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?

Climate and tectonics since 250 Ma

A central feature of the Earth’s climate system is the way that carbon bound in two gases – carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (CH4) – controls the amount of incoming solar energy that is retained by the atmosphere. Indeed, without one or the other our home world would have been locked in frigidity since shortly after its formation: a sterile, ice-covered planet. The ‘greenhouse effect’ has been ever-present because the material from which the Earth accreted contained carbon as well as every other chemical element from hydrogen to uranium. Naturally reactive, it readily combines with hydrogen and oxygen to form methane and carbon dioxide, which would have escaped the inner Earth as gases to enter the earliest atmosphere as a ‘comfort blanket’, along with water vapour, another greenhouse gas.  Their combined effects have remained crudely balanced so that neither inescapable frigidity nor surface temperatures high enough to boil-off the oceans have ever occurred in the last 4.5 billion years. Earth has remained like the wee bear’s porridge in the Goldilocks story! Even so, global climate has fluctuated again and again from that akin to a steamy greenhouse, through long periods of moderation to extensive glacial conditions, including three that extended from pole-to-pole – ‘Snowball’ Earths –  during in the Precambrian. During the Phanerozoic the Earth has entered three long periods of generally low global temperatures, in the Ordovician, the Carboniferous and during the last 2.5 Ma  that allowed polar ice caps and sea-ice to extend a third of the way to the Equator. These were forced back and forth repeatedly by cyclical influences apparently triggered by astronomically controlled changes to Earth’s orbital and rotational parameters – the Milankovich Effect. Anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases in vast and increasing amounts now threaten to disrupt natural climate variation, effectively overthrowing the gravitational influences of distant giant planets that have controlled climate changes that shaped our own evolution since the genus Homo first emerged.

Bubbles of air trapped in cores through the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland record decreased volumes of land ice as CO2 content increased and the opposite during glacial episodes. Somehow in step with the astronomical forcing the Earth released greenhouse gas to warm the climate and drew it down to bring on cooling. Since all life forms are built from carbon-rich compounds and some extract it from the environment to build carbonate hard parts, climate and life on land and in the oceans are interlinked. In fact life and death are involved, because once dead organisms and their hard parts are buried before being oxidised in sediments on land, as in peat and ultimately coal, and on the ocean floors as limestones or carbonaceous mudstones, atmospheric carbon is sequestered. Exposed to acid water containing dissolved CO2 from the atmosphere or to oxygen, respectively, the two forms of carbon in solid form are released as greenhouse gas once more. Both take place when sedimentary deposits are exhumed as a result of erosion and tectonics. Another factor is the abundance of available nutrients, themselves released and distributed by erosion and agents of transportation. At present surface waters of the most distant parts of the oceans contains plenty of such nutrients, except for a vital one, dissolved iron. So they are wet ‘deserts’. It seems that during the much dustier times of glacial episodes iron in fine form reached far out into the world’s oceans so that phytoplankton at the base of the food chain ‘bloomed ‘and so did planktonic animals. Dead organisms ‘rained’ to the ocean floor so drawing down CO2 from the atmosphere and decreasing the greenhouse effect. The surface parts of the carbon and rock cycles are extremely complex and climatologists have yet to come to grips with modelling its future climates convincingly. Yet the carbon cycle and much deeper parts of the rock cycle are interwoven too.

Carbon in sedimentary rock can be heated by burial, and some can be subducted to great depths at destructive plate margins together. The same applies to in ocean-floor basalts that have been permeated by circulating sea water through hydrothermal circulation to form carbonates in the altered volcanic rock. In both cases carbon stored for hundreds of million years can be released by metamorphism in orogenic belts at zones of continental collision and deep below island arcs. Carbon from mantle depths that has never ‘seen the light of day’ is also added to the atmosphere when magmas form below oceanic constructive margins, hot spots and subduction zones, and where magmas flood the continental surface. Consequently, plate tectonics and deep mantle convection have surely played a long-term role in the evolution of our planet’s climate system. Geoscientists based in Australia and the UK have used geochemical data to reconstruct the stores of carbon in oceanic plates and thermodynamic modelling to track what may have happened to it and the climate through the last 250 Ma (Müller, R.D. et al. 2022. Evolution of Earth’s tectonic carbon conveyor belt. Nature, v. 605, p. 629-639; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-022-04420-x). Their review is an important step in understanding what underpins climate on a geological time scale, onto which much shorter-term surface influences are superimposed.

The amount of carbon being outgassed as CO2 each year along plate boundaries in the early Jurassic (185 Ma) shown in dark purple (low) to yellow (high). Also shown in shades of blue is the accumulation of carbon stored in each square metre of the ocean plates. Plate motions are shown as grey arrows (credit: Müller, R.D. et al. Clip from video in Supplementary Information)

At mid-ocean ridges basaltic magma wells up from mantle depths and loses much of its content of dissolved CO2. The annual outgassing at ridges, which depends on the global rate of plate formation, has varied from 13 to 30 million tonnes of carbon  (MtC yr-1) since the start of the Mesozoic Era 250 Ma ago. Similarly, there is greenhouse-gas escape from volcanic arcs above subduction zones, estimated to have ranged from 0 to 18 MtC yr-1. As an oceanic plate moves away from its source various processes sequester CO2 into the oceanic crust and upper mantle through accumulation of deep-sea sediments and hydrothermal alteration of basaltic crust and peridotite mantle (ranging from 30 to 311 MtC yr-1). Of this influx of carbon into oceanic plates between 36 to 103 MtC yr-1 has gone down subduction zones in descending slabs. Between 0 to 49 MtC yr-1 of that has been outgassed by arc volcanic activity or absorbed into the overriding plate. The rest continues down into the deep mantle, perhaps to form diamonds. Overall, when the rate at which oceanic plates grow is rapid and plate motion speeds up, outgassing should be high. When plate growth slows, so does the rate of CO2 release. Variations in plate growth can be estimated from the magnetic reversal stripes above the ocean floors.  The authors have released an animation of the break-up of Pangaea (well worth watching at full screen – you can skip the ad at the start), with the rate of carbon emission at ridges and volcanic arcs being colour-coded. Also shown is the storage of carbon within oceanic plats plates as time passes.

Length of mid-ocean ridges (orange) and subduction zones (blue) through the last 250 Ma (top). The areas of oceanic crust produced at ridges and consumed by subduction (bottom) (credit: Müller, R.D. et al., Figs 1a, 1c)

Before Pangaea began to break up at the end of the Triassic (200 Ma) the total length of mid-ocean ridges was at a minimum of about 40 thousand km. Through the Jurassic it never exceeded 50,000 km, but rose to a maximum of 80,000 km during the Cretaceous then declined slowly to the current length of 60,000 km. Throughout the last 250 Ma the length of subduction zones stayed roughly the same at about 65 thousand km – not always in the same places – although the overall rate of subduction changed in line with the rate of oceanic plate growth  (the volume that is added must be balanced roughly by the amount that returns to the mantle).  Between the end of the Jurassic and the mid-Cretaceous crustal production and destruction doubled, shown by the bottom plot in the figure above. The very fast  movement of plates and an increase in the global length of ridges during Jurassic to mid-Cretaceous times led to a dramatic increase in CO2 outgassing from ridges so that its content in the atmosphere rose as high as 1200 ppm – more than four times that before the Industrial Revolution. That level resulted in global ‘hothouse’ conditions during the Cretaceous. Another factor behind the Cretaceous climate was a decrease in the global complement of mountains. That led to decreases in erosion and the weathering of silicates by acid rain, thus reducing natural sequestration of carbon.

During the Cenozoic (after 65 Ma) declining ridge outgassing was actually outpaced by that associated with subduction, according to the modelling. That is strange, for by around 35 Ma glaciation had begun  on Antarctica as the Earth was cooling, which implies a major, unexpected sink for excess CO2. The most likely way this might have arisen is through increased erosion and silicate weathering on the exposed continents that consumed CO2 faster than tectonics was releasing the gas. The length of continental arcs shows no sign of a major increase during the Cenozoic, which might have accelerated that kind of sequestration, but a variety of proxies for signs of weathering definitely suggests that there was an upsurge. Also there was increased storage of carbon on the deep ocean floor, shown by the video. Increased calcium released by weathering to enter ocean water in solution would allow more planktonic organisms to secrete calcite (CaCO3) skeletons that would then fall to the ocean floor when they died.

There may be more to be discovered in this hugely complex interplay between tectonics and climate. For instance, when the bottom waters of the oceans are oxygenated by deep currents of cold dense seawater sinking from polar regions, carbon in tissues of sunken dead organism is oxidised to release CO2. If bottom waters are anoxic, this organic carbon is preserved in sediments. The authors mention this as something to be considered in their future work on  the ‘tectonic carbon conveyor belt’.

Wider traces of the elusive Denisovans

We know that when anatomically modern humans (AMH) arrived in Asia they shared the landscape with ‘archaic’ humans that had a much longer pedigree. In 2010 an individual’s little-finger bone dated to around 30 to 49 ka old was found in the Denisova Cave in central Siberia (at 50°N). It yielded a full genome that was distinctly different from those of AMH and Neanderthals (see: Other rich hominin pickings; May 2010). Four other fossils found subsequently in the Denisova Cave contained similar DNA. Checking the DNA of living humans and fossil Neanderthal remains revealed that the newly discovered human group had interbred with both. In the case of AMH, segments of Denisovan DNA are found in the genomes of indigenous people living in East and South Asia, Australia, the Pacific Islands and the Americas, at levels of 0.2%, rising to 6% in Melanesian people of Papua-New Guinea. But such introgressions have not been found in Europeans (but see below), suggesting that the Denisovans were restricted to Asia.

There have been suggestions that at least some of the ‘archaic’ human remains found widely and abundantly in China may have been Denisovans; although they might equally be of Homo erectus. But none of the Chinese fossils have been subjected to gene sequencing – those found in caves outside tropical and sub-tropical climates might retain DNA just as well as Neanderthal and even older remains in temperate Europe. Yet a partial lower jaw discovered in a cave on the Tibetan Plateau (at 35°N) did yield proteins that had close affinities to those recovered from Siberian Denisovans. Now similar analyses have been performed on an abnormally large molar found in a cave in Northern Laos, showing that it too is most likely to be from a young (as suggested by its being little worn), possibly female (it lacks male-specific peptides), Denisovan. The locality lies at about 20°N, far to the south of the other two Denisovan sites (Demeter, F. et al. A Middle Pleistocene Denisovan molar from the Annamite Chain of northern Laos. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 2557; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29923-z). Sparse as the evidence is, Denisovans were able to tolerate climate differences across 30 degrees of latitude.

A probable Denisovan molar from 164 to 131 ka old cave sediments in northern Laos. (credit: Demeter, et al.; Fig. 2)

The Wikipedia entry for Denisovans is a mine of additional information. For instance, detailed analysis of the roughly 5% of their genome that indigenous people of New Guinea carry suggests that the two groups may have interbred there as late as 30 ka. Since Both New Guinea and Australia were until 8 thousand years ago part of the Sahul landmass when sea level was low during the last ice age, these inferences add tropical occupancy to the Denisovan range. Does this suggest that Papuans and indigenous Australians migrated with Denisovans, or had the latter crossed the sea from Timor earlier and independently, after moving from Asia by ‘hopping’ from island to island through eastern Indonesia? There is a possibility that Denisovans could even have survived in Sahul until as late as 14.5 ka. Even more odd, modern Icelandic people are unique among Europeans in having detectable traces of Denisovan DNA. However, rather than having been directly shared between Denisovans and ancestral Scandinavians – a possibility – it may have been carried by Neanderthal-Denisovan hybrids migrating westwards from Siberia with whom the Icelanders’ ancestors interbred. There are other interesting points in the Wikipedia entry. One is that the consistently lower Denisovan ancestry in living East Asians compared with people of Oceania, may indicate two separate waves of eastward migration by AMH. The latter may have arrived first, had greater contact with Denisovans and then moved on across seaways to remain isolated from the later migrants.

Finally, something that puzzles me as a non-geneticist. If both Denisovans and Neanderthals died out as genetically distinct groups tens of millennia ago how could the genetic traces of interbreeding with AMH have been retained at such high levels until the present; i.e. through thousands of generations? Each of us carries a 50% deal of genes from our parents. Then with each subsequent generation the proportion is diluted, so that we inherit 25% from grandparents, 12.5 % from great-grandparents and so on. Yet Papuans still have 5 to 6 percent of Denisovan DNA: much the same holds for Europeans’ Neanderthal heritage. Does such a high level of retention of this ancestry suggest that a large proportion of the earliest migrating AMH individuals stemmed from generation to generation interbreeding on a massive scale? Did the ‘newcomers’ and ‘locals’ band eventually together almost completely to merge genetically, or am I missing something … ? Probably

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. 

Evidence for an early Archaean transition to subduction

Modern plate tectonics is largely driven by slab-pull: a consequence of high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism of the oceanic crust far from its origin at an oceanic ridge. As it ages, basaltic crust cools, become increasingly hydrated by hydrothermal circulation of seawater through it and its density increases. That is why the abyssal plains of the ocean floor are so deep relative to the shallower oceanic ridges where it formed. Due to the decrease in the Earth’s internal heat production by decay of radioactive isotopes, once oceanic lithosphere breaks and begins to descend high-P low-T metamorphism transforms the basaltic crust to a denser form: eclogite, in which the dense, anhydrous minerals garnet and sodium-rich pyroxene (omphacite) form. Depending on local heat flow, the entire oceanic slab may then exceed the density of the upper mantle to drag the plate downwards under gravity. Metamorphic reactions of any P-T regime creates minerals less capable of holding water and drive H2O-rich fluids upwards into the overriding lithosphere, thus inducing it to partially melt. Magmas produced by this create volcanism at the surface, either at oceanic island arcs or near to continental margins, depending on the initial position of the plate subduction.

A direct proof of active subduction in the geological record is the presence of eclogite and related blueschists. Such rocks are unknown before 2100 Ma ago (mid-Palaeoproterozoic of the Democratic Republic of Congo) but there are geochemical means of ‘sensing’ plate tectonic control over arc magmatism (See: So, when did plate tectonics start up? February 2016).  The relative proportions of rare-earth elements in ancient magmatic rocks that make up the bulk of continental crust once seemed to suggest that plate tectonics started at the end of the Archaean Eon (~2500 Ma). That method, however, was quite crude and has been superseded by looking in great detail at the geochemistry of the Earth’s most durable mineral: zircon (ZrSiO4), which began more than two decades ago. Minute grains of that mineral most famously have pushed back the geological record into what was long believed to be half a billion years with no suggestion of a history: the Hadean. Zircon grains extracted from a variety of ancient sediments have yielded U-Pb ages of their crystallisation from igneous magma that extend back 4.4 billion years (Ga) (see: Pushing back the “vestige of a beginning”;January 2001).  

Though simple in their basic chemical formula, zircons sponge-up a large range of other trace elements from their parent magma. So, in a sense, each tiny grain is a capsule of their geochemical environment at the time they crystallised. In 2020 Australian geochemists presented the trace-element geochemistry of 32 zircons extracted from a 3.3 Ga old sedimentary conglomerate in the Jack Hills of Western Australia, which lie within an ancient continental nucleus or craton. They concluded that those zircons mainly reveal that they formed in andesitic magmas, little different from the volcanic rocks that are erupted today above subduction zones. From those data it might seem that some form of plate tectonics has been present since shortly after the Earth’s formation. Oxygen-isotope data from zircons are useful in checking whether zircons had formed in magmas derived directly from partial melting of mantle rocks or by recycling of crustal magmatic rocks through subduction. Such a study in 2012 (see: Charting the growth of continental crust; March 2012) that used a very much larger number of detrital zircon grains from Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America seemed, in retrospect, to contradict a subduction-since-the-start view of Earth dynamics and crust formation. Instead it suggested that recycling of crust, and thus plate-tectonic subduction, first showed itself in zircon geochemistry at about 3 Ga ago.

Detailed chemical and isotopic analysis of zircons using a variety of instruments has steadily become faster and cheaper. Actually finding the grains is much easier than doing interesting things with them. It is a matter of crushing the host rock to ‘liberate’ the grains. Sedimentary hosts that have not been strongly metamorphosed are much more tractable than igneous rocks. Being denser than quartz, the dominant sedimentary mineral, zircon can be separated from it along with other dense, trace minerals, and from them in turn by various methods based on magnetic and electrical properties. Zircons can then be picked out manually because of their distinctive colours and shapes. A tedious process, but there are now several thousand fully analysed zircons aged between 3.0 to 4.4 Ga, from eleven cratons that underpin Australia, North America, India, Greenland and southern Africa. The latest come from a sandstone bed laid down about 3.31 Ga ago in the Barberton area of South Africa (Drabon, N. et al. 2022. Destabilization of Long‐Lived Hadean Protocrust and the Onset of Pervasive Hydrous Melting at 3.8 GaAGU Advances, v. 3, article e2021AV000520; DOI: 10.1029/2021AV000520). The authors measured lutetium (Lu), hafnium (Hf) and oxygen isotopes, and concentrations of a suite of trace element in 329 zircons from Barberton dated between 3.3 to 4.15 Ga.

A schematic model of transition from Hadean-Eoarchaean lid tectonics to a type of plate tectonics that subsequently evolved to its current form, based on hafnium isotope data in ancient zircons (credit: Bauer et al. 2020; Fig 3)

The Hf isotopes show two main groups relative to the values for chondritic meteorites (assumed to reflect the composition of the bulk Earth). Zircons dated between 3.8 and 4.15 Ga all show values below that expected for the whole Earth. Those between 3.3 and 3.8 Ga show a broader range of values that extend above chondritic levels. The transition in data at around 3.8 Ga is also present in age plots of uranium relative to niobium and scandium relative to ytterbium, and to a lesser extent in the oxygen isotope data. On the basis of these data, something fundamentally changed in the way the Earth worked at around 3.8 Ga. Nadja Drabon and colleagues ascribe the chemical features of Hadean and Eoarchaean zircons to an early protocrust formed by melting of chemically undepleted mantle. This gradually built up and remained more or less stable for more than 600 Ma, without being substantially remelted through recycling back to mantle depths. After 3.8 billion years ago, geochemical signatures of the zircons start showing similarities to those of zircons derived from modern subduction zones. Hf isotopes and trace-element geochemistry in 3.6 to 3.8 Ga-old  detrital zircons from other cratons are consistent with a 200 Ma transition from ‘lid’ tectonics (see: Lid tectonics on Earth; December 2017) to the familiar tectonics of rigid plates whose basalt-capped lithosphere ultimately returns to the mantle to be involved in formation of new magmas from which continental crust stems. Parts of plates bolstered by this new, low density crust largely remain at the surface.

While Drabon et al. do provide new data from South Africa’s Kaapvaal craton, their conclusions are similar to earlier work by other geochemists based on data from other area (e.g. Bauer, A.M. et al. 2020. Hafnium isotopes in zircons document the gradual onset of mobile-lid tectonicsGeochemical Perspectives Letters, v. 14; DOI: 10.7185/geochemlet.2015), which the accompanying figure illustrates.

See also: Earliest geochemical evidence of plate tectonics found in 3.8-billion-year-old crystal. Science Daily, 21 April 2022. 3.8-Billion-Year-Old Zircons Offer Clues to When Earth’s Plate Tectonics Began. SciNews, 26 April 2022

Evidence for oldest microbes from Arctic Canada

Among the oldest known rocks are metamorphosed pillow basalts on Nuvvuagittuk Island in Quebec on the east side of Hudson Bay, Canada. They contain red and orange, iron-rich sediments probably formed by hydrothermal activity associated with sea water passing through hot basalts. The ironstones are made of silica in the form of jasper (SiO2) and carbonates that are coloured by hematite (Fe2O3). This rock sequence is cut by silica-rich intrusive igneous rocks dated between 3750 and 3775 Ma: a minimum, Eoarchaean age for the sequence. This is roughly the same as the age of the famous Isua supracrustal rocks of West Greenland, but dating of the basalts using the samarium–neodymium method suggested that they formed in the Hadean about 4300 Ma ago, which would make them by far the oldest known rocks. However, that date clashes with a zircon U-Pb age of 3780 Ma for associated metasedimentary mica schists: a still ‘live’ controversy. The ironstones have been suggested to contain signs of life, in the form of minute tubes and filaments similar to those formed in modern hydrothermal vents by iron-oxidising bacteria (see: Earliest hydrothermal vent and evidence for life, March 2017). If that can be proven this would push back the age of the earliest known life by at least 300 Ma and maybe far more if the Hadean Sm-Nd age is confirmed

The Nuvvuagittuk material has recently been re-examined by its original discoverers using a variety of advanced microscope techniques (Papineau, D. et al 2022. Metabolically diverse primordial microbial communities in Earth’s oldest seafloor-hydrothermal jasper. Science Advances, v. 8, article 2296; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.abm2296.). The most revealing of these involve two very-high resolution imaging systems: X-ray micro-tomography and electron microscopy armed with a focused ion beam that repeatedly shaves away 200 nm of rock from a sample. Both build up highly detailed 3-D images of any minute structures within a sample. The techniques revealed details of twisted filaments, tubes, knob-like and branching structures up to a centimetre long. While the first three could possibly have some inorganic origin, a ‘comb-like’ branch, likened to a moth’s antenna, has never been known to have formed by chemical reactions alone.

An image of hematite tubes from microfossils discovered in hydrothermal vent precipitates in the Nuvvuagittuk ironstones, reconstructed from X-ray and ion-beam micro-tomography (credit: Matthew Dodd, UCL)

All the structures are formed from hematite within a silica or carbonate (mainly calcite CaCO3 and ankerite Ca(Fe,Mg,Mn)(CO3)2) matrix. Some of the hematite (dominated by Fe3+) contains significant amounts of reduced Fe2+. The structures also contain tiny grains of graphite (C), phosphate (apatite Ca5(PO4)3(F,Cl,OH)) and various metal (Mn, Co, Cu, Zn, Ni, Cd) sulfides. The presence of graphite obviously suggests – but does not prove – a biological origin. However, all Phanerozoic jaspers formed from hydrothermal fluids contain undisputed organic material and appear little different from these ancient examples. Filaments, tubes and comb-like structures are displayed by various iron-oxidising bacteria found living in modern sea-floor hydrothermal vent systems. The sulfur isotopes in metal sulfides suggest their formation in an environment with vanishingly low oxygen content. Carbon isotopes in graphite are more enriched in light 12C relative to 13C than those in associated carbonates, a feature produced by living organic processes today. Patterns in plots of rare-earth elements (REE) from the Nuvvuagittuk jaspers are similar to those from modern examples and suggest high-temperature interactions between sea water and basaltic igneous rocks.

It is clear from the paper just how comprehensively the team of authors have considered and tested various biotic and abiotic options for the origin of the features found in the Nuvvuagittuk jasper samples. They conclude that they probably do represent an ancient microbial ecosystem associated with sea-floor hydrothermal vents; a now widely supported scenario for the origin of life on Earth. But what metabolic processes did the Nuvvuagittuk microbes use? Their intimate association with Fe3+ oxides that contain some reduced Fe2+ suggests that they exploited chemical ‘energy’ from oxidation reactions that acted on Fe2+ dissolved in hydrothermal fluids. This would have been impossible by inorganic means because of the very low oxygen content of seawater shown by the sulfur isotopes in associated sulfide minerals. Iron oxidation and precipitation of iron oxide by organic processes must have involved dissociation of water to yield the necessary oxygen and loss of electrons from available Fe2+, a process used by modern deep-water bacteria that depends on the presence of nitrates. That can power the metabolism of inorganic carbon dissolved in water as, for instance, bicarbonate ions and water to yield cell-building carbohydrates: a form of autotrophy. There may have been other metabolic routes, such as reducing dissolved sulfate ions to sulfur, as suggested by the association of metal sulfides. If the sea floor was shallow enough to be lit CO2 and water may have been converted to carbohydrates by a form of photosynthesis that does not release oxygen, analogous to modern purple bacteria.

There may have been considerable biodiversity in the Nuvvuagittuk ecosystem. So despite its vast age – it may have been active only 300 Ma after the Earth formed, if the oldest date is verified – it has to be remembered that a great many earlier evolutionary steps, both inorganic and organic, must have been accomplished to have allowed these organisms to exist. The materials do not signify the origin of life, but life that was chemically extremely sophisticated: far more so than anything attempted so far in laboratories to figure out the tricks performed by natural inorganic systems. DNA and RNA alone are quite a challenge!

See also: Video by authors of the paper (YouTube) Diverse life forms may have evolved earlier than previously thought. ScienceDaily, 13

Conditions that may have underpinned the ‘Cambrian Explosion’

Geologists of my generation leaned that the earliest signs of abundant and diverse animal life were displayed by an extraordinary assemblage of fossils in a mudstone exposure high on a ridge in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. The Burgess Shale lagerstätte, or ‘site of exceptional preservation’, was discovered by Charles Walcott in 1909. It contained exquisite remains, some showing signs of soft tissue, of a great range of animals, many having never before been seen. Though dated at 509 Ma (Middle Cambrian) it was regarded for much of the 20th century as the sign of a sudden burgeoning from which all subsequent life had evolved: the Cambrian Explosion. Walcott only scratched the surface of its riches, its true wonders only being excavated and analysed later by Harry Whittington and his protégé Simon Conway Morris of Cambridge University. Their results were summarised and promoted in one of the great books on palaeontology and evolutionary biology, Wonderful Life (1989) by Steven Jay Gould.

Harbingers of animal profusion first appear around 635 Ma in the Late Neoproterozoic as the Ediacaran Fauna, with the oldest precursors turning up around a billion years ago in the Torridonian Sandstone Formation of northern Scotland. The evolutionary links between them and the Cambrian Explosion are yet to be documented, as creatures of the Ediacaran remain elusive in the earliest Phanerozoic rocks. As regards the conditions that promoted the explosion of animal faunas, the Burgess Shale is a blank canvas, for its riches were not preserved in situ, but had drifted onto deep, stagnant ocean floor to be preserved in oxygen-poor muds that enabled their intricate preservation. The animals could not have lived and evolved without abundant oxygen: what that environment was is not recorded by Walcott’s famous stratigraphic site.

Artistic impression of the Chengjian Biota

China, it has emerged, offers a major clue from around 40 lagerstätten in Chengjian County, Yunnan. They are not only older (518 Ma) than the Burgess Shale but contain 27 percent more faunal diversity: 17 phylums and more than 250 species. Since the discovery of the Chengjian Biota in the first decade of the 21st century palaeontologists have, understandably, been preoccupied by describing its riches in hundreds of scientific papers. The nature of the ecosystem has remained as obscure as that of the Burgess Shale, largely due to the exposed host rocks (laminated siltstones and mudstones) having been weathered. They are superficially similar to the Burgess Shale. In March 2022, 10 scientists working at laboratories in China, Canada, Switzerland and the UK published the results of their painstaking sedimentological investigation of a core dilled through through the entire fossiliferous sequence (Salih, F. and 9 others 2022. The Chengjiang Biota inhabited a deltaic environment. Nature Communications, v. 13, article 1569; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-022-29246-z).

Reconstruction of the near-shore deltaic environment in which the Chengjian Biota lived and evolved. Several rock types and the sedimentary processes that probably formed them shown in ‘cores’ (Credit: Salih et al. Figure 3)

The unweathered core displays a variety of tiny sedimentary structures. These include cross laminations formed by migrating ripples, occasional fine sandstones that include signs of burrowing, graded bedding formed by minor turbidity currents, hummocks formed by back and forth water flow, ripples formed by flow in a single direction and small channels. Unlike the Burgess Shale, the fine-grained Chengjian sediments seem to have been deposited in environments that were far from stagnant and deep. They most closely resemble the offshore parts of the delta of a predominantly muddy river, subject to occasional floods and storms and characterised by large and rapid accumulation of mud and silt by dense sediment-loaded river water flowing down a gently sloping seabed into clearer seawater. That the sediment supply was full of nutrients and oxygen is reflected by small organisms living in burrows. The high-quality preservation of fossils in some layers can be attributed to sudden influxes of freshwater into their marine habitat during storms, so that they were killed in place. Such a near-shore environment, full of nutrients and oxygen but subjected to repeated geochemical and physical stresses, can explain adaptive radiation and evolution at a fast pace. Clearly, that is by no means a full explanation of the Cambrian Explosion, but offers sufficient insight for research to proceed fruitfully.

See also: Modern Animal Life Could Have Origins in a Shallow, Nutrient-Rich Delta, SciTechDaily, 23 March 2022.