We have become accustomed to thinking that up to 90% of organisms were snuffed out by the catastrophe at the Permian-Triassic boundary 252 Ma ago. Those are the figures for marine organisms, whose record in sediments is the most complete. It has also been estimated to have lasted a mere 60 ka, and the recovery in the Early Triassic to have taken as long as 10 Ma. There are hints of three separate pulses of extinction related to: initial gas emission from the Siberian Traps; coal fires; and release of methane from sea-floor gas hydrates at the peak of global warming. Various terrestrial sequences record the collapse of dense woodlands, so that the Early Triassic is devoid of coals that are widespread in the preceding Late Permian. A new detailed study of terrestrial sediments in the Sydney Basin of eastern Australia reveals something new (Fielding, C.R. and 10 others 2019. Age and pattern of the southern high-latitude continental end-Permian extinction constrained by multiproxy analysis. Nature Communications, v. 10, online publications: DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07934-z).
Christopher Fielding or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and colleagues focused on pollens, geochemistry and detailed dating of the sedimentary succession across the P-Tr boundary exposed on the New South Wales coast. The stratigraphy is intricately documented by a 1 km deep well core that penetrates a more or less unbroken fluviatile and deltaic sequence that contains eleven beds of volcanic ash. The igneous layers are key to calibrating age throughout the sequence (259.10 ± 0.17 to 247.87 ± 0.11 Ma using zircon U-Pb methods). The pollens change abruptly from those of a Permian flora, dominated by tongue-like glossopterid plants, to a different association that includes conifers. The change coincides with a geochemical ‘spike’ in the abundance of nickel and a brief change in the degree of alteration of detrital fledspars to clay minerals. The first implicates the delivery of massive amounts of nickel to the atmosphere, probably by the eruption of the Siberian Traps , which contain major economic nickel deposits. The second feature suggests a brief period of warmer and more humid climatic conditions. A third geochemical change is the onset of oscillations in the abundance of 13C that are thought to record major changes in plant life across the planet. These features would have been an easily predicted association with the 252 Ma mass extinction were it not for the fact that the radiometric dating places them about 400 thousand years before the well-known changes in global animal life. Detailed dating of the Siberian Traps links the collapse of Glossopteris and coal formation to the earliest extrusion of flood basalts, which suggests that the animal extinctions were driven by cumulative effects of the later outpourings
Radiocarbon dating is the most popular tool for assessing the ages of archaeological remains and producing climatic time series, as in lake- and sea-floor cores, provided that organic material can be recovered. Its precision has steadily improved, especially with the development of accelerator mass spectrometry, although it is still limited to the last 50 thousand years or so because of the short half-life of 14C (about 5,730 years,). The problem with dating based on radioactive 14C is its accuracy; i.e. does it always give a true date. This stems from the way in which 14C is produced – by cosmic rays interacting with nitrogen in the atmosphere. Cosmic irradiation varies with time and, consequently, so does the proportion of 14C in the atmosphere. It is the isotope’s proportion in atmospheric CO2 gas at any one time in the past, which is converted by photosynthesis to dateable organic materials, that determines the proportion remaining in a sample after decay through the time since the organism died and became fossilised. Various approaches have been used to allow for variations in 14C production, such as calibration to the time preserved in ancient timber by tree rings which can be independently radiocarbon dated. But that depends on timber from many different species of tree from different climatic zones, and that is affected by fractionation between the various isotopes of carbon in CO2, which varies between species of plant. But there is a better means of calibration.
The carbonate speleothem that forms stalactites and stalagmites by steady precipitation from rainwater, sometimes to produce visible layering, not only locks in 14C dissolved from the atmosphere by rainwater but also environmental radioactive isotopes of uranium and thorium. So, layers in speleothem may be dated by both methods for the period of time over which a stalagmite, for instance, has grown. This seems an ideal means of calibration, although there are snags; one being that the proportion of carbon in carbonates is dominated by that from ancient limestone that has been dissolved by slightly acid rainwater, which dilutes the amount of 14C in samples with so called ‘dead carbon’. Stalagmites in the Hulu Cave near Nanjing in China have particularly low dead-carbon fractions and have been used for the best calibrations so far, going back the current limit for radiocarbon dating of 54 ka (Cheng, H. and 14 others 2018. Atmospheric 14C/12C during the last glacial period from Hulku Cave. Science, v. 362, p. 1293-1297; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau0747). Precision steadily falls off with age because of the progressive reduction to very low amounts of 14C in the samples. Nevertheless, this study resolves fine detail not only of cosmic ray variation, but also of pulses of carbon dioxide release from the oceans which would also affect the availability of 14C for incorporation in organic materials because deep ocean water contains ‘old’ CO2.
My first field trip from the Geology Department at the University of Birmingham in autumn 1964 was located within hooter distance of the giant British Leyland car plant at Longbridge. It involved a rubbish-filled linear quarry behind a row of shops on the main road through south Birmingham. Not very prepossessing but it clearly exposed a white quartzite, which we were told was a beach deposit laid down by a massive marine transgression at the start of the Cambrian. An hour later we were shown an equally grim exposure of weathered volcanic rocks in the Lickey Hills; they were a sort of purple brown, and said to be Precambrian in age. Not an excellent beginning to a career, but from time to time other Cambrian quartzites sitting unconformably on Precambrian rocks entered our field curriculum: in the West Midlands, Welsh Borders and much further afield in NW Scotland, as it transpired on what had been two separate continental masses of Avalonia and Laurentia. This had possibly been a global marine transgression.
In North America, then the Laurentian continent, what John Wesley Powell dubbed the Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon has as its counterpart to the Lickey Quartzite the thrillingly named Tonto Group of the Lower Cambrian resting on the Vishnu Schists that are more than a billion years older. Part of the Sauk Sequence, the Tonto Group is, sadly, not accompanied by the Lone Ranger Group, but the Cambrian marine transgression crops out across the continent. In fact it was a phenomenon common to all the modern continents. Global sea level rose relative to the freeboard of the continents then existing. A recent study has established the timing for the Great Unconformity in the Grand Canyon by dating detrital zircons above and below the unconformity (Karlstrom, K, et al. 2018. Cambrian Sauk transgression in the Grand Canyon region redefined by detrital zircons. Nature Geoscience, v. 11, p. 438-443; doi:10.1038/s41561-018-0131-7). Rather than starting at the outset of the Cambria at 542 Ma, the marine transgression was a protracted affair that began around 527 Ma with flooding reaching a maximum at the end of the Cambrian.
It seems most likely that the associated global rise in sea level relative to the continents was a response to the break-up of the Rodinia supercontinent by considerable sea-floor spreading. The young ocean floor, having yet to cool to an equilibrium temperature, would have had reduced density so that the average depth of the ocean basins decreased, thereby flooding the continents. The creation of vast shallow seas across the continents has been suggested to have been a major factor in the explosive evolution of Cambrian shelly faunas, partly by expanding the range of ecological niches and partly due to increased release of calcium ions to to seawater as a result of chemical weathering.
A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook
The longest and most extreme glacial epoch during the Phanerozoic took place between 360 and 260 Ma ago, when it dominated the Carboniferous and Permian sedimentary sequences across the planet. On continents that lay athwart the Equator during these times, sedimentation was characterised by cycles between shallow marine and terrestrial conditions. These are epitomised by the recurring ‘Coal-Measure’ cyclothem of, from bottom to top: open-sea limestone; near-shore marine mudstone; riverine sandstone; coal formed in swamps. This sequence represents a rapid rise in sea level as ice sheets melted, sustained during an interglacial episode and then falling sea level as ice once again accumulated on land to culminate in a glacial maximum when coal formed in coastal mires. During the Late Palaeozoic Era a single supercontinent extended from pole to pole. The break-up of Pangaea was charted by Alfred Wegener in 1912, partly by his using glacial deposits and ice-gouged striations on the southern continents. With the present widely separated configuration of major landmasses glacial sediments and the directions of inferred ice movements could only be reconciled by reassembling Africa, India, South America, Antarctica and Australia in the form of a single, congruent southern continent that he called Gondwanaland. In Wegener’s reconstruction the glacial features massed together on Gondwanaland with the striations radiating outwards from what would then have been the centre of a huge ice cap.
There are many localities on the present southern continents where such striations can be seen on the surface of peneplains etched into older rocks that underlie Carboniferous to Permian tillites, but later erosion has removed the continuity of the original glacial landscape. There are, however, some parts of central Africa where it is preserved. By using the high-resolution satellite images (with pixels as small as 1 m square) that are mosaiced together in Google Earth, Daniel Paul Le Heron of Royal Holloway, University of London has revealed a series of 1 to 12 km wide sinuous belts in a 6000 km2 area of eastern Chad that are superimposed unconformably on pre-Carboniferous strata (Le Heron, D.P. 2018. An exhumed Paleozoic glacial landscape in Chad. Geology, v.46(1), p. 91-94; doi:10.1130/G39510.1). They comprise irregular tracts of sandstone to the south of a major Carboniferous sedimentary basin. Zooming in to them (try using 17.5° N 22.25°E as a search term in Google Earth) reveals surfaces dominated by wavy, roughly parallel lines. Le Heron interprets these as mega-scale glacial lineations, formed by ice flow across underlying soft Carboniferous glacial sediments as seen in modern glacial till landforms in Canada. In places they rest unconformably on older rocks, sometimes standing above the level of the sandstone plateaux as relics of what may have been nunataks. There are even signs of elliptical drumlins.
Glacial tillites and glaciofluvial sediments of Late Palaeozoic age are common across the Sahara and in the Sahelian belt, but in areas as remote as those in eastern Chad. So a systematic survey using the resolving power of Google Earth may well yield yet more examples. It is tedious work in such vast areas, unless, of course, one bears in mind Alfred Wegener, the founder of the hypothesis of continental drift and ‘Big’ Earth Science as a whole, who would have been gleeful at the opportunity.
A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook
During most of the last hundred years every car body, rebar rod in concrete, ship, bridge and skyscraper frame had its origins in vividly striped red rocks from vast open-pit mines. Comprising mainly iron oxides with some silica, these banded iron formations, or BIFs for short, occur in profitable tonnages on every continent.
Detailed acoustic imaging above the Troll gas field in the northern North Sea off western Norway has revealed tens of thousands of elliptical pits on the seabed. At around 10 to 20 per square kilometre over an area of about 15,000 km2 there are probably between 150 to 300 thousand of them. They range between 10 to 100 m across and are about 6 m deep on average, although some are as deep as 20 m. They are pretty much randomly distributed but show alignment roughly parallel to regional N-S sea-floor currents. Many of the world’s continental shelves display such pockmark fields, but the Troll example is among the most extensive. Almost certainly the pockmarks formed by seepage of gas or water to the surface. However, detailed observations suggest they are inactive structures with no sign of bubbles or fluid seepage. Yet the pits cut though glacial diamictites deposited by the most recent Norwegian Channel Ice Stream through which icebergs once ploughed and which is overlain by thin Holocene marine sediments. One possibility is that they record gas loss from the Troll field, another being destabilisation of shallow gas hydrate deposits.
Norwegian geoscientists have studied part of the field in considerable detail, analysing carbonate-rich blocks and foraminifera in the pits (Mazzini, A. and 8 others 2017. A climatic trigger for the giant Troll pockmark field in the northern North Sea. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 464, p. 24-34; http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2017.02.014). The carbonates show very negative δ13C values that suggest the carbon in them came from methane, which could indicate either of the two possible means of formation. However, U-Th dating of the carbonates and radiocarbon ages of forams in the marine sediment infill suggest that they formed at around 10 ka ago; 1500 years after the end of the Younger Dryas cold episode and the beginning of the Holocene interglacial. Most likely they represent destabilisation of a once-extensive, shallow layer of methane hydrates in the underlying sediments, conditions during the Younger Dryas having been well within the stability field of gas hydrates. Sporadic leaks from the deeper Troll gas field hosted by Jurassic sandstones is unlikely to have created such a uniform distribution of gas-release pockmarks. Adriano Mazzini and colleagues conclude that rapid early Holocene warming led to sea-floor temperatures and pressures outside the stability field of gas hydrates. There are few signs that hydrates linger in the area, explaining the present inactivity of the pockmarks – all the methane and CO2 escaped before 10 ka.
Gas hydrates are thought to be present beneath shallow seas today, wherever sea-floor sediments have a significant organic carbon content and within the pressure-temperature window of stability of these strange ice-like materials. Mazzini et al.’s analysis of the Troll pockmark field clearly has profound implications for the possible behaviour of gas hydrates at a time of global climatic warming. As well as their destabilisation adding to methane release from onshore peat deposits currently locked by permafrost and a surge in global warming, there is an even more catastrophic possibility. The whole of the seaboard of the southern North Sea was swept by a huge tsunami about 8000 years ago, which possibly wiped out Mesolithic human occupancy of lowland Britain, the former land mass of Doggerland, and the ‘Low Countries’ of western Europe. This was created by a massive submarine landslide – the Storegga Slide just to the north of the Troll field – which may have been triggered by destabilisation of submarine gas hydrates during early Holocene warming of the oceans.
It is widely known that glacial ice contains a record of Earth’s changing atmospheric composition in the form of bubbles trapped when the ice formed. That is fine for investigations going back about a million years, in particular those that deal with past climate change. Obviously going back to the composition of air tens or hundreds of million years ago cannot use such a handy, direct source of data, but has relied on a range of indirect proxies. These include the number of pores or stomata on fossil plant leaves for CO2, variations in sulfur isotopes for oxygen content and so on. Variation over time of the atmosphere’s content of oxygen has vexed geoscientists a great deal, partly because it has probably been tied to biological evolution: forming by some kind of oxygenic photosynthesis and being essential for the rise to dominance of eukaryotic animals such as ourselves. Its presence or absence also has had a large bearing on weathering and the associated dissolution or precipitation of a variety of elements, predominantly iron. Despite progressively more clever proxies to indicate the presence of oxygen, and intricate geochemical theory through which its former concentration can be modelled, the lack of an opportunity to calibrate any of the models has been a source of deep frustration and acrimony among researchers.
Yet as is often said, there are more ways of getting rid of cats than drowning them in butter. The search has been on for materials that trap air in much the same way as does ice, and one popular, if elusive target has been the bubbles in crystals of evaporite minerals. The trouble is that most halite deposits formed by precipitation of NaCl from highly concentrated brines in evaporating lakes or restricted marine inlets. As a result the bubbles contain liquids that do a grand job of preserving aqueous geochemistry but leave a lot of doubt as regards the provenance of gases trapped within them. For that to be a sample of air rather than gases once dissolved in trapped liquid, the salt needs to have crystallized above the water surface. That may be possible if salt forms from brines so dense that crystals are able to float, or perhaps where minerals such as gypsum form as soil moisture is drawn upwards by capillary action to form ‘desert roses’. A multinational team, led by Nigel Blamey of Brock University in Canada, has published results from Neoproterozoic halite whose chevron-like crystals suggest subaerial formation (Blamey, N.J.F. and 7 others, 2016. Paradigm shift in determining Neoproterozoic atmospheric oxygen. Geology, v. 44, p. 651-654). Multiple analyses of five halite samples from an ~815 Ma-old horizon in a drill core from the Neoproterozoic Canning Basin of Western Australia contained about 11% by volume of oxygen, compared with 25% from Cretaceous salt from China, 20% of late-Miocene age from Italy, and 19 to 22% from samples modern salt of the same type.
Although the Neoproterozoic result is only about half that present in modern air, it contradicts results that stem from proxy approaches, which suggest a significant rise in atmospheric oxygenation from 2 to about 18% during the younger Cryogenian and Ediacaran Periods of the Neoproterozoic, when marine animal life made explosive developments at the time of repeated Snowball Earth events. Whether or not this approach can be extended back to the Great Oxygenation Event at around 2.3 Ga ago and before depends on finding evaporite minerals that fit stringent criteria for having formed at the surface: older deposits are known even from the Archaean.
Readers may recall my occasional rants over the years against the growing bandwagoning for an ‘Anthropocene‘ epoch at the top of the stratigraphic column. I , for one, was delighted to find in the latest issue of GSA Today a more sober assessment of the campaign by two stratigraphers who are well placed to have a real say in whether or not the ‘Anthropocene’ is acceptable, one serving on the International Commission on Stratigraphy, the other on the North American Commission on Stratigraphic Nomenclature (Finney, S.C. & Edwards, L.E. 2016. The “Anthropocene” epoch: Scientific decision or political statement? GSA Today, v. 26 (3–4).
At the end of the 1970’s I was invited by the Deputy Director of the Geological Survey of India (Southern Region) to participate in the Great Postal Symposium on the Cuddapah Basin: a sort of harbinger of the Internet and Skype, but using snail-mail. Feeling pretty honoured and most intrigued I accepted; not that I knew the first thing about the subject. A regular stream of foolscap mimeographed contributions kept me nipping out of my office to check my pigeon hole for about 6 months. I learned a lot, but felt unable to comment. Four years on I was taken across the Cuddapahs by my first research student – a budding moto-cross driver with a morbid fear of bullock carts – en route from the Archaean low-grade greenstone-granite terrains of Karnataka for a peek at the fabled charnockites near Chennai (then Madras). A bit of a round-about route but spurred by my memories of the Great Postal Symposium. Sadly, the detour was marred for me by a severe case of sciatica brought on by manic driving, the state of the trans-Cuddapah highway and a misplaced gamma-globulin shot to ward off several varieties of hepatitis: I mainly blamed the nurse who demanded that I drop my drawers and bravely take the huge needle in a buttock – they do these things more humanely these days. Anyhow, apart from seeing many dusty villages build of slates perfect enough to make a full-size snooker table, my mind was elsewhere and I have long regretted that.
Hosting possibly the world’s only diamondiferous Precambrian conglomerate, the Cuddapah Basin contains a 5 km thickness of diverse sedimentary strata, but no tangible fossils. It rests unconformably on the Archaean greenstone-granite terrain of the Dharwar Craton and so is Proterozoic in age; an Eon that spans 2 billion years. The middle of the lowest sedimentary formations (the Papaghni and Chitravati Groups) contains volcanic rocks dated at ~1.9 Ga; another group is cut by a ~1.5 Ga granite, and hitherto the youngest dateable event is the emplacement of 1.1 Ga kimberlites that sourced the diamonds in the conglomerate. Until recently the stratigraphy has been known in some detail, but how to partition it in Proterozoic time is barely conceivable with just three dates in the middle parts that span 800 Ma. All that can be said about the base of the Cuddapah sediments is that they are younger than the 3.1 to 2.6 Ga Archaean rocks beneath. Since the uppermost beds are truncated by a huge thrust system that shoved deep crustal granulites over them their minimum age is equally vague.
Structurally, the Basin began to form on a stable continent underpinned by the Dharwar Craton, but when that collided with Enderbyland in Antarctica, as part of the accretion of the Gondwana supercontinent, sedimentation may have been in an entirely different setting. Indeed, some of the sediments have been carried over the undisturbed part of the basin by a major thrust system. To explore both sedimentary and tectonic evolution Australian, Indian and Canadian geoscientists combined to sample and radiometrically date the entire pile (Collins, A.S. and 13 others 2015. Detrital mineral age, radiogenic isotopic stratigraphy and tectonic significance of the Cuddapah Basin, India. Gondwana Research, v. 28, p. 1294-1309). By precisely dating detrital micas and zircons from the sediments the team was able to check the source region of sedimentary grains as well as to establish a maximum age for each major stratigraphic unit. This helped establish a 3-part sedimentary and tectonic history. The earliest sediments came from the cratonic area to the west, but there are signs that collisional orogeny between 1590 and 1659 Ma produced a new sedimentary source in metamorphic rocks forming to the east. A return to westward provenance marked the youngest sedimentary setting. This enabled the team to suggest a dual evolution of the Basin, first as an extensional rift opening at the east of what is now the Dharwar craton followed by collisional orogeny that transformed the setting to that of a foreland basin, analogous to the Molasse basin in front of the Alps during Cenozoic times, ending with tectonic inversion when extension changed to compression and thrusting.
But to what extent did the work improve the age subdivision of the Cuddapah Basin? Apparently very little, which may be down to a problem with dating detrital minerals. If magmatic and metamorphic evolution was continuous in the areas from which sediments moved, then the youngest grain is a good guide to the maximum age of the sediment being analysed. The more strata are analysed in this way the better the detail of sedimentary timing. But two tectonic terrains are unlikely to produce zircons time and time again during a period approaching a billion years. The data indicate only 3 or 4 episodes of ‘zirconogenesis’ in the sedimentary hinterlands, between about 900 to 1940 Ma. Apart from helping correlate sedimentary formations that were previously deemed stratigraphically different – which did help in tectonically unravelling this complex major feature – several hundred isotopic analyses of zircons and micas have give much the same timing as was known already in more precise terms from stratigraphy assisted by a few dozen conventional radiometric dates.
Many of the vast wastes of northern Canada and Scandinavia that were ground to a paste by ice sheets during the last glacial cycle show peculiar features that buck the general glacial striation of the Shield rocks. They are round-topped ridges that wind apparently aimlessly across the tundra. In what is now a gigantic morass, the ridges form well-drained migration routes for caribou and became favourite hunting spots for the native hunter gatherers: in Canada they are dotted with crude simulations of the human form, or inugoks, that the Innuit erected to corral game to killing grounds. Where eroded they prove to be made of sand and gravel, which has proved an economic resource in some areas lacking in building aggregate, good but small examples being found in the Scottish Midland Valley that have served development of Glasgow and Edinburgh. They were given the Gaelic name eiscir meaning ‘ridge of gravel’ (now esker) from a few examples in Ireland.
Eskers form from glacial meltwater that makes its way from surface chasms known as moulins to the very bottom of an ice sheet where water flows much in the manner of a river, except in tubes rather than channels. Where the ice base is more or less flat the tubes meander as do normal sluggish rivers, and like them the tubes deposit a proportion of the abundant sediment derived by melting glacial ice. Once the ice sheet melts and ablates away, the sediments lose the support of the tube walls and flop down to form the eponymous low ridges: the reverse of the sediment filled channels of streams that have either dried up or migrated. Eskers are one of the features that shout ‘glacial action’ with little room for prevarication.
Glacial terrains on Mars have been proposed for some odd looking surfaces, but other processes such as debris flows are equally attractive. To the astonishment of many, Martian eskers have now been spotted during systematic interpretation of the monumental archives of high-resolution orbital images of the planetary surface (Gallagher, C. & Balme, M. 2015. Eskers in a complete, wet-based glacial system in the Phlegra Montes region, Mars. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 431, p. 96-109). The discovery is in a suspected glacial terrain that exhibits signs of something viscous having flowed on low ground around higher topographic features, bombardment stratigraphy suggests a remarkable young age for the terrain or about 150 Ma ago: the Amazonian. Ice and its effects are not too strange to suggest for Mars which today is pretty much frigid, except for a few suggestions of active flow of small watery streams. Eskers demand meltwater in abundance, and Gallagher and Balme attribute some of the other features in the Phlegra Montes to wet conditions. However, the eskers are a one-off, so far as they know. Consequently, rather than appealing to some climatic warm up to explain the evidence for wetness, they suggest that the flowing water tubes resulted from melting deep in the ice as a result of locally high heat flow through the Martian crust, which is a lot more plausible.