A ‘recipe’ for Earth’s accretion, without water

The Earth continues to collect meteorites, the vast majority of which are about as old as our planet; indeed many are slightly older. So it has long been thought that Earth originally formed by gravitational accretion when the parental bodies of meteorites were much more abundant and evenly distributed. Meteorites fall in several classes, metallic (irons) and several kinds that contain silicate minerals, some with a metallic component (stony irons) others without, some with blebs or chondrules of once molten material (chondrites) and others that do not (achondrites), and more subtle divisions among these general groups. In the latter half of the 20th century geochemists and cosmochemists became able to compare the chemical characteristics of different meteorite classes with that of the Sun –from its radiation spectrum – and those of different terrestrial rocks – from direct analysis. The relative proportions of elements in chondrites turned out to match those in the Sun – inherited from the gas nebula from which it formed – better than did other classes. The best match with this primitive composition turned out to be the chemistry of carbonaceous chondrites that contain volatile organic molecules and water as well as silicates and sulfides. The average chemistry of one sub-class of carbonaceous chondrites (C1) has been chosen as a ‘standard of standards’ against which the composition of terrestrial rocks are compared in order that they can be assessed in terms of their formative processes relative to one another. For a while carbonaceous chondrites were reckoned to have formed the bulk of the Earth through homogeneous accretion: that is until analyses became more precise at increasingly lower concentrations. This view has shifted …

Geochemistry is a complex business(!), bearing in mind that rocks that can be analysed today predominantly come from the tiny proportion of Earth that constitutes the crust. The igneous rocks at the centre of wrangling how the whole Earth has evolved formed through a host of processes in the mantle and deep crust, which have operated since the Earth formed as a chemical system. To work out the composition of the primary source of crustal igneous rocks, the mantle, involves complex back calculations and modelling. It turns out that there may be several different kinds of mantle. To make matters worse, those mantle processes have probably changed considerably from time to time. To work back to the original formative processes for the planet itself faces the more recent discovery that different meteorite classes formed in different ways, different distances from the Sun and at different times in the early evolution of the pre-Solar nebula. Thankfully, some generalities about chemical evolution and the origin of the Earth can be traced using different isotopes of a growing suite of elements. For instance, lead isotopes have revealed when the Moon formed from Earth by a giant impact, and tungsten isotopes narrow-down the period when the Earth first accreted. Incidentally, the latest ideas on accretion involve a series of ‘embryo’ planets between the Moon and Mars in size.

An example of an E-type Chondrite (from the Ab...
An example of an enstatite chondrite (from the Abee fall) in the Gallery of Minerals at the Royal Ontario Museum. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Calculating from a compendium of isotopic data from various types of meteorite and terrestrial materials, Nicolas Dauphas of the University of Chicago has convincingly returned attention to a model of heterogeneous accretion of protoplanetary materials from different regions of the pre-Solar nebula (Dauphas, N. 2017. The isotopic nature of the Earth’s accreting material through time. Nature, v. 541, p. 521-524; doi:10.1038/nature20830). His work suggests that the first 60% of Earth’s accretion involved materials that were a mixture of meteorite types, half being a type known as enstatite chondrites. These meteorites are dry and contain grains of metallic iron-nickel alloy and iron sulfides set in predominant MgSiO3 the pyroxene enstatite. The Earth’s remaining bulk accumulated almost purely from enstatite-chondrite material. A second paper in the same issue of Nature (Fischer-Gödde, M. & Kleine, T. 2017. Ruthenium isotopic evidence for an inner Solar System origin of the late veneer. Nature, v. 541, p. 525-527; doi:10.1038/nature21045) reinforces the notion that the final addition was purely enstatite chondrite.

This is likely to cause quite a stir: surface rocks are nothing like enstatite chondrite and nor are rocks brought up from the upper mantle by volcanic activity or whose composition has been back-calculated from that of surface lavas; and where did the Earth’s water at the surface and in the mantle come from? It is difficult to escape the implication of a mantle dominated by enstatite chondrite From Dauphas’s analysis, for lots of other evidence from Earth materials seem to rule it out. One ‘escape route’ is that the enstatite chondrites that survived planetary accretion, which only make up 2% of museum collections, have somehow been changed during later times.  The dryness of enstatite chondrites and the lack of evidence for a late veneer of ‘moist’ carbonaceous chondrite in these analyses cuts down the options for delivery of water, the most vital component of the bulk Earth and its surface.  Could moister meteorites have contributed to the first 60% of accretion, or was  post-accretion cometary delivery to the surface able to be mixed in to the deep mantle? Nature’s News & Views reviewer, Richard Carlson of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC, offers what may be a grim outlook for professional meteoriticists: that perhaps “the meteorites in our collection are not particularly good examples of Earth’s building blocks” (Carlson, R.W. 2017. Earth’s building blocks. Nature, v. 541, p. 468-470; doi:10.1038/541468a).

Animation of how the Solar System may have formed.

Geochemistry and economic history

At first reading this item’s title might seem to convey nonsense, yet there is an interesting relationship between these two very different disciplines. It concerns the pillaging of South and Central America by conquistadors who followed Columbus’s pioneering route across the North Atlantic in 1492. Aside from glory their motive was profit, and that was most conveniently concentrated in the form of gold and silver, to be found in abundance among the native people of what came to be known as the Americas. Once such plunder declined silver ores were soon discovered in Peru and Mexico, thereby maintaining the supply. Bullion or plate – so named from the fact that precious metal was most often transported in the form of sheets – was the major cargo of the great treasure ships in the period from 1515 to 1650. It is remembered in such geographic names as the Rio de la Plata separating modern Argentina and Uruguay.

Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski shooting "...
Klaus Kinski, well into his role as an insane conquistador, disputes the script with director Werner Herzog while shooting “Aguirre, The Wrath Of God” (credit: Flickr p373)

It might seem that when such a vast amount of loot entered Europe the buying power of silver in particular would have fallen to result in inflation in the price of basic commodities, much as printing paper money may have that result nowadays. Indeed, over those roughly 150 years prices increased by as much as five times. Another factor was a tendency for silver supply to be augmented simply by debasing newly minted currency with other metals. Yet another is that over the same period China adopted silver as a money commodity increasing demand and so spurring exploration and advances in metallurgical extraction from new ores. Furthermore, the entire fabric of economy in Europe began to shift as feudalism began to be supplanted by capitalism at the close of Medieval times. The sheer complexity of competing factors has made the so-called ‘Price Revolution’ of the 16th and 17th centuries a thorny issue for economic historians. This is where geochemists found that they had a ‘shout’ in what Thomas Carlisle dubbed the ‘dismal science’.

Silver ores also contain lead and copper, which inevitably contaminate silver metal extracted from them. Depending on the processes involved in mineralisation the abundances of both metals vary from mine to mine. More tellingly, so do the relative proportions of the different Pb and Cu isotopes, Pb isotopes reflecting the age of the rocks in which ores are found. Inherited by coinage, the isotopes can be used to assess provenance of coins (Desaulty, A.-M. & Albarede, F. 2013. Copper, lead and silver isotopes solve a major economic conundrum of Tudor and early Stuart Europe. Geology, v. 41, p. 135-138), while the dates embossed on coins at the mint potential chart the course of the bullion trade. Desaulty and Albarede show that silver from the vast Potosí mine in modern Bolivia opened by conquistadors barely shows up in British coinage of the period, which is dominated with Mexican isotopic signatures as well as those from European mines. The latter account almost exclusively for the coinage of the late Medieval period. The conclusion is that the huge potential of Potosí served the needs of Spanish entrepreneurs though a trans-Pacific Spanish trade in which Bolivian silver bought goods from China, including gold. Spanish coins, on the other hand, show little of either Bolivian or Mexican silver, suggesting that Spanish world trade may well have used American bullion directly to purchase goods throughout its sphere of influence centred on the Philippines, while Mexican silver engaged in European trade and also found its way into the British economy by way of the slave trade.

Although Desaulty and Albarede claim to have solved a ‘conundrum’ it seems more likely that their revelations will make historians of post-Medieval economics scratch their heads even more.