When Earth got its magnetic field

For a planet to produce life it needs various attributes. Exoplanet hunters tend to focus on the ‘Goldilocks’ Zone’ where solar heating is neither so extreme nor so little that liquid water is unstable on a planet’s surface. It also needs an atmosphere that retains water. Ultraviolet radiation emitted by a planet’s star dissociates water vapour to hydrogen and oxygen and the hydrogen escapes to space. The reason Earth has not lost water in this way is that little water vapour reaches the stratosphere because it is condensed or frozen out of the air as the lower atmosphere becomes cooler with altitude. Given moist conditions survivability to the extent that exists on Earth still needs another planetary parameter: the charged particles emitted as an interplanetary ‘wind ‘by stars must not reach the surface. If they did, their potential to break complex molecules would hinder life’s formation or wipe it out if it ventured onto land. A moving current of electrical charge, which is what a stellar ‘wind’ amounts to, can be deflected by a magnetic field. This is what happens on Earth, whose magnetic field is a good reason why our planet has supported life and its continual evolution since at least about 3.5 billion years ago.

Artist's rendition of Earth's magnetosphere.
Deflection of the solar ‘wind’ by Earth’s Earth’s magnetosphere. (credit: Wikipedia)

Direct proof of the existence of a geomagnetic field is the presence of aligned particles of magnetic minerals in rocks, for instance in a lava flow, caused by their acquiring magnetisation in a prevailing magnetic field once they cooled sufficiently. The earliest such remanent magnetism was found in igneous rocks from north-eastern South Africa dated at between 3.2 to 3.45 billion years. All older rocks do not show such a feature dating back to their formation because of thermal metamorphism that resets any remanent magnetism to match the geomagnetic field prevailing at the time of reheating. There are, however, materials that formed further back in time and are also known to resist thermal resetting of any alignments of magnetic inclusion. They are zircons (ZrSiO4), originally crystallised from igneous magmas, which may have locked in minute magnetic inclusions. Zircons are among the most change-resistant materials and they can also be dated with great precision, with the advantage that the U-Pb method used can distinguish between age of formation and that of any later heating. Famously, individual grains of zircon that had accumulated in an early Archaean conglomerate outcropping in the Jack Hills of Western Australia yielded ages going back from 3.2 to 4.4 billion years; far beyond the age of any tangible rock and close to the formation age of the Earth. Quite a target for palaeomagnetic investigations once a suitable technique had been developed.

Western Australia's Jack Hills
Western Australia’s Jack Hills from Landsat (credit NASA Earth Observatory)

John Tarduno and colleagues from the Universities of Rochester and California USA and the Geological Survey of Canada report the magnetic properties of the Jack Hills zircons (Tarduno, J.A. et al. 2015. A Hadean to Paleoarchean geodynamo recorded by single zircon crystals. Science, v. 349, p. 521-524). All of the grains analysed record magnetisation spanning the period 3.2 to 4.2 billion years that indicate geomagnetic field strengths ranging from that found today at the Equator to about an eighth of the modern value. So from 4.2 Ga onwards geomagnetism probably deflected the solar wind: the early Earth was set for living processes from its earliest days. The discovery also supports the likelihood of functioning plate tectonics during the Hadean.

Mistaken conclusions from Earth’s oldest materials

Microscope projection close-upThe oldest materials on the planet are tiny zircon grains that were washed into conglomerate in Western  Australia about 2650 to 3050 Ma ago. It wasn’t the fact that the grains are zircons, which are among the most durable materials around, but the range of ages that they revealed when routinely analysed. U-Pb dating of detrital zircons is a well tested means of finding the provenance of sedimentary materials as an indicator of orogenic and igneous events that formed the crust from which they were eroded. In the original study of the Jack Hills zircons some showed ages that might reasonably have been expected from late sediments in an Archaean craton: around 3.5 billion years is about the maximum age for orogenic events there. What astonished all geoscientists was that a proportion of the grains gave ages of more than 4 billion years, some as old as 4.4 Ga: here was a window on the missing first half billion years of Earth history, the Hadean.

Subsequent work on yet more zircons confirmed the original age span but other kinds of analysis led to a variety of claims: that continental crust was around in abundance within 100 Ma of Earth having formed; geothermal heat =flow was not especially high;  liquid water was available for geological processes, including the origin of life; plate tectonics may have started early…. The topic has cropped up several times in EPN since the issue of 1 January 2001. Quite a lot of the claims emerged from studies of other minerals enclosed by the ancient zircons, such as quartz and micas, and now they have been checked again by geochemists from Western Australia (Rasmussen, B. et al. 2011. Metamorphic replacement of mineral inclusions in detrital zircons from Jack Hills, Australia: Implications for the Hadean Earth. Geology, v. 39, p. 1143-1146). It turns out that the inclusions formed at temperatures well below those of magmas, between 350 to 490°C: more like those of metamorphism. Indeed, uranium-bearing rare-earth phosphate minerals, xenotime and monazite, also locked in the zircons not only turn out to be metamorphic in origin too (both are also formed magmatically) but date to between 2700 and 800 Ma.

While the  Hadean zircon dates remain robust, a closer look at their inclusions shows that they did not remain geochemically closed systems thereafter. It was on the assumption of zircons being geological ‘time capsules’ that much of the excitement rested. Even using the presence of zircons from 4.4 Ga – they are most common in granites but do occur in mafic and intermediate igneous rocks – to suggest early ‘sialic’ continental crust is suspect. Despite having some tiny bits from Earth’s early days, it seems we are none the wiser.