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  • richardmitnick 11:57 am on August 18, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Geochemistry, One Third of Known Planets May Be Enormous Ocean Worlds   

    From Discover Magazine: “One Third of Known Planets May Be Enormous Ocean Worlds” 

    DiscoverMag

    From Discover Magazine

    August 17, 2018
    John Wenz

    1
    A new model of Super-Earths implies many of these planets are covered in enormous, thick oceans. (Credit: NASA)

    Water is a key ingredient for life — and new research suggests we might find it all over the galaxy.

    Scientists looked at the mass of Super-Earths, a kind of planet common across the cosmos but not present in our own solar system. These rocky worlds are several times larger than Earth, but the team’s analysis of known Super-Earths reveals something astounding: Many of them may be literal water worlds.

    According to the research, many of these planets may be half water. By comparison, water is just a tiny fraction of Earth’s mass. But that doesn’t mean these Super-Earths are friendly places to live. The Harvard-led team determined that those planets with 1.5 times Earth’s radius or below would be terrestrial, or rocky.

    Super-Earths above 2.5 Earth radius might more like tiny versions of Neptune or Uranus. The two water-dominated planets in our solar system are far from life friendly. Such hulking Super-Earths would be enshrouded by a mostly-water vapor atmosphere. Further below, there might be oceans at extreme pressures and temperatures — between 390 and 930 degrees Fahrenheit (200 to 500 Celsius).

    But that doesn’t necessarily preclude life.

    “Life could develop in certain near-surface layers on these water worlds when the pressure, temperature and chemical conditions are appropriate,” says the study’s lead author, Li Zeng of Harvard University. Zeng also believes that these planets may form more like a gas giant, with a core deep underneath a dense atmosphere.

    “One has to realize that, although water appears to be precious and rarer on Earth and other inner solar system terrestrial planets, it is in fact one of the most abundant substance in the universe, since oxygen is the third most abundant element after hydrogen and helium,” Zeng said.

    And based on the team’s modeling, up to 35 percent of known planets might be water worlds. That could mean the coming years will lead to the discovery of a whole lot of exo-oceans — and a whole host of new questions.

    The scientists presented their research Friday at the Goldschmidt Conference, the world’s preeminent conference on geochemistry.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:20 pm on January 3, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A study by UC Berkeley geochemists presents new evidence that high levels of oxygen were not critical to the origin of animals, , , Geochemistry, ,   

    From UC Berkeley: “Which came first: complex life or high atmospheric oxygen?” 

    UC Berkeley

    UC Berkeley

    January 3, 2018
    Robert Sanders
    rlsanders@berkeley.edu

    We and all other animals wouldn’t be here today if our planet didn’t have a lot of oxygen in its atmosphere and oceans. But how crucial were high oxygen levels to the transition from simple, single-celled life forms to the complexity we see today?

    A study by UC Berkeley geochemists presents new evidence that high levels of oxygen were not critical to the origin of animals.

    1
    By measuring the oxidation of iron in pillow basalts from undersea volcanic eruptions, UC Berkeley scientists have more precisely dated the oxygenation of the deep ocean, inferring from that when oxygen levels in the atmosphere rose to current high levels. Credit: National Science Foundation .

    The researchers found that the transition to a world with an oxygenated deep ocean occurred between 540 and 420 million years ago. They attribute this to an increase in atmospheric O2 to levels comparable to the 21 percent oxygen in the atmosphere today.

    This inferred rise comes hundreds of millions of years after the origination of animals, which occurred between 700 and 800 million years ago.

    “The oxygenation of the deep ocean and our interpretation of this as the result of a rise in atmospheric O2 was a pretty late event in the context of Earth history,” said Daniel Stolper, an assistant professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley. “This is significant because it provides new evidence that the origination of early animals, which required O2 for their metabolisms, may have gone on in a world with an atmosphere that had relatively low oxygen levels compared to today.”

    He and postdoctoral fellow Brenhin Keller will report their findings in a paper posted online Jan. 3 in advance of publication in the journal Nature. Keller is also affiliated with the Berkeley Geochronology Center.

    The history of Earth’s oxygen

    Oxygen has played a key role in the history of Earth, not only because of its importance for organisms that breathe oxygen, but because of its tendency to react, often violently, with other compounds to, for example, make iron rust, plants burn and natural gas explode.

    Tracking the concentration of oxygen in the ocean and atmosphere over Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, however, isn’t easy. For the first 2 billion years, most scientists believe very little oxygen was present in the atmosphere or ocean. But about 2.5-2.3 billion years ago, atmospheric oxygen levels first increased. The geologic effects of this are evident: rocks on land exposed to the atmosphere suddenly began turning red as the iron in them reacted with oxygen to form iron oxides similar to how iron metal rusts.

    Earth scientists have calculated that around this time, atmospheric oxygen levels first exceeded about a hundred thousandth of today’s level (0.001 percent), but remained too low to oxygenate the deep ocean, which stayed largely anoxic.

    By 400 million years ago, fossil charcoal deposits first appear, an indication that atmospheric O2 levels were high enough to support wildfires, which require about 50 to 70 percent of modern oxygen levels, and oxygenate the deep ocean. How atmospheric oxygen levels varied between 2,500 and 400 million years ago is less certain and remains a subject of debate.

    “Filling in the history of atmospheric oxygen levels from about 2.5 billion to 400 million years ago has been of great interest given O2’s central role in numerous geochemical and biological processes. For example, one explanation for why animals show up when they do is because that is about when oxygen levels first approached the high atmospheric concentrations seen today,” Stolper said. “This explanation requires that the two are causally linked such that the change to near-modern atmospheric O2 levels was an environmental driver for the evolution of our oxygen-requiring predecessors.”

    In contrast, some researchers think the two events are largely unrelated. Critical to helping to resolve this debate is pinpointing when atmospheric oxygen levels rose to near modern levels. But past estimates of when this oxygenation occurred range from 800 to 400 million years ago, straddling the period during which animals originated.

    When did oxygen levels change for a second time?

    Stolper and Keller hoped to pinpoint a key milestone in Earth’s history: when oxygen levels became high enough – about 10 to 50 percent of today’s level – to oxygenate the deep ocean. Their approach is based on looking at the oxidation state of iron in igneous rocks formed undersea (referred to as “submarine”) volcanic eruptions, which produce “pillows” and massive flows of basalt as the molten rock extrudes from ocean ridges. Critically, after eruption, seawater circulates through the rocks. Today, these circulating fluids contain oxygen and oxidize the iron in basalts. But in a world with deep-oceans devoid of O2, they expected little change in the oxidation state of iron in the basalts after eruption.


    Eruption of pillow basalts on the ocean floor.

    “Our idea was to study the history of the oxidation state of iron in these basalts and see if we could pinpoint when the iron began to show signs of oxidation and thus when the deep ocean first started to contain appreciable amounts of dissolved O2,” Stolper said.

    To do this, they compiled more than 1,000 published measurements of the oxidation state of iron from ancient submarine basalts. They found that the basaltic iron only becomes significantly oxidized relative to magmatic values between about 540 and 420 million years ago, hundreds of millions of years after the origination of animals. They attribute this change to the rise in atmospheric O2 levels to near modern levels. This finding is consistent with some but not all histories of atmospheric and oceanic O2 concentrations.

    “This work indicates that an increase in atmospheric O2 to levels sufficient to oxygenate the deep ocean and create a world similar to that seen today was not necessary for the emergence of animals,” Stolper said. “Additionally, the submarine basalt record provides a new, quantitative window into the geochemical state of the deep ocean hundreds of millions to billions of years ago.”

    See the full article here .

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    • stewarthoughblog 12:01 am on January 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      Interesting finding and conclusion. What appears to be lacking is why they do not consider it pertinent and critical to the model they are proposing that the essential barrier to cosmic radiation that ozone forms based on some minimum level of oxygen in the atmosphere. The survivability of advanced organisms is highly dependent on the ozone layer, so consideration of the timing of their appearance relative to increase of oxygen levels is significant, unlike Stolper’s incoherent proposition that increasing oxygen levels prompted evolutionary changes that produced advanced organisms.

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  • richardmitnick 1:35 pm on September 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Dauphas and his team looked at titanium in the shales over time, Geochemistry, Geologists often look at a particular kind of rock called shales, , If you fertilize the ocean with phosphorus life will bloom, Plate techtonics is believed to be needed to create felsic rock, Study suggests significant tectonic action was already taking place 3.5 billion years ago—about half a billion years earlier than currently thought, The flood of oxygen came from a surge of photosynthetic microorganisms - cyanobacteria, The titanium timeline suggests that the primary trigger of the surge of phosphorus was the change in the makeup of mafic rock over time, Tracing the path of metallic element titanium through the Earth’s crust across time,   

    From U Chicago: “Study suggests tectonic plates began moving half a billion years earlier than thought” 

    U Chicago bloc

    University of Chicago

    September 21, 2017
    Louise Lerner

    1
    While previous studies had argued that Earth’s crust 3.5 billion years ago looked like these Hawaiian lavas, a new study led by UChicago scientists suggests by then much of it had already been transformed into lighter-colored felsic rock by plate tectonics.
    Photo by Basil Greber

    The Earth’s history is written in its elements, but as the tectonic plates slip and slide over and under each other over time, they muddy that evidence—and with it the secrets of why Earth can sustain life.

    A new study led by UChicago geochemists rearranges the picture of the early Earth by tracing the path of metallic element titanium through the Earth’s crust across time. The research, published Sept. 22 in Science, suggests significant tectonic action was already taking place 3.5 billion years ago—about half a billion years earlier than currently thought.

    The crust was once made of uniformly dark, magnesium- and iron-rich mafic minerals. But today the crust looks very different between land and ocean: The crust on land is now a lighter-colored felsic, rich in silicon and aluminum. The point at which these two diverged is important, since the composition of minerals affects the flow of nutrients available to the fledgling life struggling to survive on Earth.

    “This question has been discussed since geologists first started thinking about rocks,” said lead author Nicolas Dauphas, the Louis Block Professor and head of the Origins Laboratory in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences and the Enrico Fermi Institute. “This result is a surprise and certainly an upheaval in that discussion.”

    To reconstruct the crust changing over time, geologists often look at a particular kind of rock called shales, made up of tiny bits of other rocks and minerals that are carried by water into mud deposits and compressed into rock. The only problem is that scientists have to adjust the numbers to account for different rates of weathering and transport. “There are many things that can foul you up,” Dauphas said.

    To avoid this issue, Dauphas and his team looked at titanium in the shales over time. This element doesn’t dissolve in water and isn’t taken up by plants in nutrient cycles, so they thought the data would have fewer biases with which to contend.

    They crushed samples of shale rocks of different ages from around the world and checked in what form its titanium appeared. The proportions of titanium isotopes present should shift as the rock changes from mafic to felsic. Instead, they saw little change over three and a half billion years, suggesting that the transition must have occurred before then.

    2
    These granite peaks are an example of felsic rock, created via plate tectonics. Photo by Basil Greber

    This also would mark the beginning of plate tectonics, since that process is believed to be needed to create felsic rock.

    “With a null response like that, seeing no change, it’s difficult to imagine an alternate explanation,” said Matouš Ptáček, a UChicago graduate student who co-authored the study.

    “Our results can also be used to track the average composition of the continental crust through time, allowing us to investigate the supply of nutrients to the oceans going back 3.5 billion years ago,” said Nicolas Greber, the first author of the paper, then a postdoctoral researcher at UChicago and now with the University of Geneva.

    Phosphorous leads to life

    The question about nutrients is important for our understanding of the circumstances around a mysterious but crucial turning point called the great oxygenation event. This is when oxygen started to emerge as an important constituent of Earth’s atmosphere, wreaking a massive change on the planet—and making it possible for multi-celled beings to evolve.

    The flood of oxygen came from a surge of photosynthetic microorganisms; and in turn their work was fostered by a surge of nutrients to the oceans, particularly phosphorus. “Phosphorus is the most important limiting nutrient in the modern ocean. If you fertilize the ocean with phosphorus, life will bloom,” Dauphas said.

    The titanium timeline suggests that the primary trigger of the surge of phosphorus was the change in the makeup of mafic rock over time. As the Earth cooled, the mafic rock coming out of volcanoes and underground melts became richer in phosphorus.

    “We’ve known for a long time that mafic rock changed over time, but what we didn’t know was that their contribution to the crust has stayed rather consistent,” Ptáček said.

    Other institutions on the study were the University of California-Riverside, University of Oregon-Eugene and the University of Johannesburg.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 4:43 pm on March 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 3.77-billion-year-old fossils stake new claim to oldest evidence of life, , , Geochemistry, , , , , ,   

    From Science: “3.77-billion-year-old fossils stake new claim to oldest evidence of life” 

    AAAS
    Science Magazine

    Mar. 1, 2017
    Carolyn Gramling

    1
    These tubelike structures, formed of an iron ore called hematite, may be microfossils of 3.77-billion-year-old life at ancient hydrothermal vents.

    Life on Earth may have originated in the sunless depths of the ocean rather than shallow seas. In a new study, scientists studying 3.77-billion-year-old rocks have found tubelike fossils similar to structures found at hydrothermal vents, which host thriving biological communities. That would make them more than 300 million years older than the most ancient signs of life on Earth—fossilized microbial mats called stromatolites that grew in shallow seas. Other scientists are skeptical about the new claims.

    “The authors offer a convincing set of observations that could signify life,” says Kurt Konhauser, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who was not involved in the study. But “at present, I do not see a way in which we will definitively prove ancient life at 3.8 billion years ago.”

    When life first emerged on Earth has been an enduring and frustrating mystery. The planet is 4.55 billion years old, but thanks to plate tectonics and the constant recycling of Earth’s crust, only a handful of rock outcrops remain that are older than 3 billion years, including 3.7-billion-year-old formations in Greenland’s Isua Greenstone Belt. And these rocks tend to be twisted up and chemically altered by heat and pressure, making it devilishly difficult to detect unequivocal signs of life.

    “It’s a challenge in rocks that have been this messed up,” says Abigail Allwood, a geologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who was also not involved in the study. “There’s only so much you can do with them.”

    Nevertheless, researchers have searched through these most ancient rocks for structural or chemical relics that may have lingered. Last year, for example, scientists reported identifying odd reddish peaks in 3.7-billion-year-old rocks in Greenland that may be the product of stromatolites, though many doubted that interpretation. The best evidence for these fossilized algal mats comes from 3.4-billion-year-old rocks in Australia, generally thought of as the strongest evidence for early life on Earth.

    But some scientists think ocean life may have begun earlier—and deeper. In the modern ocean, life thrives in and around the vents that form near seafloor spreading ridges or subduction zones—places where Earth’s tectonic plates are pulling apart or grinding together. The vents spew seawater, superheated by magma in the ocean crust and laden with metal minerals such as iron sulfide. As the water cools, the metals settle out, forming towering spires and chimneys. The mysterious ecosystem that inhabits this sunless, harsh environment includes bacteria and giant tube worms that don’t derive energy from photosynthesis. Such hardy communities, scientists have suggested, may not only have thrived on early Earth, but may also be an analog for life on other planets.

    Now, a team led by geochemist Dominic Papineau of University College London and his Ph.D. student Matthew Dodd says it has found clear evidence of such ancient vent life. The clues come from ancient rocks in northern Quebec in Canada that are at least 3.77 billion years old and may be even older than 4 billion years. Dodd examined hair-thin slices of rock from this formation and found intriguing features: tiny tubes composed of an iron oxide called hematite, as well as filaments of hematite that branch out and sometimes terminate into large knobs.

    Filaments and tubes are common features in more recent fossils that are attributed to the activity of iron-oxidizing bacteria at seafloor hydrothermal vents. Papineau was initially skeptical. However, he says, “within a year [Dodd] had found so much compelling evidence that I was convinced.”

    The team also identified carbonate “rosettes,” tiny concentric rings that contain traces of life’s building blocks including carbon, calcium, and phosphorus; and tiny, round granules of graphite, a form of carbon. Such rosettes and granules had been observed previously in rocks of similar age, but whether they are biological in origin is hotly debated. The rosettes can form nonbiologically from a series of chemical reactions, but Papineau says the rosettes in the new study contain a calcium phosphate mineral called apatite, which strongly suggests the presence of microorganisms. The graphite granules may represent part of a complicated chemical chain reaction mediated by the bacteria, he says. Taken together, the structures and their chemistry point to a biological origin near a submarine hydrothermal vent, the team reports online today in Nature. That would make them among the oldest signs of life on Earth—and, depending on the actual age of the rocks, possibly the oldest.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that life originated in deep waters rather than in shallow seas, Papineau says. “It’s not necessarily mutually exclusive—if we are ready to accept the fact that life diversified very early.” Both the iron-oxidizing bacteria and the photosynthetic cyanobacteria that build stromatolite mats could have evolved from an earlier ancestor, he says.

    But researchers like Konhauser remain skeptical of the paper’s conclusion. For example, he says, the observed hematite tubes and filaments are similar to structures associated with iron-oxidizing bacteria, “but of course that does not mean the [3.77-] billion-year-old structures are cells.” Moreover, he notes, if the tubes were formed by iron-oxidizing bacteria, they would need oxygen, in short supply at this early moment in Earth’s history. It implies that photosynthetic bacteria were already around to produce it. But it’s still unclear how oxygen would get down to the depths of early Earth’s ocean. The cyanobacteria that make stromatolites, on the other hand, make oxygen rather than consume it.

    The new paper makes “a more detailed case than has been presented previously,” Allwood says. Most previous reports of possible signs of life older than about 3.5 billion years have been questioned, she adds—not because life didn’t exist, but because it’s just so difficult to prove the further back in time you go in the rock record. “There’s still quite a bit of room for doubt.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:53 pm on February 11, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Drawn from the Deep, Earth’s mantle — a primordial soup even older than the moon., Geochemistry, High helium-3 relative to helium-4,   

    From UCSB: “Drawn from the Deep” 

    UC Santa Barbara Name bloc

    February 6, 2017
    Julie Cohen

    Geochemist Matt Jackson finds the hottest, most buoyant mantle plumes draw from a primordial reservoir deep in the Earth

    1
    Lead author Matthew Jackson samples Hawaiian lava with a rock hammer. Photo Credit: WHOI Geodynamics Program

    2
    Matthew Jackson. Photo Credit: Anna Maria Skuladottir

    The Earth’s mantle — the layer between the crust and the outer core — is home to a primordial soup even older than the moon. Among the main ingredients is helium-3 (He-3), a vestige of the Big Bang and nuclear fusion reactions in stars. And the mantle is its only terrestrial source.

    Scientists studying volcanic hotspots have strong evidence of this, finding high helium-3 relative to helium-4 in some plumes, the upwellings from the Earth’s deep mantle. Primordial reservoirs in the deep Earth, sampled by a small number of volcanic hotspots globally, have this ancient He-3/4 signature.

    Inspired by a 2012 paper that proposed a correlation between such hotspots and the velocity of seismic waves moving through the Earth’s interior, UC Santa Barbara geochemist Matthew Jackson teamed with the authors of the original paper — Thorsten Becker of the University of Texas at Austin and Jasper Konter of the University of Hawaii — to show that only the hottest hotspots with the slowest wave velocity draw from the primitive reservoir formed early in the planet’s history. Their findings appear in the journal Nature.

    “We used the seismology of the shallow mantle — the rate at which seismic waves travel through the Earth below its crust — to make inferences about the deeper mantle,” said Jackson, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Department of Earth Science. “At 200 km, the shallow mantle has the largest variability of seismic velocities — more than 6 percent, which is a lot. What’s more, that variability, which we hypothesize relates to temperature, correlates with He-3.”

    For their study, the researchers used the latest seismic models of the Earth’s velocity structure and 35 years of helium data. When they compared oceanic hotspots with high levels of He-3/4 to seismic wave velocities, they found that these represent the hottest hotspots, with seismic waves that move more slowly than they do in cooler areas. They also analyzed hotspot buoyancy flux, which can be used to measure how much melt a particular hotspot produces. In Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands, Samoa and Easter Island as well as in Iceland, hotspots had high buoyancy levels, confirming a basic rule of physics: the hotter, the more buoyant.

    “We found that the higher the hotspot buoyancy flux, the more melt a hotspot was producing and the more likely it was to have high He-3/4,” Jackson said. “Hotter plumes not only have slower seismic velocity and a higher hotspot buoyancy flux, they also are the ones with the highest He-3/4. This all ties together nicely and is the first time that He-3/4 has been correlated with shallow mantle velocities and hotspot buoyancy globally.”

    Becker noted that correlation does not imply causality, “but it is pretty nifty that we found two strong correlations, which both point to the same physically plausible mechanism: the primordial stuff gets picked up preferentially by the most buoyant thermochemical upwellings.”

    The authors also wanted to know why only the hottest, most buoyant plumes sample high He-3/4.

    “The explanation that we came up with — which people who do numerical simulations have been suggesting for a long time — is that whatever this reservoir is with primitive helium, it must be really dense so that only the hottest, most buoyant plumes can entrain some of it to the surface,” Jackson said. “That makes sense and it also explains how something so ancient could survive in the chaotically convecting mantle for 4.5 billion years. The density contrast makes it more likely that the ancient helium reservoir is preserved rather than mixed away.”

    “Since this correlation of geochemistry and seismology now holds from helium isotopes in this work to the compositions we examined in 2012, it appears that overall hotspot geochemical variations will need to be re-examined from the perspective of buoyancy,” Konter concluded.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:53 am on October 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Early life on Earth, , Geochemistry,   

    From UCLA: “Life on Earth likely started at least 4.1 billion years ago — much earlier than scientists had thought” 

    UCLA bloc

    UCLA

    October 19, 2015
    Stuart Wolpert

    1
    Mark Harrison at UCLA.

    UCLA geochemists have found evidence that life likely existed on Earth at least 4.1 billion years ago — 300 million years earlier than previous research suggested. The discovery indicates that life may have begun shortly after the planet formed 4.54 billion years ago.

    The research is published today in the online early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “Twenty years ago, this would have been heretical; finding evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago was shocking,” said Mark Harrison, co-author of the research and a professor of geochemistry at UCLA.

    “Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously,” added Harrison, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “With the right ingredients, life seems to form very quickly.”

    The new research suggests that life existed prior to the massive bombardment of the inner solar system that formed the moon’s large craters 3.9 billion years ago.

    “If all life on Earth died during this bombardment, which some scientists have argued, then life must have restarted quickly,” said Patrick Boehnke, a co-author of the research and a graduate student in Harrison’s laboratory.

    Scientists had long believed the Earth was dry and desolate during that time period. Harrison’s research — including a 2008 study in Nature he co-authored with Craig Manning, a professor of geology and geochemistry at UCLA, and former UCLA graduate student Michelle Hopkins — is proving otherwise.

    “The early Earth certainly wasn’t a hellish, dry, boiling planet; we see absolutely no evidence for that,” Harrison said. “The planet was probably much more like it is today than previously thought.”

    The researchers, led by Elizabeth Bell — a postdoctoral scholar in Harrison’s laboratory — studied more than 10,000 zircons originally formed from molten rocks, or magmas, from Western Australia. Zircons are heavy, durable minerals related to the synthetic cubic zirconium used for imitation diamonds. They capture and preserve their immediate environment, meaning they can serve as time capsules.

    The scientists identified 656 zircons containing dark specks that could be revealing and closely analyzed 79 of them with Raman spectroscopy, a technique that shows the molecular and chemical structure of ancient microorganisms in three dimensions.

    Bell and Boehnke, who have pioneered chemical and mineralogical tests to determine the condition of ancient zircons, were searching for carbon, the key component for life.

    One of the 79 zircons contained graphite — pure carbon — in two locations.

    “The first time that the graphite ever got exposed in the last 4.1 billion years is when Beth Ann and Patrick made the measurements this year,” Harrison said.

    How confident are they that their zircon represents 4.1 billion-year-old graphite?

    “Very confident,” Harrison said. “There is no better case of a primary inclusion in a mineral ever documented, and nobody has offered a plausible alternative explanation for graphite of non-biological origin into a zircon.”

    The graphite is older than the zircon containing it, the researchers said. They know the zircon is 4.1 billion years old, based on its ratio of uranium to lead; they don’t know how much older the graphite is.

    The research suggests life in the universe could be abundant, Harrison said. On Earth, simple life appears to have formed quickly, but it likely took many millions of years for very simple life to evolve the ability to photosynthesize.

    The carbon contained in the zircon has a characteristic signature — a specific ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 — that indicates the presence of photosynthetic life.

    “We need to think differently about the early Earth,” Bell said.

    Wendy Mao, an associate professor of geological sciences and photon science at Stanford University, is the other co-author of the research.

    The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and a Simons Collaboration on the Origin of Life Postdoctoral Fellowship granted to Bell.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 6:35 am on December 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Geochemistry,   

    From OSU: “Study Hints that Ancient Earth Made Its Own Water—Geologically” 

    OSU

    Ohio State University

    December 17, 2014
    Pam Frost Gorder

    A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

    The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University— and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

    At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

    1
    Wendy Panero

    In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

    Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

    Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

    Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

    “When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

    Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water—in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

    Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

    In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell—a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser—to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface—a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

    2
    This plate tectonics diagram from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center shows how mantle circulation delivers new rock to the crust via mid-ocean ridges. New research suggests that mantle circulation also delivers water to the oceans.

    In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

    Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found—a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”—as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

    One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

    For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier—a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

    If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said—an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

    “One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

    Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

    “If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:47 pm on December 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Geochemistry, , ,   

    From astrobio.net: “Warmer Pacific Ocean could release millions of tons of seafloor methane” 

    U Washington

    University of Washington

    December 9, 2014
    Hannah Hickey

    Off the West Coast of the United States, methane gas is trapped in frozen layers below the seafloor. New research from the University of Washington shows that water at intermediate depths is warming enough to cause these carbon deposits to melt, releasing methane into the sediments and surrounding water.

    Researchers found that water off the coast of Washington is gradually warming at a depth of 500 meters, about a third of a mile down. That is the same depth where methane transforms from a solid to a gas. The research suggests that ocean warming could be triggering the release of a powerful greenhouse gas.

    b
    Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is 1/3 of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep.Brendan Philip / UW

    “We calculate that methane equivalent in volume to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is released every year off the Washington coast,” said Evan Solomon, a UW assistant professor of oceanography. He is co-author of a paper to appear in Geophysical Research Letters.

    While scientists believe that global warming will release methane from gas hydrates worldwide, most of the current focus has been on deposits in the Arctic. This paper estimates that from 1970 to 2013, some 4 million metric tons of methane has been released from hydrate decomposition off Washington. That’s an amount each year equal to the methane from natural gas released in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout off the coast of Louisiana, and 500 times the rate at which methane is naturally released from the seafloor.

    Dissociation of Cascadia margin gas hydrates in response to contemporary ocean warming
    Geophysical Research Letters | Dec. 5, 2014

    “Methane hydrates are a very large and fragile reservoir of carbon that can be released if temperatures change,” Solomon said. “I was skeptical at first, but when we looked at the amounts, it’s significant.”

    Methane is the main component of natural gas. At cold temperatures and high ocean pressure, it combines with water into a crystal called methane hydrate. The Pacific Northwest has unusually large deposits of methane hydrates because of its biologically productive waters and strong geologic activity. But coastlines around the world hold deposits that could be similarly vulnerable to warming.

    “This is one of the first studies to look at the lower-latitude margin,” Solomon said. “We’re showing that intermediate-depth warming could be enhancing methane release.”
    map of Washington coast

    The yellow dots show all the ocean temperature measurements off the Washington coast from 1970 to 2013. The green triangles are places where scientists and fishermen have seen columns of bubbles. The stars are where the UW researchers took more measurements to check whether the plumes are due to warming water.Una Miller / UW

    Co-author
    Una Miller, a UW oceanography undergraduate, first collected thousands of historic temperature measurements in a region off the Washington coast as part of a separate research project in the lab of co-author Paul Johnson, a UW professor of oceanography. The data revealed the unexpected sub-surface ocean warming signal.

    “Even though the data was raw and pretty messy, we could see a trend,” Miller said. “It just popped out.”

    The four decades of data show deeper water has, perhaps surprisingly, been warming the most due to climate change.

    “A lot of the earlier studies focused on the surface because most of the data is there,” said co-author Susan Hautala, a UW associate professor of oceanography. “This depth turns out to be a sweet spot for detecting this trend.” The reason, she added, is that it lies below water nearer the surface that is influenced by long-term atmospheric cycles.

    The warming water probably comes from the Sea of Okhotsk, between Russia and Japan, where surface water becomes very dense and then spreads east across the Pacific. The Sea of Okhotsk is known to have warmed over the past 50 years, and other studies have shown that the water takes a decade or two to cross the Pacific and reach the Washington coast.

    s
    Map of the Sea of Okhotsk

    “We began the collaboration when we realized this is also the most sensitive depth for methane hydrate deposits,” Hautala said. She believes the same ocean currents could be warming intermediate-depth waters from Northern California to Alaska, where frozen methane deposits are also known to exist.

    m
    The yellow dots show all the ocean temperature measurements off the Washington coast from 1970 to 2013. The green triangles are places where scientists and fishermen have seen columns of bubbles. The stars are where the UW researchers took more measurements to check whether the plumes are due to warming water.Una Miller / UW

    m
    Researchers used a coring machine to gather samples of sediment off Washington’s coast to see if observations match their calculations for warming-induced methane release. The photo was taken in October aboard the UW’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel.Robert Cannata / UW

    Warming water causes the frozen edge of methane hydrate to move into deeper water. On land, as the air temperature warms on a frozen hillside, the snowline moves uphill. In a warming ocean, the boundary between frozen and gaseous methane would move deeper and farther offshore. Calculations in the paper show that since 1970 the Washington boundary has moved about 1 kilometer – a little more than a half-mile – farther offshore. By 2100, the boundary for solid methane would move another 1 to 3 kilometers out to sea.

    Estimates for the future amount of gas released from hydrate dissociation this century are as high as 0.4 million metric tons per year off the Washington coast, or about quadruple the amount of methane from the Deepwater Horizon blowout each year.

    Still unknown is where any released methane gas would end up. It could be consumed by bacteria in the seafloor sediment or in the water, where it could cause seawater in that area to become more acidic and oxygen-deprived. Some methane might also rise to the surface, where it would release into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, compounding the effects of climate change.
    researchers on ship

    2
    Evan Solomon (right) and Marta Torres (left, OSU) aboard the UW’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel in October, with fluid samples from the seafloor that will help answer whether the columns of methane bubbles are due to ocean warming.Robert Cannata / UW

    Researchers now hope to verify the calculations with new measurements. For the past few years, curious fishermen have sent UW oceanographers sonar images showing mysterious columns of bubbles. Solomon and Johnson just returned from a cruise to check out some of those sites at depths where Solomon believes they could be caused by warming water.

    “Those images the fishermen sent were 100 percent accurate,” Johnson said. “Without them we would have been shooting in the dark.”

    Johnson and Solomon are analyzing data from that cruise to pinpoint what’s triggering this seepage, and the fate of any released methane. The recent sightings of methane bubbles rising to the sea surface, the authors note, suggests that at least some of the seafloor gas may reach the surface and vent to the atmosphere.

    The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. The other co-author is Robert Harris at Oregon State University.

    See the full article here.

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    The University of Washington is one of the world’s preeminent public universities. Our impact on individuals, on our region, and on the world is profound — whether we are launching young people into a boundless future or confronting the grand challenges of our time through undaunted research and scholarship. Ranked number 10 in the world in Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings and educating more than 54,000 students annually, our students and faculty work together to turn ideas into impact and in the process transform lives and our world. For more about our impact on the world, every day.

    So what defines us — the students, faculty and community members at the University of Washington? Above all, it’s our belief in possibility and our unshakable optimism. It’s a connection to others, both near and far. It’s a hunger that pushes us to tackle challenges and pursue progress. It’s the conviction that together we can create a world of good. Join us on the journey.

     
  • richardmitnick 2:23 pm on November 7, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Geochemistry,   

    From Caltech: “Unexpected Findings Change the Picture of Sulfur on the Early Earth” 

    Caltech Logo
    Caltech

    11/07/2014
    Kimm Fesenmaier

    Scientists believe that until about 2.4 billion years ago there was little oxygen in the atmosphere—an idea that has important implications for the evolution of life on Earth. Evidence in support of this hypothesis comes from studies of sulfur isotopes preserved in the rock record. But the sulfur isotope story has been uncertain because of the lack of key information that has now been provided by a new analytical technique developed by a team of Caltech geologists and geochemists. The story that new information reveals, however, is not what most scientists had expected.

    slope
    2.5 billion-year-old sedimentary strata exposed in the Northern Cape Province of South Africa. Credit: Jess Adkins/Caltech

    more
    Reef mounds formed of radiating calcium carbonate crystal fans on the Archean seafloor. Credit: Jess Adkins/Caltech

    and
    Cross-section view of calcium carbonate crystal fans that grew on the seafloor circa 2.6 billion years ago. Credit: Jess Adkins/Caltech

    “Our new technique is 1,000 times more sensitive for making sulfur isotope measurements,” says Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science at Caltech. “We used it to make measurements of sulfate groups dissolved in carbonate minerals deposited in the ocean more than 2.4 billion years ago, and those measurements show that we have been thinking about this part of the sulfur cycle and sulfur isotopes incorrectly.”

    The team describes their results in the November 7 issue of the journal Science. The lead author on the paper is Guillaume Paris, an assistant research scientist at Caltech.

    Nearly 15 years ago, a team of geochemists led by researchers at UC San Diego discovered there was something peculiar about the sulfur isotope content of rocks from the Archean era, an interval that lasted from 3.8 billion to about 2.4 billion years ago. In those ancient rocks, the geologists were analyzing the abundances of stable isotopes of sulfur.

    When sulfur is involved in a reaction—such as microbial sulfate reduction, a way for microbes to eat organic compounds in the absence of oxygen—its isotopes are usually fractionated, or separated, from one another in proportion to their differences in mass. That is, 34S gets fractionated from 32S about twice as much as 33S gets fractionated from 32S. This process is called mass-dependent fractionation, and, scientists have found that it dominates in virtually all sulfur processes operating on Earth’s surface for the last 2.4 billion years.

    However, in older rocks from the Archean era (i.e., older than 2.4 billion years), the relative abundances of sulfur isotopes do not follow the same mass-related pattern, but instead show relative enrichments or deficiencies of 33S relative to 34S. They are said to be the product of mass-independent fractionation (MIF).

    The widely accepted explanation for the occurrence of MIF is as follows. Billions of years ago, volcanism was extremely active on Earth, and all those volcanoes spewed sulfur dioxide high into the atmosphere. At that time, oxygen existed at very low levels in the atmosphere, and therefore ozone, which is produced when ultraviolet radiation strikes oxygen, was also lacking. Today, ozone prevents ultraviolet light from reaching sulfur dioxide with the energy needed to fractionate sulfur, but on the early Earth, that was not the case, and MIF is the result. Researchers have been able to reproduce this effect in the lab by shining lasers onto sulfur dioxide and producing MIF.

    Geologists have also measured the sulfur isotopic composition of sedimentary rocks dating to the Archean era, and found that sulfides—sulfur-bearing compounds such as pyrite (FeS2)—include more 33S than would be expected based on normal mass-dependent processes. But if those minerals are enriched in 33S, other minerals must be correspondingly lacking in the isotope. According to the leading hypothesis, those 33S-deficient minerals should be sulfates—oxidized sulfur-bearing compounds—that were deposited in the Archean ocean.

    “That idea was put forward on the basis of experiment. To test the hypothesis, you’d need to check the isotope ratios in sulfate salts (minerals such as gypsum), but those don’t really exist in the Archean rock record since there was very little oxygen around,” explains Woody Fischer, professor of geobiology at Caltech and a coauthor on the new paper. “But there are trace amounts of sulfate that got trapped in carbonate minerals in seawater.”

    However, because those sulfates are present in such small amounts, no one has been able to measure well their isotopic composition. But using a device known as a multicollector inductively-coupled mass spectrometer to precisely measure multiple sulfur isotopes, Adkins and his colleague Alex Sessions, a professor of geobiology, developed a method that is sensitive enough to measure the isotopic composition of about 10 nanomoles of sulfate in just a few tens of milligrams of carbonate material.

    The authors used the method to measure the sulfate content of carbonates from an ancient carbonate platform preserved in present-day South Africa, an ancient version of the depositional environments found in the Bahamas today. Analyzing the samples, which spanned 70 million years and a variety of marine environments, the researchers found exactly the opposite of what had been predicted: the sulfates were actually enriched by 33S rather than lacking in it.

    “Now, finally, we’re looking at this sulfur cycle and the sulfur isotopes correctly,” Adkins says.

    What does this mean for the atmospheric conditions of the early Earth? “Our findings underscore that the oxygen concentrations in the early atmosphere could have been incredibly low,” Fischer says.

    Knowledge of sulfate isotopes changes how we understand the role of biology in the sulfur cycle, he adds. Indeed, the fact that the sulfates from this time period have the same isotopic composition as sulfide minerals suggests that the sulfides may be the product of microbial processes that reduced seawater sulfate to sulfide (which later precipitated in sediments in the form of pyrite). Previously, scientists thought that all of the isotope fractionation could be explained by inorganic processes alone.

    In a second paper also in the November 7 issue of Science, Paris, Adkins, Sessions, and colleagues from a number of institutions around the world report on related work in which they measured the sulfates in Indonesia’s Lake Matano, a low-sulfate analog of the Archean ocean.

    At about 100 meters depth, the bacterial communities in Lake Matano begin consuming sulfate rather than oxygen, as do most microbial communities, yielding sulfide. The researchers measured the sulfur isotopes within the sulfates and sulfides in the lake water and sediments and found that despite the low concentrations of sulfate, a lot of mass-dependent fractionation was taking place. The researchers used the data to build a model of the lake’s sulfur cycle that could produce the measured fractionation, and when they applied their model to constrain the range of concentrations of sulfate in the Archean ocean, they found that the concentration was likely less than 2.5 micromolar, 10,000 times lower than the modern ocean.

    “At such low concentration, all the isotopic variability starts to fit,” says Adkins. “With these two papers, we were able to come at the same problem in two ways—by measuring the rocks dating from the Archean and by looking at a model system today that doesn’t have much sulfate—and they point toward the same answer: the sulfate concentration was very low in the Archean ocean.”

    Samuel M. Webb of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource is also an author on the paper, “Neoarchean carbonate-associated sulfate records positive Δ33S anomalies.” The work was supported by funding from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Earth Sciences, the Henry and Camille Dreyfus Foundation’s Postdoctoral Program in Environmental Chemistry, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

    Paris is also a co-lead author on the second paper, Sulfate was a trace constituent of Archean seawater. Additional authors on that paper are Sean Crowe and CarriAyne Jones of the University of British Columbia and the University of Southern Denmark; Sergei Katsev of the University of Minnesota Duluth; Sang-Tae Kim of McMaster University; Aubrey Zerkle of the University of St. Andrews; Sulung Nomosatryo of the Indonesian Institute of Sciences; David Fowle of the University of Kansas; James Farquhar of the University of Maryland, College Park; and Donald Canfield of the University of Southern Denmark. Funding was provided by an Agouron Institute Geobiology Fellowship and a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellowship, as well as by the Danish National Research Foundation and the European Research Council.

    See the full article here.

    The California Institute of Technology (commonly referred to as Caltech) is a private research university located in Pasadena, California, United States. Caltech has six academic divisions with strong emphases on science and engineering. Its 124-acre (50 ha) primary campus is located approximately 11 mi (18 km) northeast of downtown Los Angeles. “The mission of the California Institute of Technology is to expand human knowledge and benefit society through research integrated with education. We investigate the most challenging, fundamental problems in science and technology in a singularly collegial, interdisciplinary atmosphere, while educating outstanding students to become creative members of society.”
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