Multiple impacts set back oxygen build-up in the Archaean

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

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

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

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

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

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

A new explanation for banded iron formations (BIFs)

The main source for iron and steel has for more than half a century been Precambrian rock characterised by intricate interlayering of silica- and iron oxide-rich sediments known as banded iron formations or BIFs. They always appear in what were shallow-water parts of Precambrian sedimentary basins. Although much the same kind of material turns up in sequences from 3.8 to 0.6 Ga, by far the largest accumulations date from 2.6 to 1.8 Ga, epitomised by the vast BIFs of the Palaeoproterozoic Hamersley Basin in Western Australia. This peak of iron-ore deposition brackets the time (~2.4 Ga) when world-wide evidence suggests that the Earth’s atmosphere first acquired tangible amounts of free oxygen: the so-called ‘Great Oxidation Event’. Yet the preservation of such enormous amounts of oxidised iron compounds in BIFs is paradoxical for two reasons: the amount of freely available atmospheric oxygen at their acme was far lower than today; had the oceans contained much oxygen, dissolved ions of reduced Fe-2 would not have been able to pervade seawater as they had to for BIFs to have accumulated in shallow water. Iron-rich ocean water demands that its chemical state was highly reducing.

Oblique view of an open pit mine in banded iron formation at Mount Tom Price, Hamersley region Western Australia (Credit Google earth)
Oblique view of an open pit mine in banded iron formation at Mount Tom Price, Hamersley region Western Australia (Credit Google earth)

The paradox of highly oxidised sediments being deposited when oceans were highly reduced was resolved, or seemed to have been, in the late 20th century. It involved a hypothesis that reduced, Fe-rich water entered shallow, restricted basins where photosynthetic organisms – probably cyanobacteria – produced localised enrichments in dissolved oxygen so that the iron precipitated to form BIFs. Later work revealed oddities that seemed to suggest some direct role for the organisms themselves, a contradictory role for the co-dominant silica-rich cherty layers and even that another kind of bacteria that does not produce oxygen directly may have deposited oxidised iron minerals. Much of the research focussed on the Hamersley BIF deposits, and it comes as no surprise that another twist in the BIF saga has recently emerged from the same, enormous repository of evidence (Rasmussen, B. et al. 2015. Precipitation of iron silicate nanoparticles in early Precambrian oceans marks Earth’s first iron age. Geology, v. 43, p. 303-306).

The cherty laminations have received a great deal less attention than the iron oxides. It turns out that they are heaving with minute particles of iron silicate. These are mainly the minerals stilpnomelane [K(Fe,Mg)8(Si, Al)12(O, OH)27] and greenalite [(Fe)2–3Si2O5(OH)4] that account for up to 10% of the chert. They suggest that ferruginous, silica-enriched seawater continually precipitated a mixture of iron silicate and silica, with cyclical increases in the amount of iron-silicate. Being such a tiny size the nanoparticles would have had a very high surface area relative to their mass and would therefore have been highly reactive. The authors suggest that the present mineralogy of BIFs, which includes iron carbonates and, in some cases, sulfides as well as oxides may have resulted from post-depositional mineral reactions. Much the same features occur in 3.46 Ga Archaean BIFs at Marble Bar in Western Australia that are almost a billion years older that the Hamersley deposits, suggesting that a direct biological role in BIF formation may not have been necessary.

More on BIFs and the Great Oxidation Event

Massive event in the Precambrian carbon cycle

English: Cyanobacteria
Cyanobacteria: earliest producers of oxygen in the Precambrian. Image via Wikipedia

The entire eukaryote domain of life, from alga to trees and fungi to animals, would not exist had it not been for the emergence of free oxygen in the oceans and atmosphere about 2.4 billion years ago; thanks in large part to the very much simpler photosynthetic blue-green bacteria. The chemistry behind this boils down to organisms being able to transfer electrons from elements and compounds in the inorganic world to build organic molecules incorporated in living things. Having lost electrons the inorganic donors become oxidised, for instance ferrous iron (Fe2+ or Fe-2) becomes ferric iron (Fe3+ or Fe-3) and  sulfide ions (S2-) become sulfate (SO42-) and the organic products that receive electrons principally involve reduction of carbon, on the OilRig principal – Oxidation involves loss of electrons, Reduction involves gain. Since the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE), ferric iron and sulfate ions now account for 75% of oxidation of the lithosphere and hydrosphere while free oxygen (O2) is a mere 2-3 % (Hayes, J.M. 2011. Earth’s redox history. Science. V. 334, p. 1654-1655; an excellent introduction to the geochemistry involved in the GOE and the carbon cycle). Free oxygen is around today only because more of it is produced than is consumed by its acting to oxidize ferrous iron and sulfide ions supplied mainly by volcanism, and carbon-rich material exposed to surface processes by erosion and sediment transport.

Eukaryote life has never been snuffed out for the last two billion years or so, but it has certainly had its ups and downs. To geochemists taking the long view oxygen might well seem to have steadily risen, but that is hardly likely in the hugely varied chemical factory that constitutes Earth’s surface environments, involving major geochemical cycles for carbon, iron, sulfur, nitrogen, phosphorus and so on, that all inveigle oxygen into reactions. Tabs can be kept on one of these cycles – that involving carbon – through the way in which the proportions of its stable isotopes vary in natural systems. If all geochemistry was in balance all the time, all materials that contain carbon would show the same proportions of 13C and 12C as the whole  Earth, but that is never the case. Living processes that fix carbon in organic compounds favour the lighter isotope, so they show a deficit of 13C relative to 12C signified by negative values of δ13C. The source of the carbon, for instance CO2 dissolved in sea water, thereby becomes enriched in 13C to achieve a positive value of δ13C, which may then be preserved in the form of carbonates in, for instance, fossil shells that ended up in limestones formed at the same time as organic processes were favouring the lighter isotope of carbon. Any organic carbon compounds that ocean-floor mud buried before they decayed (became oxidised) conversely would add their negative δ13C to the sediment. Searching for δ13C anomalies in limestones and carbonaceous mudrocks has become a major means of charting life’s ups and downs, and also what has happened to buried organic carbon through geological time.

A most interesting time to examine C-isotopes and the carbon cycle is undoubtedly the period immediately following the GOE, in the Palaeoproterozoic Era (2500 to 1600 Ma). From around 2200 to 2060 Ma the general picture is roughly constant, high positive values of δ13C (~+10‰): more organic carbon was being buried than was being oxidised to CO2. However, in drill cores through the Palaeoproterozoic of NW Russia carbonate carbon undergoes a sharp decline in its heavy isotope to give a negative δ13C  (~-14‰) while carbon in organic-rich sediments falls too (to~-40‰): definitely against the general  trend (Kump, L.R. et al. 2011. Isotopic evidence for massive oxidation of organic matter following the Great Oxidation Event. Science. V. 334, p. 1694-1696). Oxygen isotopes in the carbonates affected by the depletion in ‘heavy’ carbon show barely a flicker of change: a clear sign that the 13C δ13C deficit is not due to later alteration by hydrothermal fluids, as can sometimes cause deviant δ13C in limestones. It is more likely that a vast amount of organic carbon, buried in sediments or dissolved in seawater was oxidised to CO2 faster than biological activity was supplying dead material to be buried or dissolved. In turn, the overproduction of carbon dioxide dissolved in seawater to affect C-isotopes in limestones. Such an event would have entailed a sharp increase in oxygen production to levels capable of causing the oxidation (~ 1% of present levels). Yet this was not the time of the GOE (2400 Ma) but 300-400 Ma later. A possible explanation is a burst in oxygen production by more photosynthetic activity, perhaps by the evolution of chloroplast-bearing eukaryotes much larger than cyanobacteria.