The end of the Carboniferous ‘icehouse’ world

From about 340 to 290 Ma the Earth experienced the longest episode of repeated ice ages of the Phanerozoic. The climate then was similar in many ways to that of the Pleistocene. The South Polar region was then within the Pangaea supercontinent and thus isolated from any warming effect from the surrounding ocean: much the same as modern Antarctica but on a much larger scale. Glaciation extended as far across what became the southern continents and India as did the continental ice sheets of the Northern Hemisphere during Pleistocene glacial maxima. Tropical sedimentary rocks of the time, display evidence for repeated alternations of high and low sea levels that mark cycles of glacial maxima and interglacial episodes akin to those of the Pleistocene. In fact they probably reflect the influence of changes in the Earth’s orbit and geometry of its axis of rotation very similar to those predicted by Milankovich from astronomical factors to explain Pleistocene climatic cycles. At the end of the Carboniferous what was an ‘ice-house’ world changed suddenly to its opposite – ‘greenhouse’ conditions – that persisted through the Mesozoic Era until the later part of the Cenozoic, when Antarctica developed is ice cap and global climate slowly cooled to become extremely cyclical once again.

Sedimentary evidence for global climates 320 Ma ago. As well as the large tracts of glaciogenic sediments, smaller occurrences and examples of polished rock surfaces over which ice had passed show the probable full extent (blue line) of ice sheets across the southern, Gondwana sector of Pangaea (Credit: after Fig 7.3, S104, Earth and Space, ©Open University 2007)

The end of the Carboniferous witnessed the collapse of the vast Equatorial rainforests, which formed the coal deposits that put ‘Carbon’ into the name of the Period. By its end this ecosystem had vanished to result in a minor mass extinction of both flora and fauna. Temperatures rose and aridity set in, to the extent that the latest Carboniferous in the British coalfields is marked by redbeds that presage the spread of desert conditions across the Equatorial parts of Pangaea during the succeeding Permian. A team of researchers based at the University of California at Davis have been studying data pertaining to this sudden change have now published their findings (Chan J. and 17 others 2022. Marine anoxia linked to abrupt global warming during Earth’s penultimate icehouse. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 119, article e2115231119; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2115231119). They used carbon-, oxygen- and uranium isotopes, together with proxies for changes in atmospheric CO2 concentrations, to model changes in the carbon cycle in the Late Carboniferous of China.

Changes in uranium isotopes within marine carbonates are useful indicators of the amount of oxygen available in ocean water at the sea floor. Between 304 and 303.5 Ma ago oxygen content declined by around 30%, the peak of this anoxia being at 303.7 Ma. This occurred about 100 ka after atmospheric CO2 had risen to ~700 parts per million (ppm) from around 350 ppm in the preceding 300 ka, as marked by several proxies.  The authors suggest that the lower ‘baseline’ for the main greenhouse gas marked an extreme glacial maximum. Changes in the proportions of 18O relative to ‘lighter’ 16O in fossil shells suggest that sea-surface temperatures increased in step with the doubling of the greenhouse effect. At the same time there was a major marine transgression as sea level rose. This would have been accompanied by a massive increase in low density freshwater in surface ocean water derived from melting of Pangaea’s ice cap. The team suggests that the freshened surface layer could not sink to carry oxygen to deeper levels, thereby creating anoxic conditions across an estimated 23% of the global seafloor, and thus toxic ‘death zones’ for marine organisms.

One possibility for this sudden rise of atmospheric CO2 is a massive episode of volcanism, perhaps a large igneous province, but there is scanty evidence for that at the end of the Carboniferous. A coinciding sharp decrease in δ13C  in carbonate shells suggests that the excess carbon dioxide probably had an organic origin. So a more plausible hypothesis is massive burning on the continental surface. In the tropics, the huge coals swamps would have contained vast amounts of peat-like decayed vegetable matter as well as living green vegetation. How might that have caught fire? The peat precursor to Carboniferous coal deposits derived from photosynthesis on an unprecedented, and never repeated, scale during tens of million years of thriving tropical rain forest during that Period. This built up atmospheric oxygen levels to about 35%, compared with about 21% today. Insects, whose maximum size is governed by their ability to take in oxygen through spiracles in their bodies, and by the atmospheric concentration of oxygen, became truly huge during the earlier Carboniferous. The more oxygen in the air, the greater the chance that organic matter will catch fire. In fact wet vegetation can burn if oxygen levels rise above 25%. At the levels reached in the Carboniferous huge wildfires in forests and peatlands would have been inevitable. Evidence that huge fires did occur comes from the amount of charcoal found in Carboniferous coal seams, which reach 70% compared with the 4 to 8 % in more recent coals. They may have been ignited by lightning strikes or even spontaneous combustion if decay of vegetation generated sufficient heat, as sometimes happens today in wet haystacks or garden compost heaps.  But how in a short period around 304 Ma could 9 trillion tons of carbon dioxide be released in this way. The preceding  glacial super-maximum, like glacial maxima of the Pleistocene, may have been accompanied by decreased atmospheric humidity: this would dry out the vast surface peat deposits.

The succeeding Permian is famous for its extensive continental redbeds, and so too those of the Triassic. They are red because sediment grains are coated in the iron oxide hematite (Fe2O3). As on Mars, the redbeds are a vast repository for oxygen sequestered from the atmosphere by the oxidation of dissolved Fe2+ to insoluble Fe3+. This had been going on throughout the Permian, the nett result being that by 250 Ma atmospheric oxygen content has slumped to 16% and remained so low for another 50 million years. Photosynthesis failed to resupply oxygen against this inorganic depletion, and there are few coal deposits of Permian or Triassic age: for about 100 Ma Earth ceased to have green continents.

See also: Carbon, climate change and ocean anoxia in an ancient icehouse world. Science Daily, 2 May 2022. 

‘Smoking gun’ for Younger Dryas trigger refuted

In 2018 airborne ice-penetrating radar over the far northwest of the Greenland revealed an impact crater as large as the extent of Washington DC, USA beneath the Hiawatha Glacier. The ice surrounding it was estimated to be younger than 100 ka. This seemed to offer a measure of support for the controversial hypothesis that an impact may have triggered the start of the millennium-long Younger Dryas episode of frigidity (12.9 to 11.7 ka). This notion had been proposed by a group of scientists who claimed to have found mineralogical and geochemical signs of an asteroid impact at a variety of archaeological sites of roughly this age in North America, Chile and Syria. A new study of the Hiawatha crater by a multinational team, including the original discoverers of the impact structure, has focussed on sediments deposited beyond the edge of the Greenland ice cap by meltwater streams flowing along its base. (Kenny, G.G. et al. 2022. A Late Paleocene age for Greenland’s Hiawatha impact structure. Science Advances, v.8, article eabm2434; DOI: 10.1126/science.eabm2434).

Colour-coded subglacial topography from airborne radar sounding over the Hiawatha Glacier of NW Greenland (Credit: Kjaer et al. 2018; Fig. 1D)

Where meltwater emerges from the Hiawatha Glacier downstream of the crater there are glaciofluvial sands and gravels that began to build up after 2010 when rapid summer melting began, probably due to global warming. As luck would have it, the team found quartz grains that contained distinctive planar features that are characteristic of impact shock. They also found pebbles of glassy impact melts that contain clasts of bedrock, further grains of shocked quartz and tiny needles of plagioclase feldspar that crystallised from the melt. Also present were small grains of the mineral zircon (ZrSiO4), both as pristine crystals in the bedrock clasts and porous, grainy-textured grains showing signs of deformation in the feldspathic melt rock. So, two materials that can be radiometrically dated are available: feldspars suitable for the 40Ar/39Ar method and zircons for uranium-lead (U-Pb) dating. The feldspars proved to be about 58 million years old; i.e. of Late Palaeocene age. The pristine zircon grains from bedrock clasts yielded Palaeoproterozoic U-Pb ages (~1915 Ma), which is the general age of the Precambrian metamorphic basement that underpins northern Greenland. The deformed zircon samples have a very precise U-Pb age of 57.99±0.54 Ma. There seems little doubt that the impact structure beneath the Hiawatha Glacier formed towards the beginning of the Cenozoic Era.

During the Palaeocene, Northern Greenland was experiencing warm conditions and sediments of that age show that it was covered with dense forest. The group that since 2007 has been advocating the influence of an impact over the rapid onset of the Younger Dryas acknowledges that the Hiawatha crater cannot support their view. But they have an alternative: an airburst of an incoming projectile. Although scientists know such phenomena do occur, as one did over the Tunguska area in Siberia on the morning of 30 June 1908. Research on the Tunguska Event has discovered  geochemical traces that may implicate an extraterrestrial object, but coincidentally the area affected is underlain by the giant SIberian Traps large igneous province that arguably might account for geochemical anomalies. Airbursts need to have been observed to have irrefutable recognition. Two posts from October 2021 – A Bronze Age catastrophe: the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah? and Wide criticism of Sodom airburst hypothesis emerges – suggest that some scientists question the data used repeatedly to infer extraterrestrial events by the team that first suggested an impact origin for the Younger Dryas.

See also: Voosen, P, 2022. Controversial impact crater under Greenland’s ice is surprisingly ancient. Science, v. 375, article adb1944;DOI: 10.1126/science.adb1944

The Mid-Pleistocene Transition: when glacial cycles changed to 100 ka

Before about a million years ago the Earth’s overall climate repeatedly swung from warm to cool roughly every 41 thousand years. This cyclicity is best shown by the variation of oxygen isotopes in sea-floor sediments. That evidence stems from the tendency during evaporation at the ocean surface for isotopically light  oxygen (16O) in seawater to preferentially enter atmospheric water vapour relative to 18O.  During cool episodes more water vapour that falls as snow at high latitudes fails to melt, so that glaciers grow. Continental ice sheets therefore extract and store 16O so that the proportion of the heavier 18O increases in the oceans. This shift shows up in the calcium carbonate (CaCO­3) shells of surface-dwelling organisms whose shells are preserved in sea-floor sediment. When the climate warms, the ice sheets melt and return the excess of 16O back to ocean-surface water, again marked by changed oxygen isotope proportions in plankton shells. The first systematic study of sea-floor oxygen isotopes over time revolutionised ideas about ancient climates in much the same way as sea-floor magnetic stripes revealed the existence of plate tectonics. Both provided incontrovertible explanations for changes observed in the geological record. In the case of oxygen isotopes climatic cyclicity could be linked to changes in the Earth’s orbital and rotational behaviour: the Milankovich Effect.

Glacial-interglacial cycles during the Pleistocene

The 41 ka cycles reflect periodic changes in the angle of the Earth’s rotational axis (obliquity), which have the greatest effect on how much solar heating occurs at high latitudes. However, between about 1200 and 600 ka the fairly regular, moderately intense 41 ka climate cycles shifted to more extreme, complex and longer 100 ka cycles at the ‘Mid-Pleistocene Transition’ (MPT). They crudely match cyclical variations in the shape of Earth’s orbit (eccentricity), but that has by far the least influence over seasonal solar heating. Moreover, modelling of the combined astronomical climate influences through the transition show little, if any, sign of any significant change in external climatic forcing. Thirty years of pondering on this climatic enigma has forced climatologists to wonder if the MPT was due to some sort of change in the surface part of the Earth system itself.

There are means of addressing the general processes at the Earth’s surface and how they may have changed by using other aspects of sea-floor geochemistry (Yehudai, M. and 8 others 2021. Evidence for a Northern Hemispheric trigger of the 100,000-y glacial cyclicity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, v. 118, article e2020260118; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2020260118). For instance the ratio between the abundance of the strontium isotope 87Sr to that of 86Sr in marine sediments tells us about the progress of continental weathering around a particular ocean basin. The 87Sr/ 86Sr ratio is higher in rocks making up the bulk of the crystalline continental crust than that in basalts of the oceanic crust. That ratio is currently uniform throughout all ocean water. During the Cenozoic Era the ratio steadily increased in sea-floor sediments, reflecting the continual weathering and erosion of the continents. In the warm Pliocene (5.3 to 2.8 Ma) 87Sr/ 86Sr remained more or less constant, but began increasing again at the start of the Pleistocene with the onset of glaciation in the Northern Hemisphere. At about 1450 ka it began to increase more rapidly suggesting increased weathering, and then settled back to its earlier Pleistocene rate after 1100 ka. Another geochemical contrast between the continental and oceanic crust lies in the degree to which the ratio of two isotopes of neodymium (143Nd/144Nd) in rocks deviates from that in the Earth’s mantle – modelled from meteorite geochemistry – a measure signified by ЄNd. Magmatic rocks and young continental rocks have positive ЄNd values, but going back in time continental crust has increasingly negative ЄNd.

Yehudai et al analysed cores from deep-sea sediments that had been drilled between 41°N and 43°S in the Atlantic Ocean floor. They targeted layers designated as glacial and interglacial from their oxygen isotope geochemistry at different levels in the cores to check how ЄNd varied with time. The broad variations within each core look much the same, although at increasingly negative values from south to north, except in one case. The data from the most northerly Atlantic core show far more negative values of ЄNd, in both glacial and interglacial layers at around 950 ka ago, than do cores further to the south. The authors interpret this anomaly as showing a sudden increase in the amount of very old continental rocks – with highly negative ЄNd – that had become exposed at and ground from the base of the great northern ice sheets of North America, Greenland and Scandinavia. At present, the shield areas where the great ice sheets occurred until about 11 ka are almost entirely crystalline Precambrian basement, including the most ancient rocks that are known. Although broadly speaking the shields now have low relief, they are extremely rugged terrains of knobbly basement outcrops and depressions filled with millions of lakes. In the earlier Cenozoic they were covered by younger sedimentary rocks and soils formed by deep weathering, with less-negative ЄNd values. The authors conclude that around 950 ka that younger cover had largely been removed by glacial every every 41 ka or so since about 2.6 Ma ago, when glaciation of the Northern Hemisphere began.

The surface on which the North American ice sheet moved – typical Canadian Shield.

So what follows from that ЄNd anomaly? Yehudai et al suggest that in earlier Pleistocene times each successive ice sheet rested on soft rock; i.e. their bases were well lubricated. As a result, glaciers quickly reached the coast to break up and melt as icebergs drifted south. Exposure of the deeper, very resistant crystalline basement resulted in much more rugged base, as can be seen in northern Canada and Scandinavia today. Friction at their bases suddenly increased, so that much more ice was able to build up on the great shields surrounding the Arctic Ocean than had previously been possible. Shortly after 950 ka the sea-floor cores also reveal that deep ocean circulation weakened significantly in the following 100 ka. The influence on climate of regular, 41 ka changes in the tilt of the Earth’s rotational axis could therefore not be sustained in the later Pleistocene. The ice sheets could neither melt nor slide into the sea sufficiently quickly; indeed, bigger and more durable ice sheets would reflect away more solar heating than was previously possible as glacial gave way to interglacial. The 41 ka astronomical ‘pacemaker’ still operated, but ineffectually. A new and much more complex climate cyclicity set in. Insofar as climate change became stabilised, an overall ~100 ka pulsation emerged. Whether or not this fortuitously had the same pace as the weak influence of Earth’s changing orbital eccentricity remains to be addressed. The climate system just might be too complicated and sensitive for us ever to tell: it may even have little relevance in a climatically uncertain future.

See also: Why did glacial cycles intensify a million years ago? Science Daily, 8 November 2021.

Multiple impacts set back oxygen build-up in the Archaean

Earth’s present atmosphere contains oxygen because of one form of photosynthesis that processes water and carbon dioxide to make plant carbohydrates, leaving oxygen at a waste product. The photochemical trick that underpins oxygenic photosynthesis seems only to have evolved once. It was incorporated in a simple, single-celled organism or prokaryote, which lacks a cell nucleus but contains the necessary catalyst chlorophyll. Such an organism gave rise to cyanobacteria or blue-green bacteria, which still make a major contribution to replenishing atmospheric oxygen. Chloroplasts that perform the same function in plant cells are so like cyanobacteria that they were almost certainly co-opted during the evolution of a section of nucleus-bearing eukaryotes that became the ancestors of plants. A range of evidence suggests that oxygenic photosynthesis appeared during the Archaean Eon, the most tangible being the presence of stromatolites, which cyanobacteria mats or biofilms form today. These knobbly structures in carbonate sediments extend as far back as 3.5 billion years ago (see: Signs of life in some of the oldest rocks; September 2016). Yet it took a billion years before the first inklings of biogenic oxygen production culminated in the Great Oxygenation Event or GOE (see: Massive event in the Precambrian carbon cycle; January, 2012) at around 2400 Ma. Then, for the first time, oxidised iron in ancient soils turned them red. If oxygen was being produced, albeit in small amounts, in shallow, sunlit Archaean seas, why didn’t it build up in the atmosphere of those times? Geochemical analyses of Archaean sediments do point to trace amounts, with a few ‘whiffs’ of more substantial amounts. But they fall well below those of Meso- and Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic times. One hypothesis is that Archaean oceans contained dissolved, ferrous iron (Fe2+) – a powerful reducing agent – with which available oxygen reacted to form insoluble ferric iron (Fe3+) oxides and hydroxides that formed banded iron formations (BIFS). The Fe2+ in this hypothesis is attributed to hydrothermal activity in basaltic oceanic crust. There is, however, another possibility for suppression of atmospheric oxygen accumulation in the Archaean and early-Palaeoproterozoic.

Summary of the evolution of atmospheric oxygen and related geological features. The percentage scale is logarithmic with the modern level being100%. Credit Alex Glass, Duke University

Simone Marchi of the Southwest Research Institute of Boulder, CO, USA and colleagues from the US, Austria and Germany suggest that planetary bombardment offers a plausible explanation (Marchi, S. et al 2021. Delayed and variable late Archaean atmospheric oxidation due to high collision rates on Earth. Nature Geoscience, v. 14 advance publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-021-00835-9). Over the last 20 years evidence of extraterrestrial impacts has emerged, in the form of thin spherule-bearing layers in Archaean sedimentary strata, probably formed by impacts of objects around 10 km across. So far 35 such layers have been identified from several locations in South Africa and Western Australia. They span the last billion years of the Archaean and the earliest Palaeoproterozoic, although they are not evenly spaced in time. The spherules represent droplets of mainly crustal but some meteoritic rocks that were vaporised by impacts and then condensed as liquid. Meteorites in particular contain reduced elements and compounds, including iron, whose oxidation by would remove free oxygen.

The evidence from spherule beds is supplemented by the team’s new calculations of the likely flux of impactors during the Archaean. These stem from re-evaluation of the lunar cratering record that is used to estimate the number and size of impacts on Earth up to 2.5 Ga ago. This flux amounts to the ‘leftovers’ of the catastrophic period around 4.1 Ga when the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn ran amok before they settled into their present orbits. Their perturbation of gravitational fields in the solar system injected a long-lived supply of potential impactors into the inner solar system, which is recorded by craters on the post-4.1 Ga lunar maria. The calculations suggest that the known spherule layers underestimate the true number of such collisions on Earth. Modelling by Marchi et al., based on the meteorite flux and the oxidation of vaporised materials produced by impacts, plausibly accounts for the delay in atmospheric oxygen build-up.

It is worth bearing in mind, however, that large impacts and their geochemical aftermath are, in a geological sense, instantaneous events widely spaced in time. They may have chemically ‘sucked’ oxygen out of the Archaean and early-Palaeoproterozoic atmosphere. Yet photosynthesising bacteria would have been generating oxygen continuously between such sudden events. The same goes for the supply of reduced ferrous iron and its circulation in the oceans of those times, capable of scavenging available oxygen through simple chemical reactions. In fact we can still observe that in action around ocean-floor hydrothermal vents where a host of reduced elements and compounds are oxidised by dissolved oxygen. The difference is that oxygen is now produced more efficiently on land and in the upper oceans and a less vigorous mantle is adding less iron-rich basalt magma to the crust: the balance has changed. Another issue is that the Great Oxygenation Event terminated the oxygen-starved conditions of the Archaean and Palaeoproterozoic in about 200 million years, despite the vast production of BIFs before and after it happened. The Wikipedia entry for the GOE provides a number of hypotheses for how that termination came about. Interestingly, one idea looks to a shortage of dissolved nickel that is vital for methane generating bacteria: a nickel ‘famine’. A geochemical setback for methanogens would have been a boost for oxygenic photosynthesisers and especially their waste product oxygen: methane quickly reacts with oxygen in the atmosphere to produce CO2 and water. Anomalously high nickel is a ‘signature element’ for meteorite bombardment, though it can be released by hydrothermal alteration of basalt. Had meteoritic nickel been fertilising methane-generating bacteria in the oceans prior to the GOE?

See also: A new Earth bombardment model. Science Daily, 21 October 2021.

Influence of massive igneous intrusions on end-Triassic mass extinction

About 200 Ma ago, the break-up of the Pangaea supercontinent was imminent. The signs of impending events are spread through the eastern seaboard of North America, West Africa and central and northern South America. Today, they take the form of isolated patches of continental flood basalts, dyke swarms – probably the feeders for much more extensive flood volcanism – and large intrusive sills. Break-up began with the separation of North America from Africa and the start of sea-floor spreading that began to form the Central Atlantic Ocean: hence the name Central Atlantic Magmatic Province (CAMP) for the igneous activity. It all kicked off at the time of the Triassic-Jurassic stratigraphic boundary, and a mass extinction with a similar magnitude to that at the end of the Cretaceous. Disappearances of animals in the oceans and on continents were selective rather than general, as were extinctions of land plants. The mass extinction is estimated to have taken about ten thousand years. It left a great variety of ecological niches ready for re-occupation. On land a small group of reptiles with a substantial destiny entered some of these vacant niches. They evolved explosively to the plethora of later dinosaurs as their descendants became separated as a result of continental drift and adaptive radiation.

Flood basalts of the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province in Morocco (Credit: Andrea Marzoli)

The end-Triassic mass extinction, like three others of the Big Five, was thus closely associated in time with massive continental flood volcanism: indeed one of the largest such events. Within at most 10 ka large theropod dinosaurs entered the early Jurassic scene of eastern North America. The Jurassic was a greenhouse world whose atmosphere had about five times more CO2, a mean global surface temperature between 5 and 10°C higher and deep ocean temperatures 8°C above those at present. Was mantle carbon transported by CAMP magmas the main source (widely assumed until recently) or, as during the end-Permian mass extinction, was buried organic carbon responsible? A multinational group of geoscientists have closely examined samples from a one million cubic kilometre stack of intrusive basaltic sills, dated at 201 Ma, in the Amazon basin of Brazil that amount to about a third of all CAMP magmatism (Capriolo, M. and 11 others 2021. Massive methane fluxing from magma–sediment interaction in the end-Triassic Central Atlantic Magmatic ProvinceNature Communications, v. 12, article 5534; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25510-w).

The team focussed on fluid inclusions in quartz within the basaltic sills that formed during the late stages of their crystallisation. The tiny inclusions contain methane gas and tiny crystals of halite (NaCl) as well as liquid water. Such was the bulk composition of the intrusive magma that the presence of around 5% of quartz in the basalts would be impossible without their magma having assimilated large volumes of silica-rich sedimentary rocks such as shales. The host rocks for the huge slab of igneous sills are sediments of Palaeozoic age: a ready source for contamination by both organic carbon and salt. The presence of methane in the inclusions suggests that more complex hydrocarbons had been ‘cracked’ by thermal metamorphism. Moreover, it is highly unlikely to have been derived from the mantle, partly because methane has been experimentally shown not to be soluble in basaltic magmas whereas CO2 is. The authors conclude that both quartz and methane entered the sills in hydrothermal fluids generated in adjacent sediments. Thermal metamorphism of the sediments would also have driven such fluids to the surface to inject methane directly to the atmosphere. Methane is 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere, yet it combines with the hydroxyl (OH) radical to form CO2 and water vapour within about 12 years. Nevertheless during continuous emission methane traps 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than would an equivalent mass of carbon dioxide.

Calculations suggest about seven trillion tonnes of methane were generated by the CAMP intrusions in Brazil. Had the magmas mainly been extruded as flood basalts then perhaps global warming at the close of the Triassic would have been far less. Extinctions and subsequent biological evolution would have taken very different paths; dinosaurs may not have exploded onto the terrestrial scene so dramatically during the remaining 185 Ma of the Mesozoic. So it seems important to attempt an explanation of why CAMP magmas in Brazil did not rise to the surface but stayed buried as such stupendous igneous intrusions. Work on smaller intrusive sills suggests that magmas that are denser than the rocks that they pass through – as in a large, thick sedimentary basin – are forced by gravity to take a lateral ‘line of least resistance’ to intrude along sedimentary bedding. That would be aided by the enormous pressure of steam boiled from wet sedimentary rocks forcing beds apart. In areas where only thin sedimentary cover rests on crystalline, more dense igneous and metamorphic rocks, basaltic magma has a greater likelihood of rising through vertical dyke swarms to reach the surface and form lava floods.

Anthropocene more an Event than an Epoch.

The Vattenfall lignite mine in Germany; the Anthropocene personified

The issue of whether or not to assign the time span during which human activities have been significantly affecting the planet and its interwoven Earth Systems has been dragging on since the term ‘Anthropocene’ was first proposed more than two decades ago. A suggestion that may resolve matters, both amicably and with a degree of scientific sense, has emerged in a short letter to the major scientific journal Nature, written by six eminent scientists (Bauer, A.M. et al. 2021. Anthropocene: event or epoch? Nature, v. 597, p. 332; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-021-02448-z). The full text is below

The concept of the Anthropocene has inspired more than two decades of constructive scholarship and public discussion. Yet much of this work seems to us incompatible with the proposal to define the Anthropocene as an epoch or series in the geological timescale, with a precise start date and stratigraphic boundary in the mid-twentieth century. As geologists, archaeologists, environmental scientists and geographers, we have another approach to suggest: recognize the Anthropocene as an ongoing geological event.

The problems with demarcating the Anthropocene as a globally synchronous change in human–environment relations, occurring in 1950 or otherwise, have long been evident (P. J. Crutzen and E. F. Stoermer IGBP Newsletter 41, 17–18; 2000). As an ongoing geological event, it would be analogous to other major transformative events, such as the Great Oxidation Event (starting around 2.4 billion years ago) or the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event (around 500 million years ago).

Unlike formally defined epochs or series, geological events can encompass spatial and temporal heterogeneity and the diverse processes — environmental and now social — that interact to produce global environmental changes. Defining the Anthropocene in this way would, in our view, better engage with how the term has been used and criticized across the scholarly world.”

AUTHORS: Andrew M. Bauer, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA; Matthew Edgeworth, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK;  Lucy E. Edwards, Florence Bascom Geoscience Center, Reston, Virginia, USAErle C. Ellis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, Maryland, USA ; Philip Gibbard, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge, Cambridge, UK;  Dorothy J. Merritts, Franklin and Marshall College, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA.

I have been grousing about the attempt to assign Epoch/Series status to the Anthropocene for quite a while (you can follow the development of my personal opinions by entering ‘Anthropocene’ in the Search Earth-logs box). In general I believe that the proposal being debated is scientifically absurd, and a mere justification for getting a political banner to wave. What the six authors of this letter propose seems eminently sensible. I hope it is accepted by International Commission on Stratigraphy as a solution to the increasingly sterile discussions that continue to wash to and fro in our community. Then perhaps the focus can be on action rather than propaganda.

As things have stood since 21 May 2019, a proposal to accept the Anthropocene as a formal chrono-stratigraphic unit defined by a GSSP at its base around the middle of the 20th century is before the ICS and the International Union of Geological Sciences (IUGS) for ratification. It was accepted by 88% of the 34-strong Anthropocene Working Group of the ICS Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy. But that proposal has yet to be ratified by either the ICS or IUGS. Interestingly, one of the main Anthropocene proponents was recently replaced as chair of the Working Group.

When Greenland was a warm place

On 14-15 August 2021 it rained for the first time since records began at the highest point on the Greenland ice cap. Summit Camp at 3.216 m is run by the US National Science Foundation, which set it up in 1989, and is famous for climate data gleaned from two deep ice cores there. This odd event came at a time when surface melting of the ice cap covered 870 thousand km2: over half of its total 1.7 million km2 extent: a sure sign of global warming. The average maximum temperature in August at Summit is -14°C, but since the mid 20th century the Arctic has been warming at about twice the global rate. Under naturally fluctuating climatic conditions during the Pleistocene, associated with glacial-interglacial cycles, Greenland may have been ice-free for extended periods, perhaps as long as a quarter of a million years around 1.1 Ma ago. If 75% of the up to 3 km thick ice on Greenland melted that would add 5 to 6 m to global sea level, perhaps as early as 2100 if current rates of climate warming persist.

The edge of the ice cap in NE Greenland (credit: Wikipedia)

The worst scenario is runaway warming on the scale of that which took place 56 Ma ago during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) when global mean temperature rose by between 5 to 8°C at a rate comparable with what the planet is experiencing now as a result of growth in the world economy. In fact, the CO2 released during the PETM emerged at a rate that was only about tenth of modern anthropogenic emissions  Sediments that span the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary occur in NE Greenland, a study of which was recently published by scientists from Denmark, Greenland, the UK, Australia and Poland (Hovikoski, J. and 13 others 2021. Paleocene-Eocene volcanic segmentation of the Norwegian-Greenland seaway reorganized high-latitude ocean circulation. Communications Earth & Environment, v. 2, article 172; DOI: 10.1038/s43247-021-00249-w). The greenhouse world of NE Greenland that lay between 70 and 80°N then, as it still does, was an area alternating between shallow marine and terrestrial conditions, the latter characterised by coastal plain and floodplain sediments deposited in estuaries, deltas and lakes. They include coals derived from lush, wooded swamps, inhabited by hippo-like ungulates, primates and reptiles.

At that time the opening of the northern part of the North Atlantic had barely begun, with little chance for an equivalent of the Gulf Stream to have had a warming influence on the Arctic. Shortly after the PETM volcanism began in earnest, to form the flood basalts of the North Atlantic Igneous Province. Each lava flow is capped by red soil or bole: further evidence for a warm, humid climate and rapid chemical weathering. As well as lava build-up, tectonic forces resulted in uplift, effectively opening migration routes for animals and land plants to colonise the benign – for such high latitudes – conditions and perhaps escape the far hotter conditions further south.

The situation now is much different, with the potential for even more rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap to flood freshwater into the North Atlantic, as is currently beginning. Diluting surface seawater reduces its density and thus its tendency to sink, which is the main driving force that pulls warmer water towards high-latitudes in the form of the Gulf Stream. Slowing and even shutting down its influence may have an effect that contradicts the general tendency for global warming – a cooling trend at mid- to high latitudes with chaotic effects on atmospheric pressure systems, the jet stream and weather in general.

See also: Barham, M. et al. 2021. When Greenland was green: rapid global warming 55 million years ago shows us what the future may hold. The Conversation, 23 August 2021.

Apocalypse Soon: Will current global warming trigger a mass extinction?

Since the start of 2020 I doubt there has been much field research. But such a vast amount of data has been amassed over the years that there must be opportunities to keep the academic pot boiling. One way is to look for new correlations between different kinds of data. For instance matching the decades-old time series of extinctions with those of other parameters that have changed over geological time. At a time of growing concern about anthropogenic climate change a group based at the State Key Laboratory of Biogeology and Environmental Geology, at China University of Geosciences, Wuhan have checked the extinction rates of marine fossils over the last 450 Ma against variations in sea-surface temperature (Song, H. et al 2021. Thresholds of temperature change for mass extinctions. Nature Communications, v. 12, Article number 4694; DOI: 0.1038/s41467-021-25019-2).

Extinction data are usually presented in time ‘bins’ based on the number of disappearances of fossil genera in one or a number of geological Stages – the finest divisions of the stratigraphic column. The growing data set for sea-surface temperatures derived using oxygen isotopes from marine fossil shells is more continuous, being derived from many different layers of suitable sedimentary rock within a Stage. Clearly, the two kinds of data have to be expressed in a similar way to check for correlations. Haijun Song and co-workers converted both the extinction and temperature time series to 45 time ‘bins’, each around 10 Ma long. They express the binned climatic data in two ways: as the largest temperature change (°C) and the highest rate of temperature change (°C Ma-1) within each bin. That is, they expressed to some extent the greater continuity of seawater temperature data as well as matching them to those for extinctions.

Changes since the end of the Ordovician: red = extinction rate in time bins; green = the greatest magnitude of change in temperature in each bin; blue- the greatest rate of temperature change in each bin. Grey bars show mass extinctions (Credit: Song et al., Fig 1)

There are good correlations between the climatic and extinction data, particularly for mass extinctions. Bearing in mind that mass extinctions take place far more rapidly than can be expressed with 10 Ma time bins, the authors were concerned that bias could creep into the binned extinction data. They were able to discount this by examining both data sets in finer detail at the times of the ‘Big 5’ extinctions. Earlier research had identified warming episodes around the times of each mass extinction, often implicating greenhouse-gas emissions from Large Igneous Provinces. Yet there are other factors that may have influenced the 7 ‘lesser’ mass extinctions in the fossil record. The authors are sufficiently confident in the correlations they have revealed to suggest thresholds that seem to have launched major mass extinctions: greater than 5.2 °C and 10 °C Ma-1 for magnitudes and rates of sea-surface temperature change, respectively.

In the context of the modern climate, the data analysis predicts that a rise of 5.2 °C above the preindustrial mean global temperature spells extinctions of ‘Big Five’ magnitude. The rate of temperature increase since 1880 – 0.08 ° per decade – is hugely faster than that expressed by the data that span the last 450 Ma. This is more alarming than the stark Sixth Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC released on 9 August 2021.

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.