Ediacaran glaciated surface in China

It is easy to think that firm evidence for past glaciations lies in sedimentary strata that contain an unusually wide range of grain size, a jumble of different rock types – including some from far-off outcrops – and a dominance of angular fragments: similar to the boulder clay or till on which modern glaciers sit. In fact such evidence, in the absence of other signs, could have formed by a variety of other means. To main a semblance of hesitancy, rocks of that kind are now generally referred to as diamictites in the absence of other evidence that ice masses were involved in their deposition. Among the best is the discovery that diamictites rest on a surface that has been scored by the passage of rock-armoured ice – a striated pavement and, best of all, that the diamictites contain fragments that bear flat surfaces that are also scratched. The Carboniferous to Permian glaciation of the southern continents and India that helped Alfred Wegener to reconstruct the Pangaea supercontinent was proved by the abundant presence of striated pavements. Indeed, it was the striations themselves that helped clinch his revolutionising concept. On the reconstruction they formed a clear radiating pattern away from what was later to be shown by palaeomagnetic data to be the South Pole of those times.

29 Ma old striated pavement beneath the Dwyka Tillite in South Africa (credit: M.J Hambrey)

The multiple glacial epochs of the Precambrian that extended to the Equator during Snowball Earth conditions were identified from diamictites that are globally, roughly coeval, along with other evidence for frigid climates. Some of them contain dropstones that puncture the bedding as a result of having fallen through water, which reinforces a glacial origin. However, Archaean and Neoproterozoic striated pavements are almost vanishingly rare. Most of those that have been found are on a scale of only a few square metres. Diamictites have been reported from the latest Neoproterozoic Ediacaran Period, but are thin and not found in all sequences of that age. They are thought to indicate sudden climate changes linked to the hesitant rise of animal life in the run-up to the Cambrian Explosion. One occurrence, for which palaeomagnetic date suggest tropical latitude, is near Pingdingshan in central China above a local unconformity that is exposed on a series of small plateaus (Le Heron, D.P. and 9 others 2019. Bird’s-eye view of an Ediacaran subglacial landscape. Geology, v. 47, p. 705-709; DOI: 10.1130/G46285.1). To get a synoptic view the authors deployed a camera-carrying drone. The images show an irregular surface rather than one that is flat. It is littered with striations and other sub-glacial structures, such as faceting and fluting, together with other features that indicate plastic deformation of the underling sandstone. The structures suggest basal ice abrasion in the presence of subglacial melt water, beneath a southward flowing ice sheet

Estimating arsenic risks in China

Two weeks after Earth pages featured arsenic in groundwater below the Mekong Delta another important paper has emerged about modelling risk of arsenic contamination throughout the People’s Republic of China (Rodriguez-Lado, L. et al. 2013. Groundwater arsenic contamination throughout China. Science, v. 341, p. 866-868). Scientists based in the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and technology and the China Medical University follow up the results of geochemical testing of groundwater from almost 450 thousand wells in 12% of China’s counties; part of a nationwide aim to test millions of wells. That is a programme likely to last for decades, and their work seeks to develop a predictive model that might better focus such an enormous effort and help in other large regions where well sampling is not so advanced.

As well as the well-known release of arsenic-containing ions through the dissolution of iron oxy-hydroxides in aquifers that exhibit reducing conditions, aridity that causes surface evaporation can create alkaline conditions in groundwater that also desorbs arsenic from similar minerals. The early results from China suggested 16 environmental  factors available in digital map form, mainly geological, topographic and hydrogeochemical, that possibly encourage contamination; a clear indication of the sheer complexity of the problem.  Using GIS techniques these possible proxies were narrowed down to 8 that show significant correlation with arsenic levels above the WHO suggested maximum tolerable concentration of 10 micrograms per litre (10 parts per billion by volume). Geology (Holocene sediments are most likely sources), the texture of soils and their salinity, the potential wetness of soils predicted from topography and the density of surface streams carrying arsenic correlate positively with high well-water contamination, whereas slope, distance from streams and gravity (a measure of depth of sedimentary basins) show a negative correlation. These parameters form the basis for the predictive model and more than 2500 new arsenic measurements were used to validate the results of the analysis.

Estimated probability of arsenic in Chinese groundwater above the WHO acceptable maximum concentration (Credit:Rodriguez-Lado, et al. 2013)
Estimated probability of arsenic in Chinese groundwater above the WHO acceptable maximum concentration (Credit:Rodriguez-Lado, et al. 2013)

The results graphically highlight possible high risk areas, mainly in the northern Chinese provinces that are partly confirmed by the validation. Using estimated variations in population density across the country the team discovered that as many as 19.6 million people may be affected by consumption of arsenic contaminated water. In fact if groundwater is used for irrigation, arsenic may also be ingested with locally grown food. It seems that the vast majority of Chinese people live outside the areas of risk, so that mitigating risk is likely to be more manageable that it is in Bangladesh and West Bengal.

As well as being an important input to environmental health management in the PRC the approach is appropriate for other large areas where direct water monitoring is less organised, such as Mongolia, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in central Asia, and in the arid regions of South America.

Denisovans scooped?

In late 2010 it emerged from genomic studies of a finger bone from Denisova Cave in eastern Siberia that a probably archaic human group had shared genes with ancestors of some modern humans who colonised West Pacific islands around 45 Ka ago, well before the last glacial maximum. Melanesians, including tpeople living in Papua-New Guinea have DNA that contains on average around 6% contributed from fertile interbreeding with Denisovans. This ancient groups are suggested by comparative studies of their and Neanderthal mitochondrial DNA to have split from them as lond as a million years ago. Now it seems possible that much more complete fossils of Denisovans may have been discovered in China (Curnoe, D. And 16 others 2012. Human Remains from the Pleistocene-Holocene Transition of Southwest China Suggest a Complex Evolutionary History for East Asians. PLoS ONE, http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0031918).

Skull from Red Deer Cave in Guanxi Province, southern China. Darren Curnoe

A block of sediment from Longlin Cave in Guanxi Province in southern China that was collected more than 30 years ago, has yielded skull fragments whose reconstruction reveals a most unusual individual, very different from anatomically modern humans, Neanderthals and from H. erectus. It had a wide flat face with highly prominent cheek bones, strong brow ridges and a diminutive chin.  Remains of three other individuals found by recent excavations in Maludong (Red Deer) Cave 300 km to the south of Longlin share similar characteristics. Yet there are similarities to moderns, for instance CT-scans show that the brain likely had a height and frontal lobes similar to ours, but different from Neanderthals.

These are not truly ancient fossils; radiocarbon and uranium-series dating give an age range from 14.3 to 11.5 ka, around the time of the Younger Dryas cold episode that preceded the Holocene. These two individuals lived when East Asia had long been home to fully modern humans.

The finds perhaps open a major new focus for human evolution, directed towards less-well studied older fossils from elsewhere in the East including those referred to by Jonathan Kingdon as ‘Mapas’ from both southern and northern China. Certainly it will boost palaeoanthropological research within China

Hi-tech future may be saved by ocean floor sediments

Global rare earth element production (1 kt=106...
China's growing REE market share. Image via Wikipedia

Since the now far-off founding of the Club of Rome and the re-emergence of Malthusian ideology, time and again there have been warnings about the imminent running out of resources that are essential for modern life. The latest concern one of the formerly haunted wings of the Periodic Table, central to petrogenetic geochemistry, but little else; the rare-earth elements. From early beginnings as the source for phosphors in the screens of colour televisions all 15 REEs now have a growing commercial role in applications ranging from precision guided weapons, night-vision goggles and stealth technology in the military sphere, through the satiation of artificial appetites for electronic gaming and mobile phones, to applications of super-efficient magnets in medial scanners and ‘green’ power generation. The crisis being discussed currently is not so much a shortage – REEs are not so rare – but the cornering of their mining by the Peoples’ Republic of China, which produces more than 95%  of RREs used at present (~120 thousand tons). Yet world reserves are estimated at almost 100 million t, of which China has 36 million. Mining is often in only a few known, high-grade deposits; for instance most of the US reserves of 13 million t are locked in the Mountain Pass Mine, California that is currently on a ‘care-and-maintenance’ regime, i.e. shut. This one-sided economy sends shudders through capital’s strategy forums, i.e. in the US, Silicon Valley and the Pentagon.

Not surprisingly, geochemists and oceanographers from Japan, the world’s most hi-tech country, have bent their collective will to finding alternative sources, and may have revealed one in an unexpected location (Kato, Y. et al. 2011. Deep-sea mud in the Pacific Ocean as a potential resource for rare-earth elements. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 535-539).  Their work stems from ‘mining’ existing geochemical data from deep-sea drilling projects on the floor of the Pacific Ocean, that reveal a wide range of REE concentrations in the ooze coating the seabed: from <250 to >2000 parts per million. The richest pickings seem to lie in a swath either side of the East Pacific Rise at around 15°S, where the group estimate that a 1 km2 plot could yield about one fifth of current world annual production, even though REE concentrations lie way below their on-shore economic cut-off grade. Apart from the need for dredging at depths around 3-5 km on the abyssal plains, and the inevitability of destroying a largely unknown ecosystem, the positive aspect of these metal-rich oozes is that the REE can be extracted simply by acid leaching of the goethite (FeOOH) in which the bulk of the elements reside. Goethite is something of a geochemical ‘mop’ with a capacity for adsorbing elements of all kinds on grain surfaces; so much so that it is being considered as a means of cleaning up heavy-metal pollution. Both the REEs and the iron probably arise from seabed hot springs where oxidising conditions result in dissolved ferrous iron combining in ferric form with oxygen to form goethite, which in turn scavenges other dissolved ions. Many of the on-shore REE deposits are carbonatites (intrusions of carbonate-rich magmas) that contain fluoro-carbonates and phosphates that host the REE, or beach sands in which wave swash concentrates the durable heavy phosphates in so-called black-sand deposits. Carbonatites are rare, most occurring in ancient ‘shields’, as in southern Africa, Canada and China, but being so unusual are not difficult to find.  One in the Canadian Shield known as the Big Spruce Lake deposit provides phosphorus- and potassium-rich soil that encourages the growth f conifers and so creates a geobotanical anomaly of large trees where local climate generally supports only stunted ones.

The rising demand and currently restricted supply of REEs is creating an exploration boom for carbonatites as the metal prices rise inexorably. Yet it may also produce a shift to what seems to be an alternative kind of source; iron-rich deep-sea sediments, though more likely those preserved on-shore in ophiolite complexes than at the huge depths of the abyssal plains. It is worth bearing in mind, however, that oceanographers and geochemists have pointed to untold metal riches before: manganese nodules that litter huge tracts of the seabed and contain sufficient copper, nickel and cobalt to maintain supplies for millennia. Despite a half-billion dollar investment in the 1960s and 70s, there is no nodule-dredging industry. There are however well-advanced plans for deep water mining of gold-rich hydrothermal sites, but miners will go just about anywhere to gloat over Marx’s ‘money commodity’