has now been pushed further back, by about 400 ka, thanks to excavations in Late Pliocene sediments at Nyayanga on the shore of Lake Victoria in western Kenya by Thomas Plummer of Queens College in New York State, USA, and his numerous collaborators from the US, Germany, the UK, China, Italy, Australia, Kenya, South Africa and Poland (Plummer, T.W. and 31 others 2023. Expanded geographic distribution and dietary strategies of the earliest Oldowan hominins and Paranthropus. Science, v. 379, p. 561-566; DOI: 10.1126/science.abo7452). Their work also expands the range of Oldowan culture by about 1300 km. The Nyayanga site yielded over 300 artefacts that closely resemble the previously known range of Oldowan tool shapes. Their makers struck flakes from suitable corestones – made of rhyolite, quartz and quartzite – and trimmed them by more intricate means. They seem to have been used to cut up mainly hippo and buffalo, bones of which bear clear cut marks, but had other uses. Analysis of the wear on tool surfaces not only show signs of butchery, but also processing of plant tissue by pounding; the latter resulted in pitting and polishing of tools that seem to have been used many times. Stable-isotope analysis of the bones and animal teeth suggests that in the Pliocene Nyayanga was a grassy and partly wooded savannah close to a substantial water body needed by hippos.

Reconstruction of a Paranthropus head (Credit: Jerry Humphrey, Pinterest)

The ‘great surprise’ is that the only hominin remains associated with the site are two damaged molar teeth. They are so large that their most likely source was a species of Paranthropus.Paranthropoids have long been considered to be a gorilla-like, ‘robust’ branch of australopithecines. Their large cranial crests anchoring jaw muscles and enormous teeth were reckoned to indicate a diet of tough vegetation – the discoverer of the first specimen of P. boisei dubbed it ‘Nutcracker Man’ – although the wear on individual teeth suggests otherwise. But there is no reason to suppose that they could not eat meat. They survived australopithecines by more than a million years to cohabit the East African savannahs with H. ergaster until about 1 Ma ago.

Lead author Thomas Plummer wonders if paranthropoids would have needed tools because they had the largest jaws and teeth of any hominin. But had his team found close association with smaller H.habilis teeth would he have held a similarly negative view? There is evidence from younger sites in South Africa that paranthropoids used a wide diversity of bone tools and may even have been among the earliest fire users. So why the negativity about stone tools? To paraphrase Ali G, ‘Is it because they is ugly?’

See also: Devlin, H, Discovery of 3m-year-old stone tools sparks prehistoric whodunit. The Guardian, 9 February 2023

Is erosion paced by Milankovich cycles?

Both physical and chemical weathering reflects climatic controls. Erosion is effectively climate in continuous action on the Earth’s solid surface through water, air and bodies of ice moving under the influence of gravity. These two major processes on the land surface are immensely complicated. Being the surface part of the rock cycle, they interact with biological processes in the continents’ web of climate-controlled ecosystems. It is self-evident that climate exerts a powerful influence on all terrestrial landforms. But at any place on the Earth’s surface climate changes on a whole spectrum of rates and time scales as reflected by palaeoclimatology. With little room for doubt, so too do weathering and erosion. Yet other forces are at play in the development of landforms. ‘Wearing-down’ of elevated areas removes part of the load that the lithosphere bears, so that the surface rises in deeply eroded terrains. Solids removed as sediments depress the lithosphere where they are deposited in great sedimentary basins. In both cases the lithosphere rises and falls to maintain isostatic balance. On the grandest of scales, plate tectonics operates continuously as well. Its lateral motions force up mountain belts and volcanic chains, and drag apart the lithosphere, events that in themselves change climate at regional levels. Tectonics thereby creates ‘blips’ in long term global climate change. So evidence for links between landform evolution and palaeoclimate is notoriously difficult to pin down, let alone analyse.

The evidence for climate change over the last few million years is astonishingly detailed; so much so that it is possible to detect major global events that took as little as a few decades, such as the Younger Dryas, especially using data from ice cores. The record from ocean-floor sediments is good for changes over hundreds to thousands of years. The triumph of palaeoclimatology is that the last 2.5 Ma of Earth’s history has been proved to have been largely paced by variations in the Earth’s orbit and in the angle of tilt and wobbles of its rotational axis: a topic that Earth-logs has tracked since the start of the 21st century. The record also hints at processes influencing global climate that stem from various processes in the Earth system itself, at irregular but roughly millennial scales. The same cannot be said for the geological record of erosion, for a variety of reasons, foremost being that erosion and sediment transport are rarely continuous in any one place and it is more difficult to date the sedimentary products of erosion than ice cores and laminations in ocean-floor sediments. Nonetheless, a team from the US, Germany, the Netherlands , France and Argentina have tackled this thorny issue on the eastern side of the Andes in Argentina (Fisher, G.B. and 11 others 2023. Milankovitch-paced erosion in the southern Central Andes. Nature Communications, v. 14, 424-439; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-36022-0.

Burch Fisher (University of Texas at Austin, USA) and colleagues studied sediments derived from a catchment that drains the Puna Plateau that together with the Altiplano forms the axis of the Central Andes. In the late 19th century the upper reaches of the Rio Iruya were rerouted, which has resulted in its cutting a 100 m deep canyon through Pliocene to Early Pleistocene (6.0 to 1.8 Ma) sediments. The section includes six volcanic ash beds (dated precisely using the zircon U-Pb method) and records nine palaeomagnetic reversals, which together helped to calibrate more closely spaced dating. Their detailed survey used the decay of radioactive isotopes of beryllium and aluminium (10Be and 26Al) in quartz grains that form in the mineral when exposed at the surface to cosmic-ray bombardment. Such cosmogenic radionuclide dating thus records the last time different sediment levels were at the surface, presumably when the sediment was buried, and thus the variation in the rate of sediment supply from erosion of the Rio Iruya catchment since 6 Ma ago.

Measured concentrations (low to high values downwards) of cosmogenic 10Be (turquoise) and 26Al (red) in samples from the Rio Iruya sediment sequence. The higher the value, the longer the layer had resided at the surface; i.e. the slower the erosion rate. (Credit: Fisher et al. Fig 4)

The data from 10Be suggest that erosion rates were consistently high from 6 to 4 Ma, but four times during the later Pliocene and the earliest Pleistocene they slowed dramatically. Each of these episodes occupies downturns in solar warming forced by the 400 ka cycle of orbital eccentricity. The 26Al record confirms this trend. The most likely reason for the slowing of erosion is long-term reductions in rainfall, which Fisher et al have modelled based on Milankovich cycles. However the modelled fluctuations are subtle, suggesting that in the Central Andes at least erosion rates were highly sensitive to climatic fluctuations. Yet the last 400 ka cycle in the record shows no apparent correlation with climate change.  Despite that, astronomical forcing while early Pleistocene oscillations between cooling and warming ramped up does seem to have affected erosion rates based on the cosmogenic dating. The authors attribute this loss of the 400 ka pattern to a kind of swamping effect of dramatically increased erosion rates as the regional climate became more erratic. Whether or not data of this kind will emerge for the more climatically drastic 100 ka cyclicity of the last million years remains to be seen … Anyone who has walked over terrains covered in glacial tills and glaciofluvial gravel beds nearer to the former Late Pleistocene ice sheets can judge the difficulty of such a task.

Neanderthal elephant hunters

In the 1980s miners in the Neumark-Nord area of Saxony-Anhalt, central Germany uncovered an extensive assemblage of animal bones and stone tools in opencast ‘brown coal’ (lignite) workings. Archaeologists working over a ten-year period recovered bones from an estimated 70 straight-tusked elephants (Palaeoloxodon antiquus), as well as many other large herbivores, while huge bucket-wheel excavators advanced through the deposit. Most of the elephants were adult males, some preserved as entire skeletons others as disarticulated bones. Weighing as much 15 tonnes – equivalent to ten medium SUVs – and standing up to 4 m high at the shoulder, they were twice as large as the biggest modern African elephants and had far longer legs. Being so tall they could browse vegetation up to 8 metres above the ground surface using an 80 cm tongue as well as a long trunk and their huge tusks.

The lignite deposits formed in marshes and shallow lakes that occupied low-lying depressions left in the wake of retreating glaciers during the last (Eemian) interglacial (130 to 115 ka ago). The warming encouraged temperate forest to extend much further north than it does today. The fauna too would have changed substantially once the ice sheets began to retreat. For instance, mammoths that grazed low tundra vegetation during the preceding ice age disappeared from Central Europe to be replaced by straight-tusked elephants migrating from much further south that had plenty of trees, shrubs and grasses to feed on, as did other herbivores. So the central European plains teemed with big game. The marshes and lakes had little outflow and became depleted in oxygen so that dead vegetation built up to form extensive peat deposits: just the conditions for organic preservation.

Artistic impression of Neanderthal elephant butchery site (Credit: Tom Bjorklund, Science)

The Neumark-Nord sites yielded literally tonnes of fossils, including 3400 elephant bones. But these were not simply the remains of animals that had become bogged down and died of exhaustion. Sabine Gaudzinski-Windheuser and Lutz Kindler of the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz, Germany and Katherine MacDonald and Wil Roebroeks of Leiden University, Netherlands have examined every bone for signs of post-mortem modification by humans (Gaudzinski-WindHeuser, S. et al. 2023. Hunting and processing of straight-tusked elephants 125.000 years ago: Implications for Neanderthal behaviour. Science Advances, v. 9, article add8186; DOI: Some bones are so large as to require a forklift to shift or turn them in the laboratory. Most of the bones bear deliberate cut marks made by stone blades: far more than signs of gnawing by carnivores. Neanderthals had got to them before scavengers. The density of cuts and gouges suggests that almost every scrap of meat and fat had systematically been harvested from the corpses, even the fat-rich feet and brains. The sheer number of cuts needed to skin and deflesh the elephants strongly suggests that their meat was fresh: rotten meat could simply have been pulled from the skin and bone quite easily. Little was left for scavengers to gnaw.

Each elephant would have yielded enough meat and fat for an estimated 2500 portions, each with a calorific value of around 4000 kcal. To fully butcher each beast and then to dry and/or smoke the produce can be estimated – by comparison with such work on a modern African elephant – would take around 1500 person hours. To achieve that would require 3 to 5 days of very heavy labour by 25 people. Some means of preservation would have been needed, unless hundreds of people had scoffed the lot at one or two sittings. The authors consider the bounty to imply  that a considerably larger collective of Neanderthals than the previously estimated ~25 per band probably benefitted from a single elephant, whether it was eaten on the spot or preserved in some way and either carried off or cached. But 70 elephants …?

The geographic context suggests a pile of corpses built up in lignite close to or on a lake shore had accumulated over a lengthy period. Using likely sedimentation rates backed by counting of annual tree rings from stumps in the lignite the authors estimate that the pile formed over about 300 years at a rate of one kill every 5 to 6 years. But this site is one of several found in the Neumark-Nord area, albeit not quite so large, and there are probably more, either remaining buried or destroyed by the brutal lignite mining technique. Taking on a herd of animals would be far more risky than hunting individuals. This is where the sex of the elephant remains gives an idea of the hunters’ strategy. Those that could be sexed – about 23  – were all adult males that were estimated to be from 20 to 50 or more years old. By analogy with African elephants, adult male are generally solitary, only joining herds of females and offspring when one or more is at oestrus. Male straight-tusked elephants were more than twice the mass of adult females and when keeping themselves to themselves would have been a safer and more profitable target than females and juveniles in a herd. Solitary males would have been easy to approach, being confidant  that their size would deter direct predation by the largest carnivores, such as lions. In a peaty swamp, simply driving an individual into deep mud would bog it down to be dispatched by spear thrusts. The earliest known thrusting spears have been unearthed in similar lignite beds 200 km away.

This study adds to growing understanding of Neanderthal culture. It suggests that they were not just opportunistic and wandering foragers but regularly combined resources to focus on a specific, very high-value prey. Maybe that was restricted to the special peat-swamp environment of what is now central Germany, but it speaks of an ability to plan and orchestrate spectacular communal events. And they performed such feats again and again. They were the masters of Europe through three of four glacial-interglacial cycles.

Curiosity rover hints at the carbon cycle on Mars

The Mars Science Laboratory carried by the Curiosity rover is still functioning 10 years after a jetpack lowered Curiosity onto the surface of Gale crater. It includes a system aimed at scooping and drilling samples of soil and rock from the sedimentary strata deposited in the lake that once filled the crater about 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago. The system on the rover is also capable of analysing the samples in various ways. A central objective of the mission was to obtain data on oxygen and carbon isotopes in carbon dioxide and methane released by heating samples, which uses a miniature mass spectrometer. In early 2022 a paper on Martian carbon isotopes was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) that I have only just found (House, C.H. et al. 2022. Depleted carbon isotope compositions observed at Gale crater, Mars. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 119, article e2115651119; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2115651119). PNAS deemed it to be one of the 12 most important of its articles during 2022.

Oblique view of Curiosity’s landing site in Gale crater on Mars, from which the rover has traversed the lower slopes of Mount Sharp. Credit: NASA-Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Carbon isotopic analyses chart the type and degree of fractionation between carbon’s two stable isotopes 12C and 13C. This is expressed by their relative abundances to one another in a sample and in a reference standard, signified by δ13C. The measure is a natural tracer of both inorganic and biological chemical processes: hence the potential importance of the paper by Christopher House and colleagues from the University of California, San Diego. The thin atmosphere of Mars contains both CO2 and traces of CH4, so a carbon cycle is part and parcel of the planet’s geochemical functioning. The ‘big question’ is: Did that involve living processes at any stage in the distant past and even now? Carbon held in various forms within Mars’s ancient rocks and soils may provide at least a hint, one way of the other. At the very least it should say something about the Martian carbon cycle.

House et al. focus on methane released by heating 22 samples drilled from sandstones and mudstones traversed by Curiosity up a slope leading from the floor of Gale crater towards its central peak, Mount Sharp.  The sampled sedimentary rocks span a 0.5 km thick sequence. Carbon in the expelled methane has δ13C values that range from -137 to +22 ‰ (per mil). Samples from six possibly ancient exposed surfaces were below -70 ‰. This depletion in 13C is similar to the highly negative δ13C that characterises carbon-rich sediments on Earth that were deposited at the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary. That anomaly is suspected to have resulted from releases of methane from destabilised gas hydrate on the sea floor during the Palaeocene–Eocene Thermal Maximum. Organic photosynthesis takes up ‘light’ 12C in preference to 13C, thereby imparting low δ13C to organic matter. In the case of the Mars data that might seem to point to the lake that filled Gale crater 3.5 to 3.8 billion years ago has contained living organisms of some kind. Perhaps on exposed surfaces of wet sediment primitive organisms consumed methane and inherited its δ13C. Some Archaean sediments of about the same age on Earth show similar 13C depletion associated with evidence for microbial mats that are attributed to the activities of such methanotrophs.

Before exobiologists become too excited, no images of possible microbial mats in Gale crater sediments have been captured by Curiosity. Moreover, there are equally plausible scenarios with no recourse to once-living organisms that may account for the carbon-isotope data,. Extreme depletion in 13C is commonly found in the carbon within meteorites, almost certainly inherited from the interstellar dust from which they accreted. It is estimated that the solar system passes through giant molecular clouds every 100 Ma or so: the low δ13C may be inherited from interstellar dust. Alternatively, because Mars has an atmosphere almost entirely composed or CO2 – albeit thin at present – various non-biological chemical reactions driven by sunlight or electrically charged particles may have reduced that gas to form methane and other compounds based on C-H bonds. Carbon dioxide still in Mars’s atmosphere is highly enriched in 13C, suggesting that earlier abiotic reduction may have formed 13C-depleted methane that became locked in sediments. Yet such an abundant supply of inorganic methane may have encouraged the evolution of methanotrophs, had life emerged on early Mars. No one knows …

It’s becoming a cliché that, ‘We may have to await the return of samples from the currently active Perseverance rover, or a crewed mission at some unspecifiable time in the future. The Curiosity carbon-isotope data keep the lamp lit for those whose livelihoods have grown around humans going to the Red Planet.

End-Ordovician mass extinction, faunal diversification, glaciation and true polar wander

Enormous events occurred between 460 and 435 Ma around the mid-point of the Palaeozoic Era and spanning the Ordovician-Silurian (O-S) boundary. At around 443 Ma the second-most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history occurred, which eliminated 50 to 60% of all marine genera and almost 85% of species: not much less than the Great Dying at the end of the Permian Period. The event was accompanied by one of the greatest biological diversifications known to palaeontology, which largely replaced the global biota initiated by the Cambrian Explosion. Centred on the Saharan region of northern Africa, Late Ordovician glacial deposits also occur in western South America and North America. At that time all the current southern continents and India were assembled in the Gondwana supercontinent, with continental masses that became North America, the Baltic region, Siberia and South China not far off: all the components that eventually collided to form Pangaea from the Late Silurian to the Carboniferous.

The mass extinction has troubled geologists for quite a while. There are few signs of major volcanism having been involved, although some geochemists have suggested that very high mercury concentrations in some Late Ordovician marine sediments bear witness to large, albeit invisible, igneous events. No large impact crater is known from those times, although there is a curious superabundance of extraterrestrial debris, including high helium-3, chromium and iridium concentrations, preserved in earlier Ordovician sedimentary rocks, around the Baltic Sea. Another suggestion, poorly supported by evidence, is destruction of the atmospheric ozone layer by a gamma-ray burst from some distant but stupendous supernova. A better supported idea is that the oceans around the time of the event lacked oxygen. Such anoxia can encourage solution of toxic metals and hydrogen sulfide gas. Unlike other mass extinctions, this one was long-drawn out with several pulses.

The glacial epoch also seems implicated somehow in the mass die-off, being the only one known to coincide with a mass extinction. It included spells of frigidity that exceeded those of the last Pleistocene glacial maximum, with the main ice cap having a volume of from 50 to 250 million cubic kilometres. The greatest of these, around 445 Ma, involved a 5°C fall in global sea-surface temperatures and a large negative spike in δ13C in carbon-rich sediments, both of which lasted for about a million years. The complex events around that time coincided with the highest ever extinction and speciation rates, the number of marine species being halved in a short space of time: a possible explanation for the δ13 C anomaly. Yet estimates of atmospheric CO2 concentration in the Late Ordovician suggests it was perhaps 8–16 times higher than today; Earth should have been a warm planet then. One probable contributor to extreme glacial conditions has been suggested to be that the South Pole at that time was well within Gondwana and thus isolated from the warming effect of the ocean. So, severe glaciation and a paradoxical combination of mass extinction with considerable biological diversification present quite an enigma.

A group of scientists based in Beijing, China set out to check the palaeogeographic position of South China between 460 and 435 Ma and evaluate those in  O-S sediments at locations on 6 present continents (Jing, X., Yang, Z., Mitchell, R.N. et al. 2022. Ordovician–Silurian true polar wander as a mechanism for severe glaciation and mass extinction. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 7941; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-35609-3). Their key tool is determining the position of the magnetic poles present at various times in the past from core samples drilled at different levels in these sedimentary sequences. The team aimed to test a hypothesis that in O-S times not only the entire lithosphere but the entire mantle moved relative to the Earth’s axis of rotation, the ‘slippage’ probably being at the Core-mantle boundary [thanks to Steve Rozario for pointing this out]. Such a ‘true polar wander’ spanning 20° over a mere  2 Ma has been detected during the Cretaceous, another case of a 90° shift over 15 Ma may have occurred at the time when Snowball Earth conditions first appeared in the Neoproterozoic around the time when the Rodinia supercontinent broke up and a similar event was proposed in 1994 for C-O times albeit based on sparse and roughly dated palaeomagnetic pole positions.

Xianqing Jing and colleagues report a wholesale 50° rotation of the lithosphere between 450 and 440 Ma that would have involved speeds of about 55 cm per year. It involved the Gondwana supercontinent and other continental masses still isolated from it moving synchronously in the same direction, as shown in the figure. From 460 to 450 Ma the geographic South Pole lay at the centre of the present Sahara. At 445 Ma its position had shifted to central Gondwana during the glacial period. By 440 Gondwana had moved further northwards so that the South Pole then lay at Gondwana’s southernmost extremity.

Palaeogeographic reconstructions charting true polar wander and the synchronised movement of all continental masses between 460 and 440 Ma. Note the changes in the trajectories of lines of latitude on the Mollweide projections. The grey band either side of the palaeo-Equator marks intense chemical weathering in the humid tropics. Credit Jing et al. Fig 5.

As well as a possible key to the brief but extreme glacial episode this astonishing journey by a vast area of lithosphere may help account for the mass extinction with rapid speciation and diversification associated with the O-S boundary. While the South Pole was traversing Gondwana as the supercontinent shifted the ‘satellite’ continental masses remained in or close to the humid tropics, exposed to silicate weathering and erosion. That is a means for extracting CO2 from the atmosphere and launching global cooling, eventually to result in glaciation over a huge tract of Gondwana around 445 Ma. Gondwana then moved rapidly into more clement climatic zones and was deglaciated a few million years later. The rapid movement of the most faunally diverse continental-shelf seas through different climate zones would have condemned earlier species to extinction simultaneous adaptation to changed conditions could have encouraged the appearance of new species and ecosystems. This does not require the catastrophic mechanisms largely established for the other mass extinction events. It seems that during the stupendous, en masse slippage of the Earth’s lithosphere plate tectonic processes still continued, yet it must have had a dynamic effect throughout the underlying mantle.

Yet the fascinating story does have a weak point. What if the position of the magnetic poles shifted during O-S times from their assumed rough coincidence with the geographic poles? In other words, did the self-exciting dynamo in the liquid outer core undergo a large and lengthy wobble? How the outer core’s circulation behaves depends on its depth to the solid core, yet the inner core seems only to have begun solidifying just before the onset of the Cambrian, about 100 Ma before the O-S events. It grew rapidly during the Palaeozoic, so the thickness of the outer core was continuously increasing. Fluid dynamic suggests that the form of its circulation may also have undergone changes, thereby affecting the shape and position of the geomagnetic field: perhaps even shifting its poles away from the geographic poles …

Annual logs for 2020 and 2021 added

For ease of access to annual developments within the general topics that Earth-logs covers I have now compiled all the Earth-logs posts from 2020 and 2021 into the categories: Geohazards; Geomorphology; Human Evolution; Magmatism; Palaeobiology; Palaeoclimatology; Physical Resources; Planetary Science; Remote Sensing; Sediments and Stratigraphy, and Tectonics. You can download them by ‘hovering’ over the Annual logs pull-down in the main menu and clicking on a category, whose index page will appear. Then scroll down to the 2020 or 2021 entry and click on the link to the PDF.

I hope that readers find this option useful in showing how each general topic has developed over the 21st century so far. Of course, it is based on my personal view of what constitute important developments published in international journals

Best wishes for 2023.

Steve Drury

Environmental DNA reveals ecology in Northern Greenland from 2 Ma ago

The closest land to the North Pole is Peary Land in northern Greenland. Today, much of it is a polar desert and is bare of ice, so field geology is possible during the Arctic summer. It is one of the last parts of the northern hemisphere to have been mapped in detail. The bedrock ranges in age from the Mesoproterozoic to Upper Cretaceous, although the sequence is incomplete because of tectonic events and erosion during the Phanerozoic Eon. Its complex history has made Peary Land a draw for both structural geologists and stratigraphers. Apart from glacial tills the youngest rocks are estuarine sediments deposited in the early Pleistocene, between two glacial tills. They define one of the earliest known interglacials, roughly between 1.9 and 2.1 Ma, which lasted for an estimated 20 ka. Late Pliocene (3.4 Ma) sediments from around the Arctic Ocean have yielded rich fossil fauna and flora that suggest much warmer conditions – 10°C higher than those at present – before repeated glaciation began in the Northern Hemisphere. The sediments in Peary Land are fossiliferous, plant remains indicating a cover of coniferous trees, but animal fossils are restricted to small invertebrates: the tangible palaeontology offers slim pickings as regards assessing environmental conditions and the ecosystem.

One means of exploring faunal and floral diversity is through sampling and analysing DNA buried in sediments and soils rather than in fossils – plants shed pollen while animals spread their DNA via dung and urine. This approach has met with extraordinary success in revealing megafaunas that may have been decimated by humans newly arrived in the Americas. Even more remarkable was the ability of environmental DNA from cave sediments to reveal the former presence of individual humans who once lived in the caves and thus assess their numbers and relatedness. Such penetrating genetic ‘fingerprinting’ only became possible when new techniques to extract fragments of DNA from sediments and splice them to reconstruct genomes had been developed. But to apply them to material some two million years old would be a big ask; The oldest known DNA sequence had been recovered in 2021 from the molar of a 1.1 Ma old mammoth preserved in permafrost – a near-ideal source. A large multinational team under the supervision of Eske Willerslev (currently of Cambridge University, UK) took on the challenge, despite two million years of burial being likely to have degraded genetic material to minuscule fragments absorbed on the surface of minerals (Kjær, K.H. and 38 others 2022. A 2-million-year-old ecosystem in Greenland uncovered by environmental DNA. Nature, v 612, p. 283–291; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-05453-y). But it transpired that quartz grains have a good chance of ‘collecting’ bits of DNA and readily yielding them to the extraction media. The results are extraordinary.

Reconstruction of an American mastodon herd by American painter of large extinct fauna Charles R. Knight

The DNA extraction turned-up signs of 70 vascular plants, including poplar, spruce and yew now typically found at much lower latitudes, alongside sedges, shrubs and birch-tree species that still grow in Greenland. The climate was substantially warmer than it is now. The fauna included elephants – probably mastodons (Mammut) but not mammoths (Mammuthus) and caribou, as well as rabbits, geese and various species of rodents. There were even signs of ants and fleas. The overall assemblage of plants has no analogue in modern vegetation, perhaps because of the absence of anthropogenic influences, such as fires, the smaller extent of glaciations, their shorter duration and less established permafrost during the early Pleistocene. The last factor could have allowed a quicker and wider spread of coniferous-deciduous woodland, found today in NE Canada. In turn this spread of vegetation would have drawn in herds of large herbivores, later mastodons being known to have been wide-ranging forest dwellers. Willerslev suggests that the study has a potential bearing on how ecosystems may respond to climate change.