Sun, sand and sangria on the Mediterranean Costas – and tsunamis?

You can easily spot a tourist returning from a few summer weeks on the coast of the western Mediterranean, especially during 2022’s record-breaking heat wave and wildfires: sunburnt and with a smoky aroma that expensive après-sun lotion can’t mask. Judging from the seismic records, they may have felt the odd minor earthquake too, perhaps putting it down to drink, lack of sleep and an overdose of trance music. Data from the last 100 years show that southern Spain and north-west Africa have a generally uniform distribution of seismic events, mostly less than Magnitude 5. Yet there is a distinct submarine zone running NNE to SSW from Almeria to the coast of western Algeria. It crosses the Alboran Basin, and reveals significantly more events greater than M 5. Most earthquakes in the region occurred at depths less than 30 km mainly in the crust. Five geophysicists from Spain and another two from Algeria and Italy have analysed the known seismicity of the region in the light of its tectonics and lithospheric structure (Gómez de la Peña, L., et al. 2022. Evidence for a developing plate boundary in the western Mediterranean. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 4786; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-31895-z).

Topography of the Alboran Basin beneath the western Mediterranean. The colours grey through blue to purple indicate increasing depth of seawater. Grey circles indicate historic earthquakes, the smallest being M 3 to 4, the largest greater than M 6. Green arrows show plate motions in the area measured using GPS. Active faults are marked in red (see key for types of motion). (Credit: based on Fig 1 of Gómez de la Peña et al.)

The West Alboran Basin is underlain by thinner continental crust (orange on the inset to the map) than beneath southern Spain and western Algeria. Normal crust underpins the Southern Alboran Basin. To the east are the deeper East Alboran and Algero-Balearic Basins, the floor of the latter being true oceanic crust and that of the former created in a now extinct island arc. Running ENE to WSW across the Alboran Basin are two ridges on the sea floor. Tectonic motions determined using the Global Positioning System reveal that the African plate is moving slowly westwards at up to 1 cm yr-1, about 2 to 3 times faster than the European plate. This reflected by the dextral strike-slip along the active ~E-W Yusuf Fault (YSF). This bends southwards to roughly parallel the Alboran Ridge, and becomes a large thrust fault that shows up on ship borne seismic reflection sections. The reflection seismic survey also shows that the shallow crust beneath the Alboran Ridge is being buckled under compression above the thrust. The thrust extends to the base of the African continental crust, which is beginning to override the arc crust of the East Alboran basin. Effectively, this system of major faults seems to have become a plate boundary between Africa and Europe in the last 5 million years and has taken up about 25 km of convergence between the two plates. An estimated 16 km of this has taken place across the Alboran Ridge Thrust which has detached the overriding African crust from the mantle beneath.

The authors estimate an 8.5 to 10 km depth beneath the Alboran fault system at which the overriding crust changes from ductile to brittle deformation – the threshold for strains being taken up by earthquakes. By comparison with other areas of seismic activity, they reckon that there is a distinct chance of much larger earthquakes (up to M 8) in the geologically near future. A great earthquake in this region, where the Mediterranean narrows towards the Strait of Gibraltar, may generate a devastating tsunami. An extension of the Africa-Europe plate boundary into the Atlantic is believed to have generated a major earthquake that launched a tsunami to destroy Lisbon and batter the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, Spain and NW Africa on 1st November 1755. The situation of the active plate boundary in the Alboran Basin may well present a similar, if not worse, risk of devastation.

The earliest upright ape

Two decades ago the world of palaeoanthropologists was in turmoil with the publication of an account of a new find in Chad (see: Bonanza time for Bonzo; July 2002). A fossil cranium, dubbed Sahelanthropus tchadensis (nicknamed Toumaï­ or ‘hope of life’ in the Goran language), appeared like a cross between a chimpanzee and an australopithecine. The turmoil erupted partly because of its age: Upper Miocene, around 7 Ma old. Such an antiquity was difficult to reconcile with the then accepted ~5 Ma estimate for the evolutionary split between humans and chimpanzees, based on applying a ‘molecular clock’ approach to the difference between their mtDNA. The other point of contention was the size of Sahelanthropus’s canine teeth: far too large for australopithecines and humans, but more appropriate for a gorilla or chimp.

Cast of the reconstructed skull of Sahelanthropus tchadensis. (Credit: Didier Descouens, University of Toulouse)

In the absence of pelvic- and foot bones, or signs of the foramen magnum where the spinal cord enters the skull – crucial in distinguishing habitual bipedalism or being an obligate quadruped – encouraged the finders of a 6.1 to 5.7 Ma-old Kenyan hominin Orrorin tugenensis to insist that its skeletal remains – several teeth, fragments of a lower jaw, a thigh bone, an upper arm and of a finger and thumb but no cranial bones – were of ‘the earliest human ancestor’. In Orrorin’s favour were smaller canine teeth than those of later australopithecines. At the time of the dispute, centred mainly on absence of crucial evidence, doyen of hominin fossils Bernard Wood of George Washington University and an advocate of ‘untidy’ evolution, suggested that both early species may well have been evolutionary ‘dead ends’ (see: A considered view; October 2002). And there the ‘muddle’ has rested for 20 years.

In 2002 not only a cranium of Sahelanthropus had been unearthed. Three lower jaw bones and a collection of teeth suggested that as many as 5 individuals had been fossilised. A partial leg bone (femur) and three from forearms (ulna) cannot definitely be ascribed to Sahelanthropus but, in the absence of evidence of any other putative hominin species, they may well be. It has taken two decades for these remains to be analysed to a standard acceptable to peer review (Daver, G. et al. 2022. Postcranial evidence of late Miocene hominin bipedalism in Chad. Nature v. 608, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04901-z). The authors present convoluted anatomical evidence that Toumaï­’s femur, which had been gnawed by a porcupine and lacks joints at both ends, suggesting that it was indeed suited to upright walking. Yet the arm bones hint that it may have been equally comfortable in tree canopies. Yet it does look very like an ape rather than a hominin.

Much the same conclusion has been applied to Australopithecus afarensis, indeed its celebrated representative ‘Lucy’ met her end through falling out of a large tree ~3.2 Ma ago (see: Lucy: the australopithecine who fell to Earth?; September 2016). So, dual habitats may have been adopted by hominins long after they emerged. Yet Au afarensis was capable of trudging through mud as witnessed by the famous footprints at Laetoli in Tanzania. Only around 3 Ma has reasonably convincing evidence for upright walking similar to ours been discovered in Au africanus. The full package of signs from pelvis and foot for habitual bipedalism dates to 2 Ma ago in Au sediba. Even this latest known australopithecine seems to have had a gait oddly different from that of members of the genus Homo.

So, in many respects the benefits of full freeing of the hands to develop manipulation of objects, as first suggested by Freidrich Engels, may have had to await the appearance of early humans. Earlier hominins almost certainly did make tools of a kind, but the revolutionary breakthrough associated with humanity was more than 5 million years in the making.

See also: Callaway, E. 2022. Seven-million-year-old femur suggests ancient human relative walked upright. Nature (News)24 August 2022;

Handwerk, B. 2022. Seven Million Years Ago, the Oldest Known Early Human Was Already Walking. Smithsonion Magazine, 24 August 2022 (click the link ‘published today in Nature’ in 2nd paragraph to access complimentary PDF of Daver et al)

Did giant impacts trigger formation of the bulk of continental crust?

Earth is the only one of the rocky Inner Planets that has substantial continental crust, the rest being largely basaltic worlds. That explains a lot. For a start, it means that almost 30 percent of its surface area stands well above the average level of the basaltic ocean basins – more than 5 km – because of the difference in density between continental and oceanic lithosphere. Without continents and the inability of subduction to draw them back  into the mantle  Earth would remain a water-world as it is thought to have been during the Hadean and early Archaean Eons. The complex processes involved in geochemical differentiation and the repeated reworking of the continents through continual tectonic and sedimentary processes has further enriched parts of them in all manner of useful elements and chemical compounds. And, of course, the land has had a huge biosphere since the Devonian period that subsequently helped to draw down CO­2 well as evolving us.

It has been estimated that during the Archaean (4.0 to 2.5 Ga) around 75% of continental crust formed. Much of this Archaean crust is made up of sodium-rich granitoids: grey tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite (TTG) gneisses in the main. Their patterns of trace elements strongly suggest that their parent magmas formed by partial melting at shallow depths (25 to 50 km). Their source was probably basalts altered by hydrothermal fluids to amphibolites, unlike the post-Archaean dominance of melting associated with subducted slabs of lithosphere. Yet most of the discourse on early continents has centred on when plate tectonics began and when they became strong enough to avoid disruption into subductible ‘chunks’. Yet 10 years ago geochemists at the University of St Andrews in Scotland used hafnium and oxygen isotopes in Archaean zircons to suggest that the first continents grew very quickly in the Hadean and early Archaean at around 3.0 km3 yr-1, slowing to an average of 0.8 km3 yr-1 after 3.5 Ga. In 2017 Geochemists working on one of the oldest cratons in the Pilbara region of Western Australia developed a new, multistage model for early crust formation that did not have a subduction component. They proposed that high degrees of mantle melting first produced a mafic-ultramafic crust of komatiites, which became the source for a 3.5 Ga mafic magma with a geochemistry similar to those of modern island-arc basalts. If a crust of that composition attained a thickness greater than 25 km and was itself partially melted at its base, theoretically it could have generated TTG magma and Archaean continental crust. Three members of that team from Curtin University, Western Australia, and others have now contributed to formulating a new possibility for early continent formation (Johnson, T.E. et al. 2022.  Giant impacts and the origin and evolution of continents. Nature, v. 608, p. 330–335; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04956-y).

The distinctive Archaean granite-greenstone terrain of the Pilbara craton of Western Australia. TTG granites are shown in reds in the form of domes, which are enveloped by metamorphosed sediments and mafic-ultramafic volcanics in khaki and emerald green. Other colours signify post Archaean rocks. (Credit: Warren B. Hamilton; Earth’s first two billion years. GSA, 2007)

Tim Johnson and colleagues base their views on oxygen isotopes in Archaean zircon grains from the Pilbara. The zircons’ O-isotopes fall into three kinds of cluster: low 18O that indicate a hydrothermally altered source; intermediate 18O suggesting a mantle source; high 18O signifying contamination by metasedimentary and volcanic rocks. The first two alternate in the 3.6 to 3.4 Ga period; 4 clusters with mantle connotations occupy the 3.4 to 3.0 Ga range; a cluster with supracrustal contamination follows 3.0 Ga. This record can be reconciled agreeably with the geological and broad geochemical history of the Pilbara craton. But there is another connection: the Late Heavy Bombardment (LHB) recognised on most rocky bodies in the Solar System.

Bodies with much more sluggish internal processes than the Earth have preserved much of their earliest surfaces and the damage they have suffered since the Hadean. The Moon is the best example. Its earliest rocks in the lunar Highlands record a vast number of impact craters. Their relative ages, deduced from older ones being affected by later ones, backed up by radiometric ages of materials produced by impacts, such as melt spherules and basaltic magmas that flooded the lunar maria, revealed the time span of the LHB. The maria formed between 4.2 and 3.2 billion years ago and the damage done then is shown starkly by the dark maria that make up the ‘face’ of the Man in the Moon. The lunar bombardment was at a maximum between 4.1 and 3.8 Ga but continued until 3.5 Ga, dropping off sharply from its maximum effects. Earth preserves no tangible sign of the LHB, but because it is larger and more massive than the Moon, and both have always been in much the same orbit around the Sun, it must have been subject to impacts on a far grander scale. Projectiles carry kinetic energy that enables them to do geological work when they impact: 1/2 x mass x speed2. The minimum speed of an impact is the same as the target’s escape velocity – 2.4 km s-1 for the Moon and 11.2 km s-1 for the Earth. So the energy of an object hitting the Earth would be 20 times more than if it struck the lunar surface. Taking into account the Earth’s larger cross sectional area, the amount of geological work done here by the LHB would have been as much as 300 times greater than that on Earth’s battered satellite.

The Earth’s early geological history was rarely seen in that context before the 21st century, but that is the framework plausibly adopted by Johnson and colleagues. Archaean  sediments in South Africa contain several beds of impact spherules older than 3.2 Ga, as do those of the Pilbara. The LHB also left a geochemical imprint on Earth in the form of anomalous isotope proportions of tungsten in 3.8 Ga gneisses from West Greenland (See: Tungsten and Archaean heavy bombardment and Evidence builds for major impacts in Early Archaean; respectively, July and August 2002). Johnson et al. suggest a 3-stage process for the evolution of the Pilbara craton: First a giant impact akin to the lunar Maria that formed a nucleus of mafic-ultramafic crust from shallow melting of the mantle; its chemical fractionation to produce low-magnesium basalts; and in turn their melting to form TTG magmas and thus a continental nucleus. They conclude:

‘The search for evidence of the Late Heavy Bombardment on Earth has been a long one. However, all along it seems that the evidence was right beneath our feet.’

I agree wholeheartedly, but would add that, until quite recently, many scientists who referred to extraterrestrial influences over Earth history were either pilloried or lampooned by their peers as purveyors of ‘whizz-bang’ science. So, many ‘kept their powder dry’. The weight of evidence and a reversal of wider opinion over the last couple of decades has made such hypotheses acceptable. But it has also opened the door to less plausible notions, such as an impact cause for sudden climate change and even for mythological catastrophes such as the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah!

See also: Timmer, J. 2022. Did giant impacts start plate tectonics? arsTechnica 11 August 2022.

Late formation of the Earth’s inner core

The layered structure of the Earth was discovered using the varying arrival times of seismic waves from major earthquakes, which pass through the Earth, at seismometer stations located across the planet’s surface. Analysis of these arrival times indicates the wavepaths taken through the planet, involving reflections and refractions at boundaries of materials with distinctly different physical properties. S-waves from an earthquake do not arrive in a wide ‘shadow zone’ around its antipode. Since that kind of wave depends on shearing and cannot pass through liquid the shadow reveals the presence of an outer core made of very dense liquid iron and nickel. P-waves that travel in a manner akin to sound waves also show a shadow but it is annular in form around the antipode because of refraction at the core-mantle boundary, but they do penetrate to reach the antipode. However, their arrival times there show faster speeds than expected from an entirely liquid core, and so reveal a central mass, the inner core, which is a ball of solid iron-nickel alloy about 70% of the Moon’s size.

The Earth’s internal structure as revealed by seismic waves (Credit: Smithsonian Institute)

Movements of liquid Fe-Ni in the outer core generate Earth’s magnetic field in the manner of a self-exciting dynamo. Motion in the outer core results from convection of heat from below – probably mainly heat generated by planetary accretion – coupled with the Earth’s rotation and the Coriolis Effect.  The present style of motion is in a thick molten layer trapped between the solid mantle and the inner core. Its circulation results in a magnetic field with two distinct poles close to the geographic ones. The field is crudely similar to that of a bar magnet, with lesser deviations spread around the planet. However, it is not particularly stable, as shown by periodic flips or reversals of polarity through geological time (see: How the core controls Earth’s magnetic field reversals; April 2005).

Few geoscientists doubt that the core formed early in Earth’s history from excess iron, nickel and sulfur, plus other siderophile elements such as gold, that cannot be accommodated by the dominant silicates of the mantle. This could not have been achieved other than by iron-rich melts sinking in some way because of their density. Gradual loss of original heat of accretion and declining radiogenic heat from rare isotopes (e.g. 40K) in the melt suggests an original, totally molten core that at some time began to crystallise under stupendous pressure in its lowest parts. A fully molten core would have been turbulent and therefore able to generate a magnetic field, and Archaean rocks still retain remanent magnetisation. The form that the field took can only be modelled. At times it may have been dipolar – paleomagnetic pole positions match geological evidence for early supercontinents –  and it may have undergone reversals. When the inner core formed has long remained disputed, yet thanks to advances in palaeomagnetic analysis it may now have been resolved  (Zhou, T. and 11 others 2022. Early Cambrian renewal of the geodynamo and the origin of inner core structure. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 4161; DOI:10.1038/s41467-022-31677-7).

Tinghong Zhou of the University of Rochester, USA, and colleagues from other US, Chinese and British institutions have assiduously measured the original magnetic intensities locked in tiny iron- and iron-titanium oxide needles trapped in feldspars that dominate plutonic igneous rocks, known as anorthosites, of late Precambrian age. They found that, by about 565 Ma ago during the Ediacaran Period, the Earth’s magnetic field strength had fallen to almost a sixth of its value in the early Archaean: about 15 times less than it is today. Within a mere 30 Ma it had risen to become 5 times its lowest value , as recorded by a Cambrian anorthosite, and then rose steadily through the Phanerozoic Eon to its present strength. Modelling of the rapid rebound suggests that the inner core had begun to crystallise by about 550 Ma to reach half its present radius by the end of the Ordovician Period (~450 Ma).

That event may also have been a milestone for the continuation of biological evolution on Earth. While Mars once probably had a molten core and magnetic field, it vanished 4 billion years ago, probably when its core became solid. Early Mars had an ocean in its northern hemisphere up to about 3.8 Ga, and there is plenty of evidence for erosion by water on its higher surfaces. For liquid water to have existed there for hundreds of million years demands a thick, warm atmosphere able to initiate a greenhouse effect. With low atmospheric pressure water could have existed only as ice or water vapour. Now its atmosphere is very thin and except at its poles there is no sign of surface water, even as ice (it is possible that significant amounts of water ice remain protected beneath the surface of Mars). One hypothesis is that when Mars lost its magnetic field it also lost protection from the stream of energetic particles known as the solar wind, which can strip water vapour and carbon dioxide – and thus their ability to retain atmospheric heat – from the top of the atmosphere. Earth is currently protected from the solar wind by its strong magnetic field and magnetosphere that deflects high-speed, charged particles. During the Ediacaran Period it almost lost that protection, but was spared by the self-exciting dynamo being regenerated.

See also: How did Earth avoid a Mars-like fate? Ancient rocks hold clues. Science Daily, 25 July 2022

The dangers of rolling boulders

Field work in lonely and spectacular places is a privilege. Though it can be great, boredom sometimes sets in, which is hard for the lone geologist. Today, I guess a cell phone would help, especially in high places where the signal is good. That means of communication and entertainment only emerged in the 1980s and did not reach wild places until well into the 90s. Pre-cellnet boredom could be relieved by what remains a dark secret: lone geologists once rolled large boulders down mountains and valley sides, shouting ‘Below!’ as a warning to others. Their excuse to themselves for this unique thrill (bounding boulders reach speeds of up to 40 m s-1) was vaguely scientific: sooner or later a precarious rock would fall anyway. This week it emerged that Andrin Caviezel of the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Davos, Switzerland, an Alpine geoscientist, rolls boulders for a living (Caviezel, A. 2022. The gravity of rockfalls. Where I work, Nature, v. 607, p. 838; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-022-02044-9). He finds that ‘…flinging giant objects down a mountain is still super fun’. The serious part of his job attempts to model how rockfalls actually move downslope, as an aid to risk assessment (Caviezel, A. and 23 others 2021. The relevance of rock shape over mass – implications for rockfall hazard assessments. Nature Communications, v. 12, article 5546; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25794-y)

Caviezel’s team (@teamcaviezel) don’t use actual rocks but garishly painted, symmetrical blocks of reinforced concrete weighing up to 3 tonnes, which are more durable than most outcropping rock and can be re-used. A Super Puma helicopter shifts a block to the top of a slope, from which it is levered over the edge (watch video). The team deploys two types of block, one equant and resembling a giant garnet crystal, the other wheel-shaped with facets. The first represents boulders of rock types with uniform properties throughout, such as granite. The wheel type mimics boulders formed from rocks that are bedded or foliated, which are usually plate-like or spindly.

Vertical aerial photograph of a uniform, south-facing slope in the Swiss Alps used to roll concrete ‘boulders’. The red X marks the release point; the blue symbols show the points of rest of equant ‘boulders, the sizes of which are shown in the inset, the wheel-shaped ones are magenta. Coloured circles with crosses show the mean rest position of each category (the lighter the colour the smaller the set of ‘boulders’). The coloured ellipses indicate the standard deviation for each category. (Credit: Caviezel et al., Fig 2)

Unlike other gravity-driven hazards, such as avalanches and mudflows, the directions that rockfalls may follow by are impossible to predict. Rather than hugging the surface, boulders interact with it, bouncing and being deflected, and they spin rapidly. To follow each experiment’s trajectory a block contains a motion sensor, measuring speed and acceleration, and a gyroscope that shows rotation, wobbling and motion direction, while filming records jump heights – up to 11 m in the experiments. Despite the similarity of the blocks, the same release point for each roll and a uniform mountainside slope, with one cliff line, the final resting places are widely spread. That hazard zone of rockfalls is distinctly wider than that of snow avalanches; observing a boulder once it starts to move gives a potential victim little means of knowing a safe place to shelter.

The most important conclusion from the experiments is that the widest spread of tumbling ‘boulders’ is shown by the wheel-shaped ones. So, slopes made from bedded or foliated sedimentary and metamorphic rocks may pose wider hazards from rockfalls than do those underpinned by uniform rocks. However, plate-like or spindly boulders are more stable at rest than are equant ones. Yet boulders rarely fall as a result of being pushed (except in avalanches). On moderate slopes they are undermined by erosion, and on steep slopes or cliffs winter ice wedges open joints allowing blocks to fall during a thaw.

Rare meteorite gives clues to the early history of Mars

Apart from the ages and geochemistry of a few hundred zircon grains we have no direct evidence of what the earliest crust of the Earth was like. The vast bulk of the present crust is younger than about 4 billion years. The oldest tangible crustal rocks occur in the 4.2 billion year (Ga) old Nuvvuagittuq greenstone belt on Hudson Bay. The oldest zircon grains have compositions that suggest that they formed during the crystallisation of andesitic magmas about 4.4 Ga ago about 140 Ma after the Earth accreted. But, according to an idea that emerged decades ago, that does not necessarily represent the earliest geology. Geochemists have shown that the bulk compositions of the Earth and Moon are so similar that they almost certainly share an early history. Rocks from the lunar highlands – the light areas that surround the dark basaltic maria – collected during the Apollo missions are significantly older (up to 4.51 Ga). They are made mainly of calcium-rich feldspars. These anorthosites have a lower density that basaltic magma. So it is likely that the feldspars crystallised from an all-enveloping ‘magma ocean’ and floated to form an upper crust on the moon. Such a liquid outer layer could only have formed by a staggering input of energy. It is believed that what became the Moon was flung from the Earth following collision with another planetary body as vapour, which then collapsed under gravity and condensed to a molten state (see: Moon formed from vapour cloud; January 2008). Crystallisation of the bulk of anorthosites has been dated to between 4.42 to 4.35 Ga (see: Moon-forming impact dated; March 2009). The Earth would likely have had a similar magma ocean produced by the impact (a much fuller discussion can be found here), but no tangible trace has been discovered, though there is subtle geochemical evidence.

The surface geology of Mars has been mapped in great detail from orbiting satellites and various surface Rovers have examined sedimentary rocks – one of them is currently collecting samples for eventual return to Earth. Currently, the only materials with a probable Martian origin are rare meteorites; there are 224 of them out of 61 thousand meteorites in collections. They are deemed to have been flung from its surface by powerful impacts to land fortuitously on Earth. It is possible to estimate when they were ejected from the effects of cosmic-ray bombardment to which they were exposed after ejection, which produces radioactive isotopes of a variety of elements that can be used in dating. So far, those analysed were flung into space no more than 20 Ma ago. Meteorites with isotopic ‘signatures’ and mineral contents so different from others and from terrestrial igneous rocks are deemed to have a Martian origin by a process of elimination. They also contain proportions of noble gases (H, Ne, Ar, Kr and Xe) that resemble that of the present atmosphere of Mars. Almost all of them are mafic to ultramafic igneous rocks in two groups: about 25 % that have been dated at between 1.4 to 1.3 Ga; the rest are much younger at about 180 Ma. But one that was recovered from the desert surface in West Sahara, NW Africa (NWA 7034, nicknamed ‘Black Beauty’) is unique. It is a breccia mainly made of materials derived from a sodium-rich basaltic andesite source, and contains much more water than all other Martian meteorites.

The ‘Black Beauty’ meteorite from Mars (NWA 7035) with a polished surface and a 2 mm wide microscope view of a thin section: the pale clasts are fragments of pyroxenes and plagioclase feldspars; the rounded dark grey clast is a fine-grained basaltic andesite. (Credits: NASA; Andrew Tindall)

If you would like to study the make-up of NWA 7035 in detail you can explore it and other Martian meteorites by visiting the Virtual Microsope devised by Dr Andrew Tindall and Kevin Quick of the British Open University.

The initial dating of NWA 7034 by a variety of methods yielded ages between 1.5 to 1.0 Ga, but these turned out to represent radiometric ‘resetting’ by a high-energy impact event around 1.5 Ga ago. Its present texture of broken clasts set in a fine-grained matrix suggests that the breccia formed from older crustal rock smashed and ejected during that impact to form a debris ‘blanket’ around the crater. Cosmogenic dating of the meteorite indicates that the debris was again flung from the surface of Mars at some time in the last 10 Ma to launch NWA 7034 beyond Mars’s gravitational field eventually to land in northwest Africa. But that is not the end of the story, because increasingly intricate radiometric dating has been conducted more recently.

‘Black Beauty’ contains rock and mineral fragments that have yielded dates as old as 4.48 Ga. So the breccia seems to have formed from fragments of the early crust of Mars. Indeed it represents the oldest planetary rock that has ever come to light. Some meteorites (carbonaceous chondrites) date back to the origin of the Solar System at around 4.56 Ga ago, and were a major contributor to the bulk composition of the rocky planets. However, the material in NWA 7034 could only have evolved from such primordial materials through processes taking place within the mantle of Mars. That was very early in the planet’s history: less than 80 Ma after it first began to accrete. It could therefore be a key to the early history of all the rocky planets, including the Earth.

There are several scenarios that might account for the composition of NWA 7034. The magma from which its components originated may have been produced by direct partial melting of the planet’s mantle shortly after accretion. However, experimental partial melting of ultramafic mantle suggests that andesitic magmas would be unlikely to form by such a primary process. But other kinds of compositional differentiation, perhaps in an original magma ocean, remain to be explored. Unlike the Earth-Moon system, there is no evidence for anorthosites exposed at the Martian surface that would have floated to become crust once such a vast amount of melt began to cool. Some scientists, however, have suggested that to be a possibility for early Mars. Another hypothesis, by analogy with what is known about the earliest Archaean processes on Earth, is secondary melting of a primordial basaltic crust, akin to the formation of Earth’s early continental crust.

Only a new robotic or crewed mission to the area from which NWA 7034  was ‘launched’ can take ideas much further. But where on Mars did ‘Black Beauty’ originate? A team from Australia, France, Cote d’ Ivoire, and the US have used a range of Martian data sets to narrow down the geographic possibilities (Lagain, A., and 13 others 2022. Early crustal processes revealed by the ejection site of the oldest martian meteorite. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 3782; DOI 10.1038/s41467-022-31444-8). The meteorite contains a substantially higher content of the elements thorium and potassium than do other Martian meteorites. Long-lived radioactive isotopes of K, Th and U generate gamma-ray emissions with distinctly different wavelengths and energy levels. Those for each element have been mapped from orbit. NWA 7034 also has very distinct magnetic properties, and detailed data on variations on the magnetic field intensity of Mars have also been acquired by remote sensing. Images from orbit allow relative ages of the surface to be roughly mapped from the varying density of impact craters: the older the surface, the more times it has been struck by projectiles of all sizes. These data also detect of craters large enough to have massively disrupted Martian crustal materials to form large blankets of impact breccias like NWA 7034. That is, ‘targets’ for the much later impact that sent the meteorite Earthwards. Using a supercomputer, Lagain et al. have cut the possibilities down to 19 likely locations. Their favoured source is the relatively young Karratha crater in the Southern Hemisphere to the west of the Tharsis Bulge. It formed on a large ejecta blanket associated with the ancient (~1.5 Ga) 40 km wide Khujirt crater.

Interesting, but sufficiently so to warrant an awesome bet in the form of a mission budget?

Ancient deep groundwater

Worldwide, billions of people depend on groundwater for their water needs from wells, deep boreholes and natural springs. Even surface water in rivers and lakes is directly connected to that moving sluggishly below the surface. In fact the surface water level marks where the water table coincides with the land surface. From season to season the water table rises and falls and so too do river and lake levels, depending on fluctuations in rainfall, snow melt, evaporation and extraction. Where it is present, vegetation plays a role in the hydrological cycle, through transpiration from roots through stems and leaves, from which it is exhaled by minute pores or stomata; effectively plants are able to pump water through their tissues to a height of up to a hundred metres.  Groundwater, like that at the surface, moves under gravity roughly parallel to the slope of the land surface from the place where precipitation infiltrates soil and rock. But the deeper it is the slower the flow and the less it is in direct contact with surface processes to be replenished by infiltration. Wells and boreholes rarely penetrate deeper than a few hundred metres, so that the vast bulk of groundwater is never used. Indeed most deep groundwater would not be drinkable or suitable for irrigation since over millennia or longer it dissolves material from the rock that contains it to become saline. In some deep sedimentary aquifers it may actually be composed of seawater trapped at the time of sedimentation.

Damp conditions in the Mponeng gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa, the world’s deepest at 3.8 km below the surface with planned expansion to 4.3 km (Credit: AngloGold Ashanti)

The pore spaces in sandstones and fractures in limestones, the most common aquifers, are not the only conduits for groundwater. Crystalline igneous and metamorphic rocks are generally full of minute fractures resulting from their tectonic history. The deepest mines in crystalline basement, such as the gold mines of the Johannesburg area in South Africa, penetrate almost 4 km below the surface, yet are by no means dry and have to be pumped to stave off flooding. The water is a brine containing sodium and calcium chloride with high concentrations of dissolved, reduced gases such as hydrogen, methane and ethane (C2H6). Studies of the proportions of oxygen isotopes in the water reveal that the water in the fractures is very different from that in modern rainwater: this fluid is completely isolated from the modern hydrological cycle and is very old indeed. Just how old has now been determined (Warr, O. et al. 2022. 86Kr excess and other noble gases identify a billion-year-old radiogenically-enriched groundwater system. Nature Communications v. 13, Article number 3768; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-31412-2).

Brine extracted from a borehole in the floor of the Moab Khotsong gold/uranium mine also contains the noble gases helium, neon, argon, krypton and xenon. Noble gases are present in today’s atmosphere, so conceivably they may have originally entered the brine in rain water that seeped along fractures. However, when their isotopes are measured their proportions are very different from those in air. There are excesses of 4He, 21Ne, 22Ne, 40Ar, 86Kr and several isotopes of Xe. These isotopes are emitted during the radioactive decay of uranium, thorium and 40K, the main heat producing isotopes in the crust and mantle. Oliver Warr of the University of Toronto Canada and geochemists from Oxford University UK, Princeton University and the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology US, and the Sorbonne France show that originally atmospheric noble gases have been enriched in these radiogenic isotopes. Their present isotopic proportions therefore give clues to the time when air dissolved in groundwater was trapped in the host rock more than a billion years ago. A complicating factor is that the host rocks themselves are dated at about three times that age. They suggest that the fractures systems were initiated by the Vredfort asteroid impact at 2.0 Ga to form aquifers, but they became isolated from hydrological circulation around 1.2 Ga and now now contain the world’s oldest groundwater.

One of the implications of the study is that such trapped water may be present at depth in the crust of Mars, despite its current aridity. Another is that, because the fluid contains hydrogen, sulfate ions and hydrocarbon gases, it can potentially support organisms that use them to power their metabolism and reproduce. In 2008 microbes were found living in similar ancient groundwater 2.4 km below the surface in the Kidd Creek Mine, Canada, at a level of around 5 thousand cells per millilitre (50 times less than in surface water). They are powered by reduction of sulfate ions to sulfide. In 2008 another peculiar discovery in the deep biosphere emerged from the Mponeng gold mine near Johannesburg, South African (the world’s deepest) in the form of a living sulfate reducing bacterium Desulforudis audaxviator. DNA  analysis of the ancient water revealed that it was the sole inhabitant, a biological mystery confirmed by later deep-biosphere studies in Death Valley, USA, and Siberia.

See also: Researchers uncover life’s power generators in the Earth’s oldest groundwaters, EurekaAlert, 5 July 2022; Mantle link with biosphere, July 2009

New dating questions previous ideas about early hominins

The Sterkfontein cave 40 km northwest of Johannesburg in South Africa first sprang to the attention of scientists in 1936, with the discovery there of an adult hominin skull. This showed clear affinities with the discovery 400 km to the SW in 1924 of the fossil skull of a juvenile primate, which Raymond Dart claimed to be ancestral to modern humans, naming it Australopithecus africanus. Sterkfontein has since yielded more than 500 hominin fossils, many of which are Au. africanus.

Limestone cave deposits are difficult to date precisely, unlike sediments that are interbedded with volcanic rocks, the most amenable material being that deposited by water flowing through the cave to form flowstone or speleothem. Using the U-Pb method of radiometric dating yielded an age of between 2.1 to 2.6 Ma for flowstone that cements the breccia in which the Au. africanus fossils occur. Clearly, the flowstone formed after burial so that was a minimum age for them, awaiting the use of a different chronological tool to suggest when burial of the bones took place

The face of an Australopithecus africanus: ‘Mrs Ples’. (Credit University of Zurich)

An almost complete skeleton of another australopithecine found in another part of the Sterkfontein cave system was dated in 2015 by a different approach. This used the decay of 10Be and 26Al isotopes that high-energy cosmic rays produce in quartz grains while they are exposed at the surface. Burial of irradiated sedimentary grains protects them from such bombardment, and the two isotopes  then steadily decay at a known rate. Quartz grains associated with this specimen (fondly known as ‘Little Foot’) turned out to be far older than the flowstone U-Pb age, with a cosmogenic burial age of about 3.7 Ma. Its much greater antiquity prompted scientists to regard ‘Little Foot’ as a different species – Au. prometheus – despite being similar to Au. africanus.

Since that success, much the same team from South Africa, the US and France has been working on sedimentary grains buried with the abundant Au. africanus specimens from Sterkfontein (Granger D.E. et al. 2022. Cosmogenic nuclide dating of Australopithecus at Sterkfontein, South AfricaProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 119, article e2123516119; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2123516119). Their newly published efforts show that “Little Foot’s” burial took place between 3.41 and 3.49 Ma, more than a million years earlier than suggested by the flowstone U-Pb dating and just ~200 ka younger than the ‘Little Foot’ skeleton. More surprising is that Au. africanus lived during the same period (3.4 to 3.7 Ma) as did Au. afarensis – the species to which ‘Lucy’ belonged – 3500 km to the north in Ethiopia.

So it is no longer justifiable  to suggest that the first known human species (Homo habilis ~2.3 to 1.65 M) is either a more ‘advanced’ australopithecine or a direct descendant from that genus, for the new dating opens a million-year gap in the history of human evolution. That age range does contain stone tools but no plausible candidates for an australopithecine-human evolutionary connection. One of the most recently suggested link is Au. sediba (see: Another candidate for earliest, direct human ancestor, October 2011; and Australopithecus sediba: is she or is she not a human ancestor? April 2013). The snag with that candidate is that the well-established age (2.0 Ma) of known specimens falls in the middle of the range for H. habilis. The two may have been cohabiters of Africa but are very different.

The million years that separated Au. africanus together with afarensis from H. habilis is the period when the defining character of humans, tool making, evolved. So the hunt is on for hominins associated with stone tools in that huge stratigraphic gap. One of the drawbacks with famous sites, such as the ‘Cradle of Humankind’ that includes Sterkfontein, is that they almost become clichés so that scientists return to them again and again, while the key that they seek may well lie elsewhere.

Climate out of control after the Permian-Triassic mass extinction

The snuffing out of up to 90 percent of all terrestrial and marine species at the end of the Permian (252 Ma) was the outcome of lethal climatic warming. It probably stemmed from a stupendous episode of flood basalt volcanism and intrusions in what is now Siberia that burned vast amounts of peat or coal in the basin that the flows filled (see: Coal and the end-Permian mass extinction; March 2011). The carbon dioxide so released created planetary hyperthermia and toxic acid rain. For at least five million years Earth was an almost sterile world, a notable absence being dense vegetation on the land surface – the Early Triassic is devoid of coal, whereas there is plenty of Late Permian age. Much the same slow recovery of life is found in meagre collections of land and marine animal fossils of that age. Yet, other mass extinctions were followed by recovery and species diversification at a much faster pace.

One conceivable explanation could be the near absence of vegetation whose photosynthesis and burial would otherwise draw down CO2 and the same goes for its marine equivalent phytoplankton. But there is a powerful inorganic means of carbon sequestration: silicate weathering. The chemistry depends on carbon dioxide dissolved in water. For simple silicates it can be expressed as:

2CO2 + H2O + CaSiO3 → Ca2+ + 2HCO3 + SiO2.

The higher the ambient temperature, the faster such reactions proceed. Most silicates are more complex and many common ones, such as feldspars, include aluminium, so that another product of weathering is insoluble, fine-grained clay minerals. So various soluble metal ions (Ca, Mg, K, Na etc), dissolved bicarbonate ions, silica in various guises and clays eventually end up in the sea. Once there, it is possible for them to recombine, as for instance calcium and bicarbonate ions:

Ca2+ + 2HCO3→ CaCO3 + CO2 + H2O

Despite some CO2 gas being released, this reaction results in a net sequestration of carbon in calcium carbonate. Incidentally, the same kind of chemical reaction occurs in the soils produced by weathering. The carbonate may cement soils to form a hard crust of caliche or ‘calcrete’. Chemical weathering enhanced by a hot climate, it might seem, should reduce the greenhouse effect quickly: a feedback mechanism that normally stabilises climate. But that did not happen after the P-Tr extinction event, thereby stressing all remaining life forms. A group of scientists at the University of Waikato in New Zealand have developed a possible explanation for this potentially fatal hazard for life on Earth (Isson, T.T. et al. 2022. Marine siliceous ecosystem decline led to sustained anomalous Early Triassic warmth. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 3509; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-31128-3). It focuses on the silica (SiO2) released by chemical weathering, which enters the ocean in the form of a colloid: Si(OH)4, a form of silicic acid known as ‘reactive silica’. Under ‘normal’ conditions, this is removed by organisms, such as diatoms and radiolaria, and is constantly recycled on a time scale of about 400 years, some contributing to deep-ocean oozes in the form of chert. But, like all other marine organisms, they too were victims of the P-Tr mass extinction.

Examples of marine radiolaria (top)

Reactive silica colloids in seawater also participate in inorganic chemical reactions, combining with dissolved metal ions to form complex hydrated aluminosilicates, i.e. more clay minerals. The reactions change the alkalinity of seawater. As a result dissolved HCO3ions transform to CO2 gas and water. Despite the complexity of the chemistry that interweaves the carbon and silicon cycles, there is a simple conclusion. If the abundance of silica-secreting marine organisms falls drastically while continental weathering continues to deliver silica, clay-mineral formation on the ocean floor results in release of CO2 that reverses the effect of enhanced weathering and thus maintains hyperthermal conditions. The other outcome is that less chert and flint granules form Terry Isson and colleagues examined the varying proportion of chert in cores through Lower Triassic marine sediments. A ‘chert gap’characterises the 4 to 6 Ma following the P-Tr boundary event. This can be explained in part by extinction of silica-secreting organisms and by inorganic reactions converting the reactive silica that enhanced weathering delivered to the oceans to clay minerals. This supports the idea that the inorganic part of the silica cycle maintained greenhouse conditions in the absence of organic ‘competition’ for reactive silica. Many other biogeochemical cycles link biological and chemical processes that combine to affect climate: involving phosphorus, nitrogen and iron, to name but three.

A new twist to Pleistocene climate cycles

The combined gravitational pulls of the sun and moon modulate variations in local tidal range. High spring tides occur when the two bodies are opposed at full moon or in roughly the same direction at new Moon. When the positions of sun and moon are at right angles (1st quarter and 3rd quarter) their gravitational pulls partly cancel each other to give neap tides. Consequently, there are two tidal cycles every lunar month.  In a similar way, the varying gravitational pulls of the planets during their orbital cycles impart a repetitive harmony to Earths astronomical behaviour. But their combined effects are on the order of tens of thousand years. Milutin Milankovich (1879-1958), a Serbian engineer, pondered on the possible causes of Earth’s climatic variations, particularly the repetition of ice ages. He was inspired by 19th century astronomers’ suggestion that maybe the gravitational effects of other planets might be a fruitful line of research. Milankovich focussed on how the shape of Earth’s orbit, the tilt of its rotational axis and the way the axis wobbles like that of a spinning top affect the amount of solar heating at all points on the surface: the effects of varying eccentricity, obliquity and precession, respectively.

 Earlier astronomers had calculated cycles of gravitational effects on Earth of the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn of the three attributes of Earth’s astronomical behaviour and found periods of about 100, 41 and 23 thousand years (ka) respectively. The other 3 inner planets and the much more distant giants Uranus and Neptune also have gravitational effects on Earth, but they are negligible compared with those of the two nearest giant planets, because gravitation force varies with mass and inversely with the square of distance. Sadly, Milankovich was long dead when his hypothesis of astronomical climate forcing was verified in 1976 by frequency analysis of the record of oxygen isotopes in foraminifera found in two ocean sediment core from the Southern Indian Ocean. It revealed that all three periods interfered in complex ways during the Late Pleistocene, to dominate variations in sea-surface temperatures and the fluctuating volume of continental ice sheets for which δ18O is a proxy (see: Odds and ends about Milankovich and climate change; February 2017).

Precession of the axis of a spinning top and that of the Earth. At present the northern end of Earth’s axis points to what we now call the Pole Star. Around 11.5 ka from now it will point to the star Vega

This was as revolutionary for climatology as plate tectonics was for geology. We now know that in the early Pleistocene glacial-interglacial cycles were in lockstep with the 41 ka period of axial obliquity, and since 700 ka followed closely – but not perfectly – the 100 ka orbital eccentricity forcing. The transitional period between 1.25 and 0.7 Ma (the Mid-Pleistocene Transition or MPT) suggested neither one nor the other. Milankovich established that axial tilt variations have the greatest influence on solar heating, so the early 41 ka cycles were no surprise. But the dominance of orbital eccentricity on the last 700 ka certainly presented a puzzle, for it has by far the weakest influence on solar heating: 10 times less than those of axial obliquity and precession. The other oddity concerns the actual effect of axial precession on climate change. There are no obvious 23 ka cycles in the climate record, despite the precession signal being clear in frequency analysis and its effect on solar heating being almost as powerful as obliquity and ten times greater than that of orbital eccentricity. Precessional wobbling of the axis controls the time of year when one hemisphere or the other is closest to the Sun. At one extreme it will be the Northern and 11.5 ka later it will be the Southern. The times of solstices and equinoxes also change relative to the calendar that we use today.

There is an important, if obvious, point about astronomical forcing of climate. It is always there, with much the same complicated interactions between the factors: human activities have absolutely no bearing on them. Climatic ‘surprises’ are likely to continue!

Changes in ice-rafted debris (IRD) since 1.7 Ma in a sediment core from the North Atlantic (orange fill) compared with its oxygen-isotope (δ18O) record of changes in continental ice cover (blue fill). At the top are the modelled variations in 23 ka axial precession (lilac) and 41 ka obliquity (green). The red circles mark major interglacial episodes, blue diamonds show the onset of significant ice rafting and orange diamonds are terminations of ice-rafting (TIR). (Credit: Barker et al., Fig. 2)

Sea temperature and ice-sheet volume are not the only things that changed during the Pleistocene. Another kind of record from oceanic sediments concerns the varying proportion in the muddy layers of abnormally coarse sand grains and even small pebbles that have been carried by icebergs; they are known as ice-rafted debris (IRD). The North Atlantic Ocean floor has plenty of evidence for them appearing and disappearing on a layer-by-layer basis. They were first recognised in 1988 by an oceanographer called Helmut Heinrich, who proposed that six major layers rich in IRD in North Atlantic cores bear witness to iceberg ‘armadas’ launched by collapse, or ablation, at the front of surging ice sheets on Scandinavia, Greenland and eastern Canada. Heinrich events, along with Dansgaard-Oeschger events (rapid climatic warming followed by slower cooling) in the progression to the last glacial maximum have been ascribed to a variety of processes  operating on a ‘millennial’ scale. However, ocean-floor sediment cores are full of lesser fluctuations in IRD, back to at least 1.7 Ma ago. That record offers a better chance of explaining fluctuations in ice-sheet ablation. A joint European-US group has investigated their potential over the last decade or so (Barker, S. et al. 2022. Persistent influence of precession on northern ice sheet variability since the early Pleistocene. Science, v. 376, p. 961-967; DOI: 10.1126/science.abm4033). The authors noted that in each glacial cycle since 1.7 Ma the start of ice rafting consistently occurred during a time of decreasing axial obliquity. Yet the largest ablation events were linked to minima in the precession cycles. In the last 700 ka, such extreme events are associated with the terminations of each ice age.

In the earlier part of the record, the 41 ka obliquity ‘signal’ was sufficient to drive glacial-interglacial cycles, hence their much greater regularity and symmetry than those that followed the Mid-Pleistocene Transition. The earlier ice sheets in the Northern Hemisphere also had consistently smaller extents than those after the MPT. Although the records show a role for precession in pre-MPT times in the form of ice-rafting events, the lesser effect of precession on summer warming at higher latitudes, compared with that of axial obliquity, gave it no decisive influence. After 700 ka the northern ice sheets extended much further south – as far as 40°N in North America – where summer warming would always have been commensurately greater than at high northern latitudes. So they were more susceptible to melting during the increased summer warming driven by the precession cycles. When maximum summer heating induced by axial precession in the Northern Hemisphere coincided with that of obliquity the ice sheets as a whole would have become prone to catastrophic collapse.

It is hard to say whether these revelations have a bearing on future climate. Of course, astronomical forcing will continue relentlessly, irrespective of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Earth has been in an interglacial for the last 11.5 ka, since the Younger Dryas; i.e. about half a precession cycle ago. The combination of obliquity- and precession-driven influences suggest that climate should be cooling and has been since 6,000 years ago, until the Industrial Revolution intervened. Can the gravitational pull of the giant planets prevent a runaway greenhouse effect, or will human effects defy astronomical forces that continually distort Earth’s astronomical behaviour?