Gaia: the ultimate frontier

That life plays a role in surface geological processes is self-evident. Death and the burial of dead organic matter feed back to climate by removing carbon from the atmosphere and hydrosphere, thereby reducing the ‘greenhouse’ effect and increasing the oxidation potential of the outer Earth – a discovery of the late 20th century. James Lovelock’s Gaia hypothesis proposes that life’s influence as a means of balancing conditions for its own continuity is a primary factor behind the behaviour of our home world, although a great many geoscientists doubt that bold generalisation. It seems to many that the influence of both deep mantle processes and extraterrestrial forces not only provided the conditions for planetary evolution, both inside and at the surface, but created the conditions for life’s emergence and its survival.  Life has been pushed to the brink of complete extinction several times by both truly primary parameters. Yet Gaia is still a persuasive idea, or at least a metaphorical itch that must be scratched from time to time. Perhaps the boldest attempt at pushing Lovelock’s notions to the limit appears in a recent essay (Rosing, M.T. et al. 2006. The rise of continents – An essay on the geologic consequences of photosynthesis. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology v. 232, p. 99-113).

Assuming that carbon-isotope evidence from the oldest sediments known (3.8 Ga, West Greenland) that life selectively took up light 12C is valid, there seems to be a remarkable coincidence between the origin of life on Earth and the oldest known continental rocks (4.0 Ga, northern Canada). Rosing et al. suggest that this is no coincidence, but the result of the effect of living organisms on magmatism at subduction zones, most particularly on the mineralogy of old oceanic lithosphere that descends there. Their essay starts by emphasizing that modern photosynthesis contributes three times more energy to surface processes than does heat flow from the mantle, and that energy must accomplish a commensurately significant amount of mainly geochemical work, some of which occurs in basalts of the ocean floor as they spread from constructive margins. Continental crust is widely accepted to form as a result of hydrous fluids rising above subduction zones to cause different conditions for melting of the overriding mantle wedge than those for partial melting of mantle rock beneath mid-ocean ridges and oceanic islands. Multistage fractionation processes that operate on basaltic magmas formed by this wedge melting result in separation of residual magmas that are sufficiently enriched in silica and other elements to crystallize as, broadly speaking, granitic rocks. Since they cannot be metamorphosed to a form that exceeds the density of the mantle, such rocks cannot be subducted, unless debris shed from them mixes as sediment with subducting oceanic lithosphere. So continents become more or less permanently growing edifices on the face of the Earth. The central questions that Rosing et al. focus upon are: why did continents not form from the outset of the Earth’s evolution, once tectonics and oceans had stabilized, and why the coincidence? Their answer to both is that life played a fundamental role in increasing the amount of water that ends up in old, cold oceanic crust, thereby helping the peculiarities of wedge melting to become established. Essentially they appeal to life’s ability to transform energy of different sources, for example heat from the mantle and the energy carried by electromagnetic radiation, and transmit it through biogeochemical cycles from its source to the lithosphere. Specifically, they speculate that this life-mediated energy transfer accelerated the conversion of dry minerals in basalt to water-rich clays. In turn, that had its effect on subduction-zone geochemistry.

Rosing et al.’s seems to have a willful flaw: they focus on the incorporation of solar energy into the Earth system by photosynthesis from the time when continental materials first appeared in substantial bulk, between 3.8 and 4.0 Ga. So far there is a mere shred of evidence from ambiguous carbon isotope studies that photosynthesising organisms were around before about 3.4 to 3.5 Ga. There is no trace of such shallow-water organisms as stromatolites until that time. Nor is there any significant sign of where one end product of photosynthesis, oxygen, must have been secreted away by reaction with dissolved iron(II) – banded iron formations only become prominent in the later Archaean. Whatever organic activity might alter ocean-floor basalts, it is hardly likely to have used photosynthesis, unless the early oceans were shallow enough (200-300 m) to pass light to their floor. The key to alteration of anyhydrous minerals in basalt to form clays is the availability of hydrogen ions (products of oxidation) to donate electrons through hydration reactions, and they are available from a great many processes other than living ones. Then, of course, there is the key issue of whether any influence – direct or indirect – by photosynthesis can be seen on modern ocean-floor geochemical processes. Since it doesn’t go on down there, whereas a great many oxidation reactions that produce hydrogen ions do, makes the hypothesis impossible to test. In fact it is not a hypothesis but speculation, and it has a great deal of company from other ideas to explain the missing 600-800 Ma of Earth’s evolution. Most of those centre on the mechanics of slab-pull force, the pace of sea-floor spreading and the angle of likely subduction during geothermally much hotter times. Oddly, the third author, Norman Sleep, introduced a great deal of basic theory behind these other explanations.  This is one of two articles from March 2006, whose time of publication – close to 1 April – may give a clue to its weight. It is interesting seasonal reading, and everyone should look forward to further debate.  However, like the magnificent Verneshot hypothesis (See Mass extinctions and internal catastrophes in June 2004 issue of EPN), it may die in a deafening silence.

Methane, methanogens and early climate control

Expulsion of methane from gas hydrates in shallow marine sediments has been implicated several times as the likely cause for sudden bouts of global warming, such as that at the end of the Palaeocene 55 Ma ago. The gas, produced by primitive, anaerobic prokaryotes known as methanogens, is more powerful at delaying loss of heat to space than is carbon dioxide. It is a greenhouse gas of enormous potential power, although in an oxygen-rich atmosphere it has a short life before being oxidised to CO2 and water. Methanogens themselves, which survive only in airless places, evolved very early in the Earth’s history as witnessed by their genetic molecules being very different from those of other members of the Bacteria and Archaea domains. The ambiguities of carbon isotopes in ancient carbonaceous rocks being able to discriminate different metabolic processes, has led to considerable debate about when methanogens first made their appearance. That was probably well before the oceans were able to contain dissolved oxygen, which is highly toxic to anaerobic prokaryotes, i.e. in the Archaean. A good sign that such cells were around would be, in some way, to detect their main metabolic product, methane.  The place to look would be in fluid inclusions enclosed in minerals that were definitely produced by seafloor sedimentary processes. The best candidate would be quartz in cherts precipitated from seafloor hydrothermal vents, where such organisms would have both the energy and the fuel to thrive. A group of Japanese geochemists have systematically looked for such fluid inclusions in a variety of Archaean cherts and they found sufficient evidence to at least give a minimum age for the presence of methane-producing bugs (Ueno, Y. et al. 2006. Evidence from fluid inclusions for microbial methanogenesis in the early Archaean era. Nature, v. 516, p. 516-519).

The Dresser Formation (3.45-3.50 Ga) in the early Archaean of Western Australia contains abundant pillow basalts and chemogenic, silica-rich sediments. These cherts seem to have been fed by fissures through which hydrothermal fluids moved, and it is quartz from these syn-sedimentary quartz-rich dykes that revealed abundant fluid inclusions that had clearly formed as the quartz crystals grew. The inclusions contain carbon dioxide with traces of methane. Most important, the carbon in the methane is highly enriched in heavy 13C, evidently due to cell processes drawing in the lighter isotope 12C; the methane is almost certainly biological in origin. So it is possible to say both that methanogens had evolved before 3.5 Ga, and that they added methane to the Archaean atmosphere. Such a highly reduced gas would become a permanent constituent of the air, because oxygen had yet to be released by other organisms so that methane would be oxidise quickly, as happens today. The discovery by Ueno et al. is important from another standpoint than the appearance of a particular kind of metabolic process.

From the time of its accretion until well into the early Precambrian, the Earth received a great deal less energy from the Sun than it does today. Solar hydrogen fusion had not then achieved the level of efficiency that it has now. Without some means of trapping heat in the atmosphere, the Earths mean surface temperature would have been well below the freezing point of water. Without a ‘greenhouse’ effect, the planet, well endowed with water, would have been inescapably locked inside a thick crust of ice. In some respects it would have resembled a large version of one of the Outer Planet’s icy moons, such as Enceladus (see Yet another weird world later). Life would have found it difficult to emerge, if at all, at such low temperatures. Like Enceladus and other distant moons, some liquid water would have been present due to heating from the mantle and magmas, but the white surface would always have reflected away most of the Sun’s heat – geothermal heat is vastly less than that of solar origin. The most recently proposed means whereby the Earth could have escaped permanent frigidity and sterility from the ‘weak, young Sun’ is that volcanic exhalation of CO2 would eventually have developed ‘greenhouse’ conditions.  However, it would have had to reach much higher atmospheric concentrations that now, perhaps greater than some geochemists believe to be theoretically possible. Being a much more powerful ‘greenhouse’ gas, methane helps overcome such theoretical difficulties. It can only be produced in quantity by biological processes, and that poses a conundrum, despite Ueno et al.s discovery. Without an atmosphere containing gases that could trap solar warmth since shortly after planet formation, the cold trap would have taken an icy grip holding back the emergence of life, such as primitive methanogens. Does that therefore imply that such organisms emerged far earlier than the start of tangible geological history?

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