Subduction and continental collision in the Himalaya

The Indian subcontinent after it separated from Madagascar in the Late Cretaceous to move northwards to its destined collision with Eurasia and the formation of the Himalaya. (Credit: Frame from an animation ©Christopher Scotese)

During the Early Cretaceous (~140 Ma ago) India, Madagascar, Antarctica and Australia parted company with Africa after 400 Ma of unity as components of the Gondwana supercontinent. By 120 Ma Antarctica and Australia split from India and Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean began to form. India moved northwards , leaving Madagascar in its wake after about 70 Ma ago. By 50 Ma the subcontinent began to collide with Eurasia, its northward motion driving before it crustal materials that eventually formed the Himalaya. This highly complex process is wonderfully documented in an animation made in 2015 by Christopher Scotese, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Northwestern University, USA. At the start of its journey India moved northwards at a slow rate of about 5 cm per year. After 80 Ma it speeded up dramatically to 15 cm per year, about twice as fast as any modern continental drift and a pace that lasted for over 30 Ma until collision began. How could that, in a geological sense, sudden and sustained acceleration have been induced? It would have required a change in the slab-pull force that is the primary driver of plate tectonics, suggesting an increase in the amount of subduction in the Tethys Ocean that formerly lay between India and Eurasia, probably at two, now hidden destructive plate margins.

A group of geoscientists from Canada, the US and Pakistan has documented that collision in terms of the record of metamorphism experienced beneath the Himalaya as slab after slab of once near-surface rocks were driven beneath the rising orogen (Soret, M. et al. 2021. How Himalayan collision stems from subduction. Geology, v. 49, p. 894-898; DOI: 10.1130/G48803.1). The Western Himalaya has trapped a deformed and tilted magmatic rock sequence of an island arc – the Kohistan Arc – between  the Eurasian plate and a zone of crustal thickening and shortening that was thrust southward over the ancient metamorphic basement of India itself. That crust was mantled by a variety of younger sediments deposited on the Tethyan continental shelf of the northern Indian plate which became involved in the process of crustal thickening. The Kohistan Arc probably formed above one of the destructive margins that consumed the oceanic lithosphere of the now vanished Tethys Ocean. Two distinct types of rock make up the slabs stacked-up by thrusting.

The uppermost, which also forms the highest part of the Western Himalaya in the form of Nanga Parbat (at 8,126 metres the world’s ninth highest mountain) comprises rocks thought to represent Tethyan oceanic lithosphere subducted perhaps at the second destructive margin. Their mineral assemblages, especially those of eclogites, indicate that they have been metamorphosed under pressures corresponding to depths of up to 100 km, but at low temperatures along a geothermal gradient of about 7°C km-1, i.e. in a low heat-flow environment. These ultra-high pressure (UHP) metamorphic rocks formed at the start of the India-Eurasia collision. The sequence of sedimentary slabs now overridden by the UHP slab were metamorphosed at around the same time, but under very different conditions. Their burial reached only about 35 km – the normal thickness of the continental crust – and a temperature of about 600°C on a 30°C km-1 geothermal gradient. Detailed mineralogy of the UHP slab reveals that as it was driven over the metasediments it evolved to the same geothermal conditions.

Matthew Soret and his colleagues explain how this marked metamorphic duality may have arisen in rocks that are now part of the same huge thrust complex. Their results are consistent with slicing together of oceanic lithosphere in a subduction zone to form a tectonic wedge of UHP mineral assemblages at the same time as continental shelf sediments were metamorphosed under more normal geothermal conditions. This was happening just as India came into contact with Eurasia. When crustal thickening began in earnest through the inter-slicing of the two assemblages, pressure on the UHP rocks fell rapidly as a result of their being thrust over the dominantly metasedimentary shelf sequence. It also moved into a zone of normal heat flow, first heating up equally quickly and then following a path of decreasing pressure and temperature as erosion pared away the newly thickened crust. Both assemblages now became part of the same metamorphic regime. In this way a subduction system evolved to become incorporated in an orogenic zone as two continents collided; a complex process that finds parallels in other orogens such as the Alps.

Signs of Milankovich Effect during Snowball Earth episodes

The idea that the Earth was like a giant snowball during the Neoproterozoic Era arose from the discovery of rocks of that age that could only have formed as a result of glaciation. However, unlike the Pleistocene ice ages, evidence for these much older glacial conditions occurs on all continents. In some locations remanent magnetism in sedimentary rocks of that age is almost horizontal; i.e. they had been deposited at low magnetic latitudes, equivalent to the tropics of the present day. Frigid as it then was, the Earth still received solar heating and magmatic activity would have been slowly adding CO2 to the atmosphere so that less heat escaped – a greenhouse effect must have been functioning. Moreover, an iced-over world would not have been supporting much photosynthetic life to draw down the greenhouse gas into solid carbohydrates and carbonates to be buried on the ocean floor. As far as we know the Solar System’s geometry during the Neoproterozoic was much as it is today. So changes in the gravitational fields induced by the orbiting Giant Planets would have been affecting the shape (eccentricity) of Earth’s orbit, the tilt (obliquity) of its rotational axis and the precession (wobble) of its rotation as they do at present through the Milankovich effect. These astronomical forcings vary the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface. It has been suggested that a Snowball Earth’s climate system would have been just as sensitive to astronomical forcing as it has been during the last 2 million years or more. Proof of that hypothesis has recently been achieved, at least for one of the Snowball events (Mitchell, R.N. and 8 others 2021. Orbital forcing of ice sheets during snowball Earth. Nature Communications, v. 12, article 4187; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-24439-4).

Another of the enigmas of the Neoproterozoic is that after and absence of more than a billion years banded iron formations (see: Banded iron formations (BIFs) reviewed, December 2017) began to form again. BIFs are part of the suite of sedimentary rocks that characterise Snowball Earth events, often alternating with glaciogenic sediments. Throughout each cold cycle – the Sturtian (717 to 663 Ma) and Marinoan (650 to 632 Ma) glacial periods – conditions of sediment deposition varied a great deal from place to place and over time. Some sort of cyclicity is hinted at, but the pace of alternations has proved impossible to check, partly because the dominant rocks (glacial conglomerates or diamictites) show little stratification and others that are bedded (various non-glacial sandstones) vary from place to place and give no sign of rates of deposition, having been deposited under high-energy conditions. BIFs, on the other hand are made up of enormous numbers of parallel layers on scales from millimetres to centimetres. Bundles of bands can be traced over large areas, and they may represent repeated cycles of deposition.

Typical banded iron formation

How BIFs formed is crucial. They were precipitated from water rich in dissolved iron in its reduced Fe2+ (ferrous) form, which originated from sea-floor hydrothermal vents. Precipitation occurred when the amount of oxygen in the water increased the chance of electrons being removed from iron ions to transform them from ferrous to ferric (Fe3+). Their combination with oxygen yields insoluble iron oxides. Cyclical changes in the availability of oxygen and the balance between reducing and oxidising conditions result in the banding. In fact several rhythms of alternation are witnessed by repeated packages at deci-, centi- and millimetre scales within each BIF deposit. Overall the packages suggest a constant rate of deposition: a ‘must-have’ for precise time-analysis of the cycles. BIFs contain both weakly magnetic hematite (Fe2O3) and strongly magnetic magnetite (Fe3O4), their ratio depending on varying geochemical conditions during deposition. Ross Mitchell of Curtin University, Western Australia and his Chinese, Australian and Dutch colleagues measured magnetic susceptibility at closely spaced intervals (1 and 0.25 m) in two section of BIFs from the Sturtian glaciation in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. Visually both sections show clear signs of two high-frequency and three lower frequency kinds of cycles, expressed in thickness.

The tricky step was converting the magneto-stratigraphic data to a time series. High-precision zircon U-Pb dating of volcanic rocks in the sequence suggested a mean BIF deposition rate of 3.7 to 4.4 cm per thousand years. This allowed the thickness of individual bands and packages to be expressed in years, the prerequisite for time-series analysis of the BIF magneto-stratigraphic sequence. This involves a mathematical process known as the Fast-Fourier Transform, which expresses the actual data as a spectral curve. Peaks in the curve represent specific frequencies expressed as cycles per metre. The rate of deposition of the BIF allows each peak to be assigned a frequency in years, which can then be compared with the hypothetical spectrum associated with the Milankovich effect. One of the BIF sequences yielded peaks corresponding to 23, 97 and 106 ka. These match the effects of variation in precession (23 ka) and ‘short’ orbital eccentricity (97 and 106 ka) found in Cenozoic sea-floor sediments and ice cores. The other showed peaks at 405, 754 and 1.2 Ma corresponding to ‘long’ orbital eccentricity and long-term features of both obliquity and precession. Quite a result! But how does this bear on Snowball Earth events? Cyclical changes in solar heating would have affected the extent of ice sheets and sea ice at all latitudes, forcing episodes of expansion and contraction and thus changes in sediment supply to the sea floor. That helps explain the many observed variations in sedimentation other than that of BIFs. Rather than supporting a ‘hard’ Snowball model of total marine ice cover for millions of years, it suggests that such an extreme was relieved by period of extensive open water, much as affected the modern Arctic Ocean for the last 2 million years or so. There could have been global equivalents of ice ages and interglacials during the Sturtian and Marinoan. ‘Hard’ conditions would have shut down much of the oceans’ biological productivity, periodically to have been reprieved by more open conditions: a mechanism that would have promoted both extinctions and evolutionary radiations. Snowball events may have driven the takeover of prokaryote (bacteria) dominance by that of the multicelled eukaryotes that is signalled by the Ediacaran faunas that swiftly followed glacial epochs and the explosion of multicelled life during the Cambrian. As eukaryotes, we may well owe our existence to Snowball.

Global warming: Can mantle rocks reduce the greenhouse effect?

Three weeks ago I commented on a novel and progressive use for coal seams as stores for large quantities of hydrogen gas. That would be analogous to batteries for solar- and wind power plants by using electricity generated outside times of peak demand to electrolyse water to hydrogen and oxygen. There are other abundant rocks that naturally react with the atmosphere to permanently sequester carbon dioxide in alteration products, and form possible solutions to global warming. The most promising of these contain minerals that are inherently unstable under surface conditions; i.e. when they come into contact with rainwater that contains dissolved CO2. The most common are anhydrous minerals containing calcium and magnesium that occur in igneous rocks. Basalts contain the minerals plagioclase feldspar (CaAl2Si2O8), olivine ([Fe,Mg]2SiO4)] and pyroxene ([Fe,Mg]CaSi2O6)] that weather to yield the minerals calcium and magnesium carbonate. My piece Bury the beast in basalt, written in June 2016, mentions experiments in the basalts of Iceland and Washington State, USA to check their potential for drawing down atmospheric CO2. News of an even more promising prospect for CO2 sequestration in igneous rock emerged in the latest issue of Scientific American (Fox, D. 2021. Rare Mantle Rocks in Oman Could Sequester Massive Amounts of CO2. Scientific American, July 2021 issue).

Distribution of ophiolites around the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Seas. Most orogenic belts carry comparable volumes of ophiolites. (Credit: Gültekin Topuz, Istanbul Technical University)

The most abundant magnesium-rich material in our planet is the peridotite of the mantle, which consists of more than 60% olivine with lesser amounts of pyroxene and almost no feldspar. Being so rich in Mg and Fe, it is said to have an ultramafic composition and is extremely prone to weathering. The rock dunite is the ultimate ultramafic rock being made of more than 90% olivine. All ultramafic rocks are denser than 3,000 kg m-3, so might be expected to be rare in lower density continental crust (2,600 kg m-3). But they are present at the base of sections of oceanic lithosphere that plate tectonics has thrust up and onto the continents, known as ophiolite bodies. They often occur in orogenic belts at former destructive plate margins and are more common than one might expect. One of the largest and certainly the best-exposed occurs in the Semail Mountains of Oman, where scientists from the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, New York State, USA, and other collaborators have been investigating its potential for absorbing CO2, since 2008.

Olivine-rich rocks react with naturally carbonated groundwater or hydrothermal fluids to form soft, often highly coloured material known as serpentine, well-known for the ease with which it can be carved and polished. As well as the mineral serpentinite [Mg3Si2O5(OH)4], the hydration reactions yield magnetite (Fe3O4), magnesium carbonate (magnesite) and silica (SiO2). If reaction takes place in the absence of oxygen gaseous hydrogen also forms. All these have been noted in the Oman ophiolite: fractures in serpentinites are filled with carbonates, and springs associated with them emit copious amounts of hydrogen and, in some cases, methane. Interestingly, the reactions – like those that involve anhydrous calcium-aluminium silicates when cement is wetted and then cures – release large amounts of heat. This makes the reactions self-sustaining once they begin in peridotite or dunite. However, at the Earth’s surface they are somewhat sluggish as the heat of reaction is lost to the air.  

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

The capacity for CO2 sequestration by ultramafic igneous rocks is high: a ton of olivine when completely hydrated takes in 0.62 tons of CO2. The Lamont-Doherty team has estimated that they speed up in crushed peridotite, for instance after milling during industrial-scale mining – peridotites are host rocks for platinum-group metals, nickel and chromium. (Kelemen, P.B. et al. 2020. Engineered carbon mineralization in ultramafic rocks for CO2 removal from air. Chemical Geology, v. 550, article 119628; DOI: 10.1016/j.chemgeo.2020.119628). Spreading mine waste over large areas of desert surfaces  would be one way of capturing CO2. However, using the age of emplacement of the Oman ophiolite (96-70 Ma) and the amount of carbonate found in fractured serpentinite there, the team estimates that each ton of the 15 m deep zone of active weathering has naturally absorbed CO2 at a rate of about 1 g m-3 year-1 equivalent to 1000 tons per cubic km per year. But parts of the ophiolite have been fully altered to serpentinite plus carbonates since the Cretaceous, probably at depth. Dating some of the near-surface carbonate veins revealed that they had formed in only a few thousand years rather than the tens of million years expected. Natural sequestration could therefore be happening at depth about 10,000 times faster than theory predicts. Also natural springs emerging from the peridotite are highly alkaline and by combining with atmospheric carbon dioxide precipitate carbonate to form travertine deposits at the surface. This is so rapid that if the carbonate is scraped off the exposed rock, within a year it has recoated the surface.

This year, deep drilling into the Oman ophiolite has begun. To the surprise of members of the team, carbonate minerals are not present in the bedrock below 100 m depth: CO2 is not penetrating naturally beyond that depth. If it becomes possible to inject CO2 deep beneath the surface the exothermic reactions could be kick-started. This would involve sinking pairs of boreholes to set up a flow of carbon-charged water from the ‘injection’ hole to the other that would return decarbonised water to the surface for re-use. The carbon-capture experiment in Iceland (Carbfix) has been running since 2012. Carbon dioxideseparated from hot water passing through a geothermal power plant is re-injected into basalt at a depth of half a kilometre. This small pilot runs at a cost of US$25 per ton of sequestered gas. But it uses already concentrated CO2, whereas global-scale sequestration would require capturing, compressing and dissolving it directly from the atmosphere, probably costing about $120 to $220 per ton injected into mantle rock. The engineering required – about 5,000 boreholes – to capture a billion tons of CO2 deep in the Oman ophiolites is achievable with current technology. Since 2005 almost 140 thousand fracking wells have been sunk in the US alone; they are analogous to the paired holes needed for sequestration. Worldwide, the petroleum industry has driven tens of million wells for conventional oil and gas extraction.

The energy needed to run carbon capture in mantle rocks in an arid country like Oman could be solar derived. Moreover, there are possible by-products such as hydrogen released by the chemical reactions. The alternative, more conventional approach of pumping CO2 into deep, permeable sedimentary reservoirs also carries substantial costs but has the disadvantage of possible leakage. Ophiolites are not rare, occurring as they do in areas of ancient destructive plate margins. So permanently locking away excess atmospheric greenhouse gases currently driving global warming would require only a tiny proportion of the volume of peridotite that is easily accessible by drilling. It would clearly cost an eye-watering sum, but bear in mind that the four biggest petroleum companies – BP, Shell, Chevron and Exxon – have harvested profits of around US$ 2 trillion since 1990. Along with the global coal industries, they are the source of the present climate emergency.

Massive hominin skull from China: is it a Denisovan?

In 1933 labourers unearthed a very large skull during the construction of a bridge near Harbin, Northern China. At that time, the area was under occupation by Imperial Japanese forces. To keep it out of the invaders’ hands the skull was quickly wrapped in a cloth and hidden in an old well. It was only in 2018 that the original finder’s grandson recovered it to pass on to archaeologists at  Hebei Geo University. It lacks a lower jawbone, so technically it is a cranium, but is very well preserved. The face has very large brow ridges – generally taken as a primitive feature – but also some more modern features. With a 1,420 ml brain case, it is significantly larger than most modern human crania. Apparently, it is of an adult male. As well as a big head, he had a large nose, as do Neanderthals: a possible adaptation to very cold conditions. Without waiting to see if the bones might yield DNA, five of the team who examined the cranium claimed it as a new species, Homo longi or ‘Dragon Man’; i.e. distinct from modern humans and Neanderthals and all known older hominins (Ni, X. et al. 2021. Massive cranium from Harbin establishes a new Middle Pleistocene human lineage in China. The Innovation, v. 2, article 100130; DOI: 10.1016/j.xinn.2021.100130. Ji, Q. et al. 2021. Late Middle Pleistocene Harbin cranium represents a new Homo species. The Innovation, v. 2, article 100132; DOI: 10.1016/j.xinn.2021.100132). They based this phylogenetic interpretation on morphology alone. At least one of the team, Chris Stringer a leading hominin palaeoanthropologist at The Natural History Museum in London, demurred. The cranium is not unique and bears close similarity to another from the central Chinese province of Shaanxi, which was found in the late 1970s. In fact there are three other Chinese crania that resemble that from Harbin, although they are less well preserved.

All-sided views of the Harbin cranium. (Credit: Ni et al., Fig 2)

Dating the fossil was not easy, as the site where labourers discovered him was destroyed during construction of the bridge. Researchers used a variety of geochemical analyses, including from sediment stuck in his nasal cavity, to derive a likely stratigraphic profile from which the cranium may have been excavated. The best fit is with Middle Pleistocene sediments in the Harbin area. Uranium-series dating of the bone suggests that it is older than 146 ka (Shao, Q.  et al. 2021. Geochemical locating and direct dating of the Harbin archaic human craniumThe Innovation, v. 2, article 100131; DOI: 10.1016/j.xinn.2021.100131). So it is likely that this man and his companions did not cohabit China with anatomically modern humans, who arrived no more than about 50 ka ago. The highly robust nature of all the similar crania suggests that the individuals must have been large and physically active. Like the Neanderthals, they had adapted to harsh conditions over several hundred thousand years of repeated climate change. Even today, winters in northern China average around -16°C, and far inland conditions are semi-arid to arid. For them to migrate would have involved traversing some of highest, bleakest passes in the world. These people evolved to survive extreme climatic and environmental change, much as did the Neanderthals in West Asia and Europe. By comparison anatomically modern humans evolved in the more stable environments of Africa and the Middle East, surviving only the last ice age once they had migrated northwards. Those who made it to northern Siberia and crossed the Bering Strait via Beringia around the last glacial maximum did evolve physical traits that helped them survive, but minor ones compared with the earlier humans.

So what do these Chinese fossils represent? Using cranial features alone to propose distinct species smacks of the techniques of 19th and early 20th century anatomical anthropologists, albeit with powerful statistical analysis. We know that anatomically modern humans carry genetic signatures of interbreeding with at least two known ‘species’ with whom they cohabited Eurasia – Neanderthals and Denisovans. Indeed, traces in  the DNA of living African and Eurasian humans hint at other unknown and probably very ancient ‘ghost’ populations. Genetic, physical and probably cultural differences did not deter repeated interbreeding with these ‘others’. To be frank, erecting new human ‘species’ these days seems to serve little purpose. ‘Dragon Man’ is just as likely to represent the Denisovans as the fully sequenced DNA from a couple of bones from caves in Siberia and Tibet. The latter matched stretches of the DNA from living people of East Asia and parts of the Pacific. There are no other such live genetic tracers awaiting a different candidate to fill the role that we know Neanderthals and Denisovans to have filled. That may yet change, but the first job for the mainly Chinese consortium of scientists is to get genetic material from these crania and sequence it, or invite other highly successful palaeogeneticists who would leap at the opportunity.

See also: Jones, N. 2021. Mysterious skull fossils expand human family tree — but questions remain. Nature, v. 595, p. 50; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-01738-w

Sample I. 2021. Massive human head in Chinese well forces scientists to rethink evolution. The Guardian, 25 June 2021.

Tectonics on Venus

The surface of Venus is not easily observed because of the almost opaque nature of its atmosphere. The planet is veiled by a mixture of CO2 (96.5%) and nitrogen (3.5%), with a little sulfur dioxide and noble gases. The atmosphere’s mass is almost 100 times that of the Earth’s, and has a density about 6.5% that of liquid water at the surface. The opacity stems from a turbulent upper layer of mainly sulfuric acid. Venus is the victim of runaway greenhouse conditions. Despite that, radar can penetrate the atmosphere to reveal details of its surface morphology – roughness and elevation – at a spatial resolution of 150 m. Although coarser than that available from radar remote sensing of the Earth from orbit, the Magellan data are still geologically revealing.

Earlier interpretation of Venus radar images revealed the surface to be far simpler than that of the Earth, Mars and all other rocky bodies in the Solar System. Yet it has more volcanoes than does the Earth or Mars. However, despite being subject to very little erosion – Venus is a dry world – only around 1000 impact craters have been found: far short of the number seen on Mars or the Moon. This deficiency of evidence for bombardment suggests that Venus was ‘repaved’ by vast volcanic outpourings in the geologically recent past, estimated to have occurred 300 to 600 Ma ago. This early work concluded that plate tectonics was absent; indeed that for half a billion years the lithosphere on Venus had been barely deformed. It has been suggested that Venus has been involved in megacycles of sudden, planet-wide magmatic activity separated by long periods of quiescence. This could be attributed to the lack of plate tectonics, which is the principal means that Earth continuously rids itself of heat produced at depth by decay of radioactive isotopes in the mantle. Venus has been suggested to build up internal temperatures until they reach a threshold that launches widespread partial melting of its mantle. Planet-wide eruption of magma then reduces internal temperatures.

Polygonal blocks or ‘campuses’ on the lowland surface of Venus. Note the zones of ridges that roughly parallel ‘campus’ margins. Credit: Paul K. Byrne, North Carolina State University and Sean C. Solomon, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory

It comes as a surprise that 26 years after Magellan plunged into the Venusian atmosphere new interpretation of its radar images suggests a completely different scenario (it may be that academic attention generally switched to research on Mars because of all the missions to the ‘Red Planet’ since Magellan disappeared). It is based on features of the surface of Venus so large that their having been missed until now may be a planetary-scale example of ‘not seeing the woods for the trees’! Geoscientists from the US, Turkey, the UK and Greece have mapped out features ranging from 100 to 1000 km across that cover the lowland parts of Venus (Byrne, P.K. et al. 2021. A globally fragmented and mobile lithosphere on Venus. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, v. 118, article e2025919118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2025919118). They resemble 1950s ‘crazy paving’ or floes in Arctic pack ice, but on a much larger scale. Extending the ice floe analogy, the polygonal blocks are separated by what resemble pressure ridges that roughly parallel the block margins. Paul Byrne of North Carolina State University, USA, and co-workers also found evidence that the large blocks of lithosphere had rotated and moved laterally relative to one another: they had ‘jostled’. Moreover, some of the movement has disturbed the youngest materials on the surface.

To distinguish what seem to be characteristic of Venus’s tectonics from Earthly tectonic plates, the team hit on the name ‘campus’, meaning ‘field’ in Latin. Rather than having remained a single spherical skin of lithosphere, the surface of at least part of Venus has broken into a series of ‘campuses’. It does display tectonics, but not as we know it on planet Earth. This could be ascribed to an outcome of stress transfer from deep convective motion in the Venerean mantle. Being in the virtually non-magmatic phase of Venus’s thermal cycling, there is neither formation of new lithosphere nor subduction of old, cold plates that characterise terrestrial plate tectonics. ‘Campus’ tectonics seems likely to be another form of planetary energy and matter redistribution, and Byrne et al. have likened it to how the Earth may have functioned during the ‘missing’ 600 Ma of the Hadean Eon on Earth. But perhaps not …

The runaway greenhouse has resulted in surface temperatures on Venus being 450°C higher than on Earth: enough to melt lead. It is not just solar heat that is trapped by the atmosphere, but that from the Venerean interior. This must result in a very different geotherm (the way temperature varies with depth in a planet) from that characterising the Earth. The temperature of the beginning of mantle melting – about 1200°C – must be much shallower on Venus. On Earth that is at depths between 50 and 100 km below active plate margins and within-plate hotspots, and is not reached at all for most of the Earth that lies beneath the tectonic plates. If the mantle of Venus contained a similar complement of heat-producing isotopes to that of Earth wouldn’t we expect continual volcanism on Venus rather than the odd dribble that has been observed by Magellan? Or does the jostling of ‘campuses’ absorb the thermal energy and help direct it slowly to space by radiation through the dense, greenhouse atmosphere. Here’s another poser: If the Earth and Venus are geochemically similar and Hadean Earth went through such a phase of ‘campus tectonics’ – perhaps our world had a CO2-rich atmosphere too – what changed to allow plate tectonics here to replace that system of thermal balance? And, why hasn’t that happened on Venus? Perhaps some light will be thrown on these enigmas once a series of new missions to Venus are launched between now and the 2030s, by NASA and the European Space Agency.

Is there a future for coal?

Burning coal is far and away the main culprit for elevated atmospheric CO2 and global climatic warming. That is a consequence of the Industrial Revolution and a mode of production that centres on the market value of commodities rather than their intrinsic usefulness and thus on the continual generation of profit. As the main original energy source for this capitalist mode, whose viability depends on incessant economic growth, world coal production grew at an exponential rate through the 19th and 20th centuries, as did its influence on global climate. Beginning in the 1920s, coal was joined by other carbon-based fossil fuels (oil and natural gas) in massively increasing energy and greenhouse-gas production. In the data there is little sign of an appetite to reduce this dependence on carbon burning, renewable energy output accounting today for only a few percent of the energy demands of capital. Although coal’s energy contribution is flattening off to be replaced by those of oil and gas, in terms of CO2 emissions it still dominates. That is because oil and gas are carbon-hydrogen compounds rather than almost pure carbon in the case of coal. Unless burning fossil fuels is outlawed and economic growth is drastically curtailed, we are set to live on a far warmer planet.

Growth in energy supply from different sources since 1800 CE (Credit:

For various reasons coal is unique in a social sense. Every producing area has large communities who depend on mining for income. Britain now produces vastly less coal than it did up to the 1990s, with wholesale closure of underground mines. Since 1960 these communities have lost over half a million jobs in mining, let alone those in related industries and those that served mining communities. Three decades on from the last round of closures, those communities remain socially devastated in many respects. A huge amount of coal still lies beneath them. Can it make a come-back? A recent study suggests that perhaps it can, with diametrically opposite environmental consequences.

It seems that surfaces of coal particles are able to take-up and store gases, increasingly so as pressure increases. Miners faced the consequences of that in the form of adsorbed carbon dioxide and methane (‘choke damp’ and ‘fire damp’) that were released when coal was mined underground. Miners’ safety lamps (invented in 1815 by Humphry Davy) enable them to monitor the risks of suffocation by CO2 or explosion of CH4 when the lamps dim or flare, respectively. Engineers at Edith Cowan University in Perth, Western Australia, experimentally measured the amounts of hydrogen adsorbed by crushed coal at different pressures (Iglauer, S et al. 2021. Hydrogen adsorption on sub-bituminous coal: Implications for hydrogen geostorage. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 48, article 2021GL092976; DOI: 10.1029/2021GL092976). From surface atmospheric pressure to 40 times that, adsorption increases rapidly, especially for hydrogen (from 0.05 to 0.25 grams per kilogram). At higher pressures it rises less rapidly to about 0.6 g kg-1 at 100 times atmospheric pressure, which is equivalent to a depth of about 500 m in a sedimentary rock formation. At deeper levels hydrogen adsorption remains about the same.

The experimental results suggest that large amounts of hydrogen can be stored in coal at quite shallow depths. The potential storage in a ton of fractured coal is about 600 kg, equivalent to about 12 cubic metres of liquid hydrogen, but without the need for containment and refrigeration. In the absence of oxygen, such storage would be safe and long-term. If feasible from an engineering standpoint, underground storage of hydrogen in coal seams to overcome one of the current barriers to a hydrogen-based industrial economy through the storage of energy generated by carbon-free technologies, such as wind, wave, tidal and solar generation that operate at highly variable rates, not suited to energy use patterns. Effectively, coalfields could become giant ‘batteries’ without the need to mine vast amounts of elements, such as lithium, needed for conventional batteries; provided that a sustainable means of repeated hydrogen recovery can be devised. A central technology of a future ‘hydrogen economy’ is that of the fuel cell in which hydrogen and oxygen combine using a catalyst to generate electricity, without any combustion and emitting only water vapour.

The early signs of counting and arithmetic?

Three earlier articles in Earth-logs originally focussed on what I supposed to be ‘ancient abstract art’.  One highlighted a clam shell that bears carefully etched V-shapes found at the type locality for Asian Homo erectus at Trinil on the Solo River, Java, dated between 430 and 540 ka. Another is about parallel lines etched on a piece of defleshed bone from China dated at 78 to 123 ka, which may be a Denisovan artefact. The most complex is a piece of ochre found in the coastal Blombos Cave 300 km east of Cape Town, South Africa in association with tools ascribed to early modern humans who lived there about 73 ka ago. Fascinating as they seemed at the time, they may hold much greater significance about early-human cognitive powers than about mere decoration. That is thanks to recent evaluation of other simple artefacts made of lines and notches by anthropologists, cognitive scientists and psychologists. Their work is summarised in a recent Nature Feature by Colin Barras (Barras, C. 2021. How did Neanderthals and other ancient humans learn to count? Nature, v. 594, p. 22-25; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-01429-6). The European Research Council recently allocated a €10 million grant to foster research into ‘when, why and how number systems appeared and spread’.

Examples of ancient ‘abstract’ art. Top – V-shaped features inscribed on 430-540 ka freshwater clam from Java; Middle – parallel lines etched through red ochre to show white bone, from a possible Denisovan site in China; Bottom – complex inscription on a tablet of iron-rich silcrete from South Africa

Straight lines and patterns made from them are definitely deliberate, whatever their antiquity. In recent times, such devices have been used by artists to render mental images, moods and thoughts as simplified abstractions: hence ‘abstract’ art, such as that of Piet Mondrian and Kazimir Malevich. The term also applies to the dribbles and drabbles of Jackson Pollock and many more styles. But these works are a very recent evolutionary development out of earlier schools of art. So deliberate geometric shapes and arrangements of lines that are many millennia old cannot simply be termed ‘abstract art’. It is certainly not easy to see how they evolved into the magnificence of Palaeolithic figurative cave art that started at least 40 thousand years ago; Yet they are not ‘doodles’. Being so deliberate suggests that they represented something to their makers. The question is, ‘What?’

The research summarised by Barras is mainly that of Francisco d’Errico of The University of Bordeaux, France and colleagues from Canada and Italy (d’Errico, F. et al. 2018. From number sense to number symbols. An archaeological perspective. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, v. 373, article 2160518; DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2016.0518). They focused their work on two remarkable artefacts. The oldest (72 to 60 ka), from a cave near Angoulême in France, is a fragment of a hyena’s thigh bone that carries nine notches. It is associated with stone tools almost certainly made by Neandethals. The other, from the Border Cave rock shelter in KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, is a 44 to 42 ka old baboon’s shin bone, which carries a row of 29 prominent notches, and a number of less distinct, roughly parallel scratches. The rock shelter contains remains of anatomically modern humans and a very diverse set of other artefacts that closely resemble some used by modern San people.

Top: notched hyena femur bone fragment associated with Neanderthal tools from SW France. Bottom: notched baboon shin bone from Border Cave, South Africa. Scale bars(Credit: F. d’Errica and L. Backwell)

Microscopic examination of the notches made by a Neanderthal suggest that all 9 notches were cut at the same time, using the same stone blade. Those on the Border Cave shin bone suggest that they were made using four distinctly different tools on four separate occasions. Are both objects analogous to tally sticks; i.e. to count or keep a record of things as an extension to memory? There are other known examples, such as a 30 ka-old  wolf’s radial bone from the Czech Republic having notches in groups of five, suggesting a record of counting on fingers. Yet very similar devices, made in recent times by the original people of Australia, were not used for keeping count, but to help travellers commit a verbal message to memory enabling them to recount it later.

Do read Barras’s summary and the original paper by d’Errico et al. to get an expanded notion of the arguments being debated. They emerge from the truly novel idea that just because the makers of such objects lived tens or even hundreds of thousands of years ago that doesn’t make them intellectually lacking. Imagining in the manner of Victorian scientists that ancient beings such as Neanderthals and H. erectus must have been pretty dim is akin to the prejudice of European colonialists that people of colour or with non-European cultures were somehow inferior, even non-human. To me it is admirable that the European Research Council has generously funded further research in this field at a time when research funding in the UK, especially for the disciplines involved, has been decimated by those who demanded an exit from the EU.

The older Trinil and Blombos patterns appear yet more sophisticated. The pattern on the latter looks very like the kind of thing that someone in a prison cell might draw to keep track of time. It also incorporates the zig-zag element engraved on the Trinil clam shell. Remember that the word ‘Exchequer’ is derived from a tax audit during the reign of Henry I of England that was conducted on a counting board whose surface had a checked pattern

The Great Anthropocene debate

The Bagger 288 bucket wheel reclaimer moves from one lignite mine to another in Germany: an apt expression of modern times

Followers of Earth-logs and its predecessor, should be familiar with the concept of ‘The Anthropocene’. More recent readers can hardly have escaped it, for it has become a recurrent motif that extends far beyond science to the media, the social sciences and even the arts. Some circles among the ‘chattering classes’ speak of little else. It has become a trope – a word with figurative or metaphorical meaning. In 2000, atmospheric chemist and Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen suggested that the increasingly clear evidence that human society is having growing impacts on the Earth system should be recognised by a new stratigraphic Epoch. Some Fellows of the Geological Society of London launched an attempt to formalise the suggestion through the society’s Stratigraphic Commission (Zalasiewicz, J. and 20 others 2008. Are we now living in the Anthropocene? GSA Today, v.18(ii), p. 4-8; DOI: 10.1130/GSAT01802A.1). In 2009 Jan Zalasiewicz of the University of Leicester became the first chair of the Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) within the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS).  A dozen years on, stratigraphers continue to debate the Anthropocene (See: Brazil, R. 2021. Marking the Anthropocene. Chemistry World, 29 January 2021). One of the problems facing its supporters is the lack of agreement about what it is and when it started.

Since 1977 the ICS has been searching for localities, known as Global Boundary Stratotype Sections and Points, or GSSPs, that mark the actual beginning of each basic division of the geological record: Eons, Eras, Periods, Epochs and Ages. So far, those for Epochs and longer divisions have been agreed and GSSP markers have been cemented in place, sometimes with quite large monuments, if not actual golden spikes. Those for the shortest timespans – Ages – are proving more difficult to agree on. These GSSPs have to have global significance, yet the very nature of stratigraphy means that a fair number of the most brief rock sequences revealed by field work either formed at different times across the globe, or there is no incontrovertible dating method to record their beginning and end.

Currently, we live in the Holocene Epoch whose beginning marked the global climate system’s exit from the frigid Younger Dryas at 11.7 ka ago. The Holocene (‘entirely recent’) Epoch marks the latest interglacial. When it began every human being was Homo sapiens, made a living as a hunter-gatherer and eventually expanded into every ecosystem that offered sustenance on all continents bar Antarctica. Within a few thousand years some began sedentary life as farmers and herders after their domestication of a range of plant and animal species. A few millennia later agriculture had a growing foothold everywhere except in Australia. Natural tree cover began to be cleared and organised grazing steadily changed other kinds of ecosystem. Human influences, other than scattered artefacts and bones, became detectable in geological formations such as lake-bed sediments and peat mires. The geological record of the Holocene is by no means consistent globally, there being lots of gaps. That is partly because sedimentary systems continually deposited, eroded and transported sediments on the landmasses. In the tropics and much of the Southern Hemisphere the Younger Dryas is, in any case, barely recognisable in post-Ice Age deposits, so the start of the Holocene there is vague. Things are simpler on the deep sea floor, as muds accumulate with no interruption. But it was only when data became available from drill cores through continental ice masses on Antarctica, Greenland and scattered high mountains that any detailed sense of changes and their pace emerged. The major climatic perturbation of the Younger Dryas and its end only became clear from the undisturbed annual layering in Greenland ice cores. It proved to have been extremely fast: a couple of decades at most. The GSSP for the start of the Holocene therefore lies in a single Greenland ice core preserved by cold storage in Copenhagen. It is a somewhat ephemeral record.

Leaving aside for the moment that the Anthropocene adds the future to the geological record, when was it supposed to start? Its name demands that it be linked to some human act that began to change the world. That is implicit in the beginning of agriculture which held out the prospect of continuous growth in human populations by securing food resources rather than having to seek them. But such an event is not so good from the standpoint of purist stratigraphy as it happened at different times at different places and probably for different reasons (See: Mithen, S. 2004. After the Ice: A Global Human History, 20,000 – 5000 BC. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London; ISBN-13: 978-0753813928 [A superb read]). A case has been made for the European conquest and colonisation of the Americas which was eventually followed by the death from European diseases of tens of millions of native people, many of whom were farmers in the Amazon basin. The Greenland ice records a decline in atmospheric CO2 between 1570 to 1620 CE, which has been ascribed to massive regrowth of previously cleared tropical rainforest. That would define a start for the Anthropocene at around 1610 CE. Yet the main driver for erecting an Anthropocene Epoch is global warming, which has grown exponentially with the burning of fossil fuels and CO2 emissions since the ill-defined start of the Industrial Revolution (late 18th – early 19th century). It looks like in a year or so the ICS is due to debate a much later start at the peak of nuclear weapon fallout in 1964, which its champions claim to coincide with the ‘Great Acceleration’ in world economic growth, emissions and warming.

If that is accepted, anyone still alive who was born before 1964 is a relic of the Holocene, as Philip Gibbard secretary-general of ICS wryly observed, whereas our children and grandchildren will be wholly of the Anthropocene. We Holocene relics only grasped the change at the start of the 21st century! The very nature of exponential growth is that its tangible effects always come as a surprise. The build-up of human influence on the world has been proceeding stealthily since not long after the Holocene began. Annoyingly, the very name Anthropocene lays the blame on the whole of humanity. In reality it is an outcome of a mode of economy that demands continual exponential growth. That mode – the World Economy – lies completely beyond the reach of social and political control. It is effectively inhuman. So, why the pessimism – can’t human beings get rid of an ethos that is obviously alien to their interests? Perhaps ‘Anthropocene’ might be an apt name for the aftermath of such a reckoning, which may last long enough to be properly regarded as an Epoch …

‘Green’ metal mining?

A glance at statistics for the global consumption of any particular metal reveals much about the current unfairness of the world we live in. On a per capita basis, people in the developed, rich world use vastly more than do those in the less developed countries, on average. It is commonly said that in order for everyone to live in a fair world, the poor need more metals and other physical resources in order to match the living standards of the rich, or the wealthy will need to consume much less. A new factor in the equitability equation is the necessity to stave off CO2-induced global warming, largely through replacing energy from fossil fuels with that produced by a variety of ‘green’ sources. That carries with it another issue; the technologies for carbon-free energy generation, transmission, storage and use will consume a broad range of metals and other physical resources. These include cobalt and lithium, graphite, rare-earth elements and especially copper, whose annual production is set to soar.

Copper is particularly critical. If China alone fulfils its planned production of all-electric transportation, the demand for copper will over 2 billion tonnes requiring 119 years production at the current extraction rate of 20 Mt per year. The rush to electric cars has already forced copper demand above production, resulting in soaring prices on the world market. In the last year they have doubled, reaching US$10,000 per ton at the time ofwriting. Most metals are won by digging up their ores, often from considerable depths in the crust. Ores then have to be concentrated, smelted and the elemental metals refined. About 6 % of global energy is consumed by this process, adding CO2 and a variety of noxious gases to the atmosphere, let alone the stupendous amounts of uneconomic waste rock and polluted water. Copper is high up the list for environmental impact, being extracted from some of the world biggest mines. Like all physical resources, its extraction cannot be continued without further environmental deterioration. But is there a more sustainable way of extracting metals from the Earth?

Bingham Canyon copper mine in Utah, USA; at 4.5 km diameter and 1.2 km depth it is the world’s largest excavation. (Credit: Mining Magazine)

Under the right chemical conditions many metals can be dissolved, so longs as fluids can pass through the ore. One example is the use of sodium cyanide solution (known as a lixiviant) to dissolve gold from low-grade ore: so-called ‘heap leaching’. But this is done at the surface, either using newly crushed ore from an excavation or waste from earlier mining that could not extract fine-grained gold. A similar approach uses bacteria whose metabolism involves oxidation of sulfide ore minerals, resulting in chemical reactions that liberate their desirable metal content to solution in water. If buried orebodies are fractured in situ this kind of leaching will supposedly transform metal production, in an analogous fashion to fracking for gas and oil. Like fracking, current operations that involve both forms of hydrometallurgy generate highly toxic fluids, and in many cases extract only a fraction of the target metal. But a novel alternative has just emerged, which involves leaching based on electrical means (Martens, E. and 9 others 2021. Toward a more sustainable mining future with electrokinetic in situ leaching. Science Advances, v. 7, article eabf9971; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abf9971). It isn’t totally new, for it uses the same chemistry as in heap leaching. However, it does not involve shattering the orebody at depth. Instead, low-voltage currents are passed through the orebody which induce a lixiviant to migrate through the rock, along mineral-grain boundaries rather than through fractures. Fluid movement becomes more efficient over time as the host rock is artificially ‘weathered’ thereby making it permeable. In effect, electrokinetic leaching creates a kind of hydrothermal system in reverse, by replacing the chemically reducing conditions of ore deposition with oxidising dissolution and transportation.

So far, the method has only been demonstrated through a small-scale test of concept using drill core samples of ore from a copper mine. Tests over a few days consumed more than half the grains of a copper ore mineral (chalcopyrite) present in the ore sample. So, it seems to work and astonishingly rapidly too. No doubt metal-mining companies, who are currently coining it hand-over-fist during a boom in metal prices, will beat a path to the doors of the team of researchers. But is it an economic proposition? They authors will soon find out … More important, if it is deployed widely will it increase the sustainability of metal mining? At first glance, yes: by removing the need for excavation of ore, liberation of ore-mineral grains by milling and their separation from valueless waste and many other aspects of beneficiation at the surface. Yet, the bottom line is that mining companies deploy their capital not so much to make ingots of useful metal but primarily to yield profits.  Speeding up metal extraction and thereby its supply to the world market could drive down the price that they can get for each tonne. Perversely, it is perceived shortages on metals and the resulting inflation of price that really yield bonanzas. My guess is that the industry will continue mining in the present manner, with all its lack of sustainability and environmental impact, for that very reason. The real way to reduce damage is to reduce demand for metals: do people in general really need more of them and the goods in which they are bound up in such vast amounts?

Update: Can a supernova affect the Earth System?

Earth-pages asked this question in August 2020 because it had been suggested that at least one mass extinction – the protracted faunal decline during the Late Devonian – may provide evidence that supernovas can have deadly influence. The authors of the paper that I discussed proposed mass spectrometric analysis of isotopes, such as 146Sm, 235U and  244Pu  in sediments deposited in an extinction event to test the hypothesis. In the 14 May issue of Science a multinational group of geochemists and physicists, led by Anton Wallner of the Australian National University, report detection of alien isotopes in roughly 10 million-year-old sediments sampled from the Pacific Ocean floor (Wallner, A and 12 others 2021. 60Fe and 244Pu deposited on Earth constrain the r-process yields of recent nearby supernovae. Science, v. 372, p. 742-745; DOI: 10.1126/science.aax3972).

Many of the chemical elements whose atomic masses are greater than 56 form by a thermonuclear fusion process known as rapid neutron capture – termed the ‘r-process’ by physicists. This requires such high energy that the likely heavy-element ‘nurseries must be events such as supernovas and/or mergers of neutron stars. The iron and plutonium isotopes  detected at very low concentrations are radioactive, with half-lives of 2.6 Ma for 60Fe and 80.6 Ma for 244Pu. That makes it impossible for them to be terrestrial in origin because, over the lifetime of the Earth, they would decayed away completely. They must be from recent, alien sources either in our galaxy or one of the nearby galaxies. In fact two ‘doses’ were involved. The authors make no comment on any relationship with marine or continental extinctions at that time in the Miocene Epoch