Mistaken conclusions from Earth’s oldest materials

Microscope projection close-upThe oldest materials on the planet are tiny zircon grains that were washed into conglomerate in Western  Australia about 2650 to 3050 Ma ago. It wasn’t the fact that the grains are zircons, which are among the most durable materials around, but the range of ages that they revealed when routinely analysed. U-Pb dating of detrital zircons is a well tested means of finding the provenance of sedimentary materials as an indicator of orogenic and igneous events that formed the crust from which they were eroded. In the original study of the Jack Hills zircons some showed ages that might reasonably have been expected from late sediments in an Archaean craton: around 3.5 billion years is about the maximum age for orogenic events there. What astonished all geoscientists was that a proportion of the grains gave ages of more than 4 billion years, some as old as 4.4 Ga: here was a window on the missing first half billion years of Earth history, the Hadean.

Subsequent work on yet more zircons confirmed the original age span but other kinds of analysis led to a variety of claims: that continental crust was around in abundance within 100 Ma of Earth having formed; geothermal heat =flow was not especially high;  liquid water was available for geological processes, including the origin of life; plate tectonics may have started early…. The topic has cropped up several times in EPN since the issue of 1 January 2001. Quite a lot of the claims emerged from studies of other minerals enclosed by the ancient zircons, such as quartz and micas, and now they have been checked again by geochemists from Western Australia (Rasmussen, B. et al. 2011. Metamorphic replacement of mineral inclusions in detrital zircons from Jack Hills, Australia: Implications for the Hadean Earth. Geology, v. 39, p. 1143-1146). It turns out that the inclusions formed at temperatures well below those of magmas, between 350 to 490°C: more like those of metamorphism. Indeed, uranium-bearing rare-earth phosphate minerals, xenotime and monazite, also locked in the zircons not only turn out to be metamorphic in origin too (both are also formed magmatically) but date to between 2700 and 800 Ma.

While the  Hadean zircon dates remain robust, a closer look at their inclusions shows that they did not remain geochemically closed systems thereafter. It was on the assumption of zircons being geological ‘time capsules’ that much of the excitement rested. Even using the presence of zircons from 4.4 Ga – they are most common in granites but do occur in mafic and intermediate igneous rocks – to suggest early ‘sialic’ continental crust is suspect. Despite having some tiny bits from Earth’s early days, it seems we are none the wiser.

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