Tectonics and glacial epochs

Because the configuration of continents inevitably affects the ocean currents that dominate the distribution of heat across the face of the Earth, tectonics has a major influence over climate. So too does the topography of continents, which deflects global wind patterns, and that is also a reflection of tectonic events. For instance, a gap between North and South America allowed exchange of the waters of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans throughout the Cenozoic Era until about 3 Ma ago, at the end of the Pliocene Epoch, although the seaway had long been shallowing as a result of tectonics and volcanism at the destructive margin of the eastern Pacific. That seemingly minor closure transformed the system of currents in the Atlantic Ocean, particularly the Gulf Stream, whose waxing and waning were instrumental in the glacial-interglacial cycles that have persisted for the last 2.5 Ma. This was partly through its northward transport of saltier water formed by tropical evaporation that cooling at high northern latitudes encouraged to sink to form a major component of the global oceanic heat conveyor system.   Another example is the rise of the Himalaya following India’s collision with Eurasia that gave rise to the monsoonal system  dominating the climate of southern Asia. The four huge climatic shifts to all-pervasive ice-house conditions during the Phanerozoic Eon are not explained so simply: one during the late-Ordovician; another in the late-Devonian; a 150 Ma-long glacial epoch spanning much of the Carboniferous and Permian Periods, and the current Ice Age that has lasted since around 34 Ma. Despite having been at the South Pole since the Cretaceous Antarctica didn’t develop glaciers until 34 Ma. So what may have triggered these four major shifts in global climate?

Five palaeoclimatologists from the University of California and MIT set out to find links, starting with the most basic parameter, how atmospheric greenhouse gases might have varied. In the long term CO2 builds up through its emission by volcanoes. It is drawn down by several geological processes: burial of carbon and carbonates formed by living processes; chemical weathering of silicate minerals by CO2 dissolved in water, which forms solid calcium carbonate in soil and carbonate ions in seawater that can be taken up and buried by shell-producing organisms. Rather than comparing gross climate change with periods of orogeny and mountain building, mainly due to continent-continent collisions, they focused on zones that preserve signs of subduction of oceanic lithosphere – suture zones (Macdonald,F.A. et al. 2019. Arc-continent collisions in the tropics set Earth’s climate state. Science, v. 363 (in press); DOI: 10.1126/science.aav5300 ). Comparing the length of all sutures active at different times in the Phanerozoic with the extent of continental ice sheets there is some correlation between active subduction and glaciations, but some major misfits. Selecting only sutures that were active in the tropics of the time – the zone of most intense chemical weathering – results in a far better tectonic-climate connection. Their explanation for this is not tropical weathering of all kinds of exposed rock but of calcium- and magnesium-rich igneous rocks; basaltic and ultramafic rocks. These dominate oceanic lithosphere, which is exposed to weathering mainly where slabs of lithosphere are forced, or obducted, onto continental crust at convergent plate margins to form ophiolite complexes. The Ca- and Mg-rich silicates in them weather quickly to take up CO2 and form carbonates, especially in the tropics. Through such weathering reactions across millions of square kilometres the main greenhouse gas is rapidly pulled out of the atmosphere to set off global cooling.

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Top – variation in the total length of active, ophiolite-bearing sutures during the Phanerozoic; middle – length of such sutures in the tropics; bottom – extent of Phanerozoic glaciers. (Credit: Macdonald et al. 2019; Fig.2

Rather than the climatic influence of tectonics through global mountain building, the previous paradigm, Macdonald and colleagues show that the main factor is where subduction and ophiolite obduction were taking place. In turn, this very much depended on the configuration of continents on which ophiolites can be preserved. The most active period of tectonics during the Mesozoic, as recorded by the global length of sutures, was at 250 Ma – the beginning of the Triassic Period – but they were mainly outside the tropics, when there is no sign of contemporary glaciation. During the Ordovician, late-Devonian and Permo-Carboniferous ice-houses active sutures were most concentrated in the tropics. The same goes for the build-up to the current glacial epoch.

The mid-Pleistocene transition

As shown by oxygen-isotope records from marine sediments, before about 1.25 Ma global climate cycled between cold and warm episodes roughly every 41 ka. Between 1.25 to 0.7 Ma these glacial-interglacial pulses lengthened to the ~100 ka periods that have characterised the last seven cycles that were also marked by larger volume of Northern Hemisphere ice-sheet cover during glacial maxima. Both periodicities have been empirically linked to regular changes in the Earth’s astronomical behaviour and their effects on the annual amount of energy received from the Sun, as predicted by Milutin Milankovich. As long ago as 1976 early investigation of changes of oxygen isotopes with depth in deep-sea sediments had revealed that their patterns closely matched Milankovich’s  hypothesis. The 41 ka periodicity matches the rate at which the Earth’s axial tilt changes, while the ~100 ka signal matches that for variation in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit. 19 and 24 ka cycles were also found in the analysis that reflect those involved in the gyroscope-like precession of the axis of rotation. Surprisingly, the 100 ka cycling follows by far the weakest astronomical effect on solar warming yet the climate fluctuations of the last 700 ka are by far the largest of the last 2.5 million years. In fact the 2 to 8 % changes in solar heat input implicated in the climate cycles are 10 times greater than those predicted even for times when all the astronomical influences act in concert. That and other deviations from Milankovich’s hypothesis suggest that some of Earth’s surface processes act to amplify the astronomical drivers. Moreover, they probably lie behind the mid-Pleistocene transition from 41 to 100 ka cyclicity. What are they? Changes in albedo related to ice- and cloud cover, and shifts in the release and absorption of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases are among many suggested factors. As with many geoscientific conundrums, only more and better quality data about changes recorded in sediments that may be proxies for climatic variations are likely to resolve this one.

Adam Hazenfratz of ETH in Zurich and colleagues from several other European countries and the US have compiled details about changing surface- and deep-ocean temperatures and salinity – from δ18O and Mg/Ca ratios in foraminifera shells from a core into Southern Ocean-floor sediments – that go back 1.5 Ma (Hazenfratz, A.P. and 9 others 2019. The residence time of Southern Ocean surface waters and the 100,000-year ice age cycle. Science, v. 363, p. 1080-1084; DOI: 10.1126/science.aat7067). Differences in temperature and salinity (and thus density) gradients show up at different times in this critical sediment record. In turn, they record gross shifts in ocean circulation at high southern latitudes that may have affected the CO2 released from and absorbed by sea water. Specifically, Hazenfratz et al. teased out fluctuations in the rate of  mixing of dense, cold and salty water supplied to the Southern Ocean by deep currents with less dense surface water. Cold, dense water is able to dissolve more CO2 than does warmer surface water so that when it forms near the surface at high latitudes it draws down this greenhouse gas from the atmosphere and carries it into long-term storage in the deep ocean when it sinks. Deep-water formation therefore tends to force down mean global surface temperature, the more so the longer it resides at depth. When deep water wells to the surface and warms up it releases some of its CO2 content to produce an opposite, warming influence on global climate. So, when mixing of deep and surface waters is enhanced the net result is global warming, whereas if mixing is hindered global climate undergoes cooling.

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The Southern Ocean, where most dissolved and gaseous carbon dioxide are emitted and absorbed by seawater (Credit: British Antarctic Survey)

The critical factor in the rate of mixing deep with surface water is the density of that at the surface. When its salinity and density are low the surface water layer acts as a lid on what lies beneath, thereby increasing the residence time of deep water and the CO2 that it contains. This surface ‘freshening’ in the Southern Ocean seems to have begun at around 1.25 Ma and became well established 700 ka ago; that is, during the mid-Pleistocene climate transition. The phenomenon helped to lessen the greenhouse effect after 700 ka so that frigid conditions lasted longer and more glacial ice was able to accumulate, especially on the northern continents. This would have made it more difficult for the 41 ka astronomically paced changes in solar heating to have restored the rate of deep-water mixing to release sufficient CO2 to return the climate to interglacial conditions That would lengthen the glacial-interglacial cycles. The link between the new 100 ka cyclicity and very weak forcing by the varying eccentricity of Earth’s orbit may be fortuitous. So how might anthropogenic global warming affect this process? Increased melting of the Antarctic ice sheet may further freshen surface waters of the Southern Ocean, thereby slowing its mixing with deep, CO2-rich deep water and the release of stored greenhouse gases. As yet, no process leading to the decreased density of surface waters between 1.25 and 0.7 Ma has been suggested, but it seems that something similar may attend global warming.

Related articles: Menviel, L. 2019. The southern amplifier. Science, v. 363, p. 1040-1041; DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7196; The deep Southern Ocean is key to more intense ice ages (Phys.org)

Better dating of Deccan Traps, and the K-Pg event

Predictably, the dialogue between the supporters of the Deccan Trap flood basalts and the Chicxulub impact as triggers that were responsible for the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic Era (the K-Pg event) continues. A recent issue of Science contains two new approaches focussing on the timing of flood basalt eruptions in western India relative to the age of the Chicxulub impact. One is based on dating the lavas using zircon U-Pb geochronology (Schoene, B. et al. 2019. U-Pb constraints on pulsed eruption of the Deccan Traps across the end-Cretaceous mass extinction. Science, v. 363, p. 862-866; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau2422), the other using 40Ar/39Ar dating of plagioclase feldspars (Sprain, C.G. et al. 2019. The eruptive tempo of Deccan volcanism in relation to the Cretaceous-Paleogene boundary. Science, v. 363, p. 866-870; DOI: 10.1126/science.aav1446). Both studies were initiated for the same reason: previous dating of the sequence of flows in the Deccan Traps was limited by inadequate sampling of the flow sequence and/or high analytical uncertainties. All that could be said with confidence was that the outpouring of more than a million cubic kilometres of plume-related basaltic magma lasted around a million years (65.5 to 66.5 Ma) that encompassed the sudden extinction event and the possibly implicated Chicxulub impact. The age of the impact, as recorded by its iridium-rich ejecta found in sediments of the Denver Basin in Colorado, has been estimated from zircon U-Pb data at 66.016 ± 0.050 Ma; i.e. with a precision of around 50 thousand years.

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The Deccan Traps in the Western Ghats of India (Credit: Wikipedia)

Because basalts rarely contain sufficient zircons to estimate a U-Pb age of their eruption, Blair Schoene and colleagues collected them from palaeosols or boles that commonly occur between flows and sometimes incorporate volcanic ash. Their data cover 23 boles and a single zircon-bearing basalt. Sprain et al. obtained 40Ar/39Ar ages from 19 flows, which they used to supplement 5 ages obtained by their team in previous studies that used the same analytical methods and 4 palaeosol ages from an earlier paper by Schoene’s group.

The zircon U-Pb data from palaeosols, combined with estimates of magma volumes that contributed to the lava sequence between each dated stratigraphic level, provide a record of the varying rates at which lavas accumulated. The results suggest four distinct periods of high-volume eruption separated by long. periods of relative quiescence. The second such pulse precedes the K-Pg event by up to 100 ka, the extinction and impact occurring in a period of quiescence. A few tens of thousand years after the event Deccan magmatism rose to its maximum intensity. Schoene’s group consider that this supports the notion that both magmatism and bolide impact drove environmental deterioration that culminated in mass extinction.

The Ar-Ar data derived from the basalt flows themselves, seem to tell a significantly different story. A plot of basalt accumulation, similarly derived from dating and stratigraphy, shows little if any sign of major magmatic pulses and periods of quiescence. Instead, Courtney Sprain’s team distinguish an average eruption rate of around 0.4 km3 per year before the K-Pg event and 0.6 km3 per year following it. Yet they observe from climate proxy data that there seems to have been only minor climatic change (about 2 to 3 °C warming) during the period around and after the K-Pg event when some 75% of the lavas flooded out. Yet during the pre-extinction period of slower effusion global temperature rose by 4°C then fell back to pre-eruption levels immediately before the K-Pg event. This odd mismatch between magma production and climate, based on their data, prompts Sprain et al. to speculate on possible shifts in the emission of climate-changing gases during the period Deccan volcanism: warming by carbon dioxide – either from the magma or older carbon-rich sediments heated by it; cooling induced by stratospheric sulfate aerosols formed by volcanogenic SO2 emissions. That would imply a complex scenario of changes in the composition of gas emissions of either type. They suggest that one conceivable trigger for the post-extinction climate shift may have been exhaustion of the magma source’s sulfur-rich volatile content before the Chicxulub impact added enough energy to the Earth system to generate the massive extrusions that followed it. But their view peters out in a demand for ‘better understanding of [the Deccan Traps’] volatile release’.

A curious case of empiricism seeming to resolve the K-Pg conundrum, on the one hand, yet pushing the resolution further off, on the other …

More discussion on the K-Pg event can be read here

Plants first to succumb to the end-Permian event

We have become accustomed to thinking that up to 90% of organisms were snuffed out by the catastrophe at the Permian-Triassic boundary 252 Ma ago. Those are the figures for marine organisms, whose record in sediments is the most complete. It has also been estimated to have lasted a mere 60 ka, and the recovery in the Early Triassic to have taken as long as 10 Ma. There are hints of three separate pulses of extinction related to: initial gas emission from the Siberian Traps; coal fires; and release of methane from sea-floor gas hydrates at the peak of global warming. Various terrestrial sequences record the collapse of dense woodlands, so that the Early Triassic is devoid of coals that are widespread in the preceding Late Permian. A new detailed study of terrestrial sediments in the Sydney Basin of eastern Australia reveals something new (Fielding, C.R. and 10 others 2019. Age and pattern of the southern high-latitude continental end-Permian extinction constrained by multiproxy analysis. Nature Communications, v. 10, online publications: DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-07934-z).

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The distinctive, tongue-like form of Glossopteris leaves that dominate the coal-bearing Permian strata of the southern coninents. Their occurrence in South America, Africa, India, Australia, New Zealand, and Antarctica prompted Alfred Wegener to suggest that these modern continents had been united in Pangaea by Permian times: a key to continental drift. (Credit: Getty Images)

Christopher Fielding or the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and colleagues focused on pollens, geochemistry and detailed dating of the sedimentary succession across the P-Tr boundary exposed on the New South Wales coast. The stratigraphy is intricately documented by a 1 km deep well core that penetrates a more or less unbroken fluviatile and deltaic sequence that contains eleven beds of volcanic ash. The igneous layers are key to calibrating age throughout the sequence (259.10 ± 0.17 to 247.87 ± 0.11 Ma using zircon U-Pb methods). The pollens change abruptly from those of a Permian flora, dominated by tongue-like glossopterid plants, to a different association that includes conifers. The change coincides with a geochemical ‘spike’ in the abundance of nickel and a brief change in the degree of alteration of detrital fledspars to clay minerals. The first implicates the delivery of massive amounts of nickel to the atmosphere, probably by the eruption of the Siberian Traps , which contain major economic nickel deposits. The second feature suggests a brief period of warmer and more humid climatic conditions. A third geochemical change is the onset of oscillations in the abundance of 13C that are thought to record major changes in plant life across the planet. These features would have been an easily predicted association with the 252 Ma mass extinction were it not for the fact that the radiometric dating places them about 400 thousand years before the well-known changes in global animal life. Detailed dating of the Siberian Traps links the collapse of Glossopteris and coal formation to the earliest extrusion of flood basalts, which suggests that the animal extinctions were driven by cumulative effects of the later outpourings

Related article: Chris Fielding comments on the paper at Nature Research/Ecology and Evolution

Something large moved 2 billion years ago

More than 50 years ago a group of schoolchildren discovered a fronded fossil (Charnia) in the Precambrian rocks of Charnwood Forest in the English Midlands. Since then it has been clear that multicellular life originated before the Cambrian Period, when the first tangible life had previously been considered to have emerged. Discovery of the rich Ediacaran fauna of quilted, baglike and disc-like animals in 635 Ma old Neoproterozoic sediments in South Australia, and many other occurrences re-established the start of the ‘carnival of animals’ in the Ediacaran Period (635 to 541 Ma). It happened to follow the climatic and environmental turmoil of at least two Snowball Earth episodes during the preceding Cryogenian Period (850 to 635 Ma), which has led to a flurry of suggestions for the transition from protozoan to metazoan life. Yet, applying a ‘molecular-clock’ approach to the genetic differences between living metazoan organisms seems to suggest a considerable earlier evolutionary event that started ‘life as we know it’. That may have been confirmed by a discovery in much older sediments in Gabon, West Africa.

A sequence of shallow-marine sediments in the Francevillian Series in Gabon was laid down at a time of fluctuating sea level around 2100 Ma ago, when the upper oceans had become oxygenated. In them are black shales that preserve an abundance of intricate sedimentary features. Among them are curious stringy structures rich in crystalline pyrite (Fe2S). They are infilled wiggly tubes that lie in the shale bedding. CT scans reveal that the bedding has been flattened around the tubules as it became lithified. So the tubes formed while the sediment was wet and soft (El Albani, A. and 22 others 2019. Organism motility in an oxygenated shallow-marine environment 2.1 billion years ago. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, online preprint; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1815721116). They look very like burrows. Up to 5 mm across, they can be considered large by comparison with almost all organisms known from that time. The exception comes from the same stratigraphic Series in Gabon. In 2010, El Albani and colleagues published an account of fossils preserved by pyrite that look like fried eggs, 1 to 2 cm across, with scalloped edges. Internal structures revealed by CT scanning include radial slits in the ‘whites’ and folding within the central ‘yolk’. That paper reported the geochemical presence in the host shales of steranes, which are breakdown products of steroids that are unique to eukaryotes. Could these organisms and the wiggly tube-like trace fossils indicate the presence of the earliest metazoans in the Francevillian Series?

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Palaeoproterozoic fossils from the Francevillian Series in Gabon. Top: greytone photographs of burrow-like trace fossils (Credit: El Albani et al. 2019; Fig.1). Bottom: colour photograph and 3 CT scans of discoidal fossil (Credit: El Albani et al. 2010; Fig. 4).

Until the discoveries in Gabon, the oldest organic structure that had been suggested to be a metazoan was the rare Grypania, a spiral, strap-like fossil found in a variety of strata ranging in age from 1870 to 650 Ma. Being made of a structureless ribbon of graphite, Grypania seems most likely to have been made by colonial bacteria. The two Gabon life forms cannot be disposed of quite so easily. The discoids have organised structures rivalling those in Ediacaran animals, while the wiggly tubes clearly seem to indicate something capable of movement. In both cases preservation is by iron sulfide, which suggests the presence at some stage of chemo-autotrophic bacteria that reduce sulfate ions to sulfide. Could these not have formed mats taking up irregular discs and plates? The burrows may have been formed by unicellular eukaryotes, one type of which – the slime moulds – is capable of aggregating together to form multi-celled reproductive structures as well as living freely as single amoeba. Some form slug-like masses that are capable of movement; not metazoans, but perhaps their precursors.

A stratigraphic timeline for the Denisova Cave

Denisova Cave was named to commemorate an 18th century hermit called Denis, who used it as his refuge. The culmination of more than four decades of excavation, which followed the discovery there of Mousterian and Levallois tools there, has been the explosion onto the palaeoanthropological scene of Denisovan genomics, beginning in 2010 with sequenced DNA from a child’s finger bone. The same layer yielded Neanderthal DNA from a toe bone in 2013. Another layer yielded similar evidence in 2018 of an individual who had a Neanderthal father and a Denisovan mother. Application of the new technique of peptide mass fingerprinting, or zooarchaeology by mass spectrometry (ZooMS), to small, unidentifiable bone fragments from the cave sediments revealed further signs of Denisovan occupation and the first trace of anatomically modern humans (AMH). So far the tally is 4 Denisovans (two female children and two adult males), a Neanderthal woman and the astonishing hybrid. Analyses of the sediments themselves showed traces of both Neanderthal and Denisovan mtDNA from deeper in the stratigraphy than levels in which human fossils had been found, but which contained artefacts. The discovery of the first Denisovan DNA revealed that AMH migrants from Africa who reached the West Pacific islands about 65 ka ago carried fragments of that genome. As well as hybridising with Neanderthals some of the people who left Africa had interbred with Denisovans sufficiently often for genetic traces to have survived. Yet, until now, the ages of the analysed samples from the cave remained unknown.

That is no surprise for two reasons: cave sediments are complex, having been reworked over millennia to scramble their true stratigraphy; most of the organic remains defied 14C dating, being older than its maximum limit of determination. However, using alternative approaches has resulted in two papers in the latest issue of Nature. The first reports results from two methods that rely on the luminescence of grains of quartz and feldspar when stimulated, which measures the time since they were last exposed to light (Jacobs, Z. and 10 others 2019. Timing of archaic hominin occupation of Denisova Cave in southern Siberia. Nature, v. 565, p. 594-599; DOI: 0.1038/s41586-018-0843-2). Over 280 thousand grains in 103 sediment samples from different depths and various parts of the cave system have yielded a range of ages from 300 to 20 ka that span 3 glacial-interglacial cycles except for a few gaps, giving rough estimates of the timing of hominin occupation shown by fossils and soil layers that contain DNA. The youngest evidence for Denisovans is shown to be roughly 50 ka; a time when AMH was present elsewhere in Siberia. They lived at a time halfway between the 130 ka interglacial and the last glacial maximum. Two Neanderthals, a Denisovan and the hybrid occupied the site during the 130 ka interglacial. Soils from the previous warm episode from 250 to 200 ka contain both Neanderthal and Denisovan DNA traces. The oldest occupancy, marked by the presence of a Denisovan bone sample, was 300 ka ago, once again midway between an interglacial and a glacial maximum.

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All the hominin remains found in Denisova Cave: Note the common scale. (Credit: Douka et al. 2019; extended data Figure 1)

The second paper (Douka, K. and 21 others 2019. Age estimates for hominin fossils and the onset of the Upper Palaeolithic at Denisova Cave. Nature, v. 565, p. 640–644; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-018-0870-z) focused on direct dating of the hominin fossils themselves – and thus their DNA content, important in trying to piece together timings of genetic mixing. In the absence of radiocarbon dates from the bones themselves because of most specimens’ >50 ka ages, except in the case of the youngest whose 14C age is at the 50 ka limit. They resorted to a hybrid technique based on a means of modelling fossils’ ages from differences in mtDNA between the specimens and that in the youngest hominin, which, luckily, was dateable by radiocarbon means. Weighted by dating of the actual sediments that contain them, the differences should become greater for successively older fossils because of random mutations: a variant of the ‘molecular clock’ approach. It’s complicated and depends on assuming that mitochondrial mutation rate was the same as that in modern humans. Unsurprisingly the results are imprecise, but sufficient to match the hominin fossil occurrences with different environmental conditions

Pollen grains and vertebrate fossils from various levels in the cave system demonstrate the wide climatic and ecological conditions in which the various hominins lived. The warmest episodes supported broad-leafed forest, offering maximum resources for hominin survival. Those between interglacial and full glacial conditions were much less benign, with alternating dry and wet cold conditions that supported open steppe ecosystems. The oldest Denisovan occupation was at the close of a period of moderately warm and humid conditions that supported mixed conifer and broad-leafed trees that gave way to reduced tree cover.

As well as the presence of stone tools sporadically through the sedimentary sequence, in the youngest levels there are bone rings and pendants made from deer teeth; clearly ornamental items.  Did the late Denisovans make them or do they signify anatomically modern human activity? Radiocarbon ages do not give a concrete answer, one of the pendants is about 45 ka old with an error that puts it just within the range of age variation of the oldest Denisovan fossil. No AMH remains have been found in Denisova Cave, but remains of a modern human male have been found at Ust’-Ishim, in NW Siberia. At 45 ka, he represents the earliest arrival of AMH in northern Asia. So it may have been members of this new population that left ornaments in Denisova, but, for the moment, artistic Denisovans are a possibility.

Further deployment of rapid screening for hominin bone fragments using the ZooMS method and analyses for traces of DNA in soils is likely to expand the geographic and time ranges of Denisovans and other close human relatives. Denisova Cave formed in Silurian limestones of the Altai Range, and there are other caves in those hills …

Related article: Dennel, R. 2019. Dating of hominin discoveries at Denisova. Nature, v. 565, p. 571-572; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-00264-0)

MOOCs: wheels come off the bandwagon

Massive open online courses (MOOCs for short) first mooted in 2006, surfaced with something of a pop in 2012. Intended to be open to all with Internet access, they promised a renaissance of higher education with the ’best’ professors, educational technologies and materials, flexibility, innovative assessment and accreditation (if chosen), no entry requirements, and very low cost at a time of relentlessly rising fees for conventional study. And they did not require attendance, although certificates of successful completion may be a currency for acceptance in conventional HE. They could be about literally anything at a variety of levels and involving a range of study times. By the end of 2016 MOOC programs had been set up by more than 700 universities worldwide, and around 58 million students had signed up to one of more courses. The general business model is described as ‘freemium’; i.e. a pricing strategy whereby a product or service is provided free of charge, with a premium charged for certification. There are innumerable variants of this model. The top providers are mainly consortia linking several universities and other academic and cultural entities. Futurelearn, although wholly owned by the formerly world-leading distance-learning distributor the British Open University, has 157 partners in Britain and globally. Its venture into the field involved its investing several tens of million UK pounds at start-up, which some believe was the source of its current financial difficulties.

The 11 January issue of Science published a brief account of the fortunes of a range of MOOC providers (Reich, J. & Ruipérez, J.A. 2019. The MOOC pivot. Science, v. 363, p. 130-131; DOI: 10.1126/science.aav7958) using data from edX that links Harvard University and MIT. The vast majority of learners who chose MOOCs never return after their first year. Growth in the market is concentrated almost entirely in affluent countries, whereas the model might seem tailor-made, and indeed vital, for less fortunate parts of the world. Completion rates are very low indeed, largely as a result of poor retention: since 2012 drop-out rates in the first year are greater than 80%. In the data used in the study both enrollments and certifications from 2012 to last year rose to peaks in the first three years (to 1.7 million and 50 thousand respectively) then fell sharply in the last two years (to <1 million and <20 thousand, respectively). Whatever the ‘mission’ of the providers  – was it altruistic or seeking a revenue stream? – the MOOC experience seems to be falling by the wayside. Perhaps many students took MOOCs for self-enlightenment rather than for a credential, as their defenders maintain. Well, the figures suggest that few saw fit to continue the experience. Surely, if knowledge was passed on at a level commensurate with participants requirements in a manner that enthused them, a great many would have signed up for ‘more of the same’: clearly that didn’t happen.

The authors conclude with, ‘Dramatic expansion of educational opportunities to underserved populations will require political movements that change the focus, funding, and purpose of higher education; they will not be achieved through new technologies alone.’

A unifying idea for the origin of life

The nickel in stainless steel, the platinum in catalytic converters and the gold in jewellery, electronic circuits and Fort Knox should all be much harder to find in the Earth’s crust. Had the early Earth formed only by accretion and then the massive chemical resetting mechanism of the collision that produced the Moon all three would lie far beyond reach. Both formation events would have led to an extremely hot young Earth; indeed the second is believed to have left the outer Earth and Moon completely molten. All three are siderophile metals and have such a strong affinity for metallic iron that they would mostly have been dragged down to each body’s core as it formed in the early few hundred million years of the Earth-Moon system, leaving very much less in the mantle than rock analyses show. This emerged as a central theme at the Origin of Life Conference held in Atlanta GA, USA in October 2018. The idea stemmed from two papers published in 2015 that reported excessive amounts in basaltic material from both Earth and Moon of a tungsten isotope (182W) that forms when a radioactive isotope of hafnium (182Hf), another strongly siderophile metal, decays. Hafnium too must have been strongly depleted in the outer parts of both bodies when their cores formed. The excesses are explained by substantial accretion of material rich in metallic iron to their outer layers shortly after Moon-formation, some being in large metallic asteroids able to penetrate to hundreds of kilometres. Hot iron is capable of removing oxygen from water vapour and other gases containing oxygen, thereby being oxidised. The counterpart would have been the release of massive amounts of hydrogen, carbon and other elements that form gases when combined with oxygen. The Earth’s atmosphere would have become highly reducing.

Had the atmosphere started out as an oxidising environment, as thought for many decades, it would have posed considerable difficulties for the generation at the surface of hydrocarbon compounds that are the sine qua non for the origin of life. That is why theories about abiogenesis (life formed from inorganic matter) hitherto have focussed on highly reducing environments such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents where hydrogen is produced by alteration of mantle minerals. The new idea revitalises Darwin’s original idea of life having originated in ‘a warm little pond’. How it has changed the game as regards the first step in life, the so-called ‘RNA World’ can be found in a detailed summary of the seemingly almost frenzied Origin of Life Conference (Service, R.F. 2019. Seeing the dawn. Science, v. 363, p. 116-119; DOI: 10.1126/science.363.6423.116).

Isotope geochemistry has also entered the mix in other regards, particularly that gleaned from tiny grains of the mineral zircon that survived intact from as little as 70 Ma after the Moon-forming and late-accretion events to end up (3 billion years ago) in the now famous Mount Narryer Quartzite of Western Australia. The oldest of these zircons (4.4 Ga) suggest that granitic rocks had formed the earliest vestiges of continental crust far back in the Hadean Eon: Only silica-rich magmas contain enough zirconium for zircon (ZrSiO4) to crystallise. Oxygen isotope studies of them suggest that at that very early date they had come into contact with liquid water, presumably at the Earth’s surface. That suggests that perhaps there were isolated islands of early continental materials; now vanished from the geological record. A 4.1 Ga zircon population revealed something more surprising: graphite flakes with carbon isotopes enriched in 12C that suggests the zircons may have incorporated carbon from living organisms.

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A possible timeline for the origin of life during the Hadean Eon (Credit: Service, R.F. 2019, Science)

Such a suite of evidence has given organic chemists more environmental leeway to suggest a wealth of complex reactions at the Hadean surface that may have generated the early organic compounds needed as building blocks for RNA, such as aldehydes and sugars (specifically ribose that is part of both RNA and DNA), and the amino acids forming the A-C-G-U ‘letters’ of RNA, some catalysed by the now abundant siderophile metal nickel. One author seems gleefully to have resurrected Darwin’s ‘warm little pond’ by suggesting periodic exposure above sea level of abiogenic precursors to volcanic sulfur dioxide that could hasten some key reactions and create large masses of such precursors which rain would have channelled into ‘puddles and lakes’. The upshot is that the RNA World precursor to the self-replication conferred on subsequent life by DNA is speculated to have been around 4.35 Ga, 50 Ma after the Earth had cooled sufficiently to have surface water dotted with specks of continental material.

There are caveats in Robert Services summary, but the Atlanta conferences seems set to form a turning point in experimental palaeobiology studies.

Impacts increased at the end of the Palaeozoic

Because it is so geologically active the Earth progressively erases signs of asteroid and comet impacts, by erosion, burial or even subduction in the case of the oceanic record. As a result, the number of known craters decreases with age. To judge the influence of violent extraterrestrial events in the past geologists therefore rely on secondary outcomes of such collisions, such as the occasional presence in the sedimentary record of shocked quartz grains, glassy spherules and geochemical anomalies of rare elements. The Moon, on the other hand, is so geologically sluggish that its surface preserves many of the large magnitude impacts during its history, except for those wiped out by later such events. For instance, a sizeable proportion of the lunar surface comprises its dark maria, which are flood basalts generated by gigantic impacts around 4 billion years ago. Older impacts can only be detected in its rugged, pale highland terrains, and they have been partially wiped out by later impact craters. The Moon’s surface therefore preserves the most complete record of the flux and sizes of objects that have crossed its orbit shared with the Earth.

The Earth presents a target thirteen times bigger than the cross sectional area of the Moon so it must have received 13 times more impacts in their joint history.  Being about 81 times as massive as the Moon its stronger gravitational pull will have attracted yet more and all of them would have taken place at higher speeds. The lunar samples returned by the Apollo Missions have yielded varying ages for impact-glass spherules so that crater counts combined with evidence for their relative ages have been calibrated to some extent to give an idea of the bombardment history for the Earth Moon System. Until recently this was supposed to have tailed off exponentially since the Late Heavy Bombardment between 4.0 to 3.8 billion years ago. But the dating of the lunar record using radiometric ages of the small number of returned samples is inevitably extremely fuzzy. A team of planetary scientists from Canada, the US and Britain has developed a new approach to dating individual crater using image data from NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) launched in 2009 (Mazrouei, S. et al. 2019. Earth and Moon impact flux increased at the end of the Paleozoic. Science, v. 363, p. 253-257; DOI: 10.1126/science.aar4058).

The method that they devised is, curiously, based on thermal imagery from the LRO’s Diviner instrument which records the Moon’s surface temperature. Comparison of day- and night-time temperatures produces a measure of surface materials’ ability to retain heat known as thermal inertia. A material with high thermal inertia stays warmer for longer at night. When a crater forms it partly fills with rock fragments excavated by the impact. When fresh these are full of large blocks of rock that were too massive to be blasted away. But these blocks are exposed to bombardment by lesser projectiles for the lifetime of the crater, which steadily reduces them to smaller fragments and eventually dust. Blocks of solid rock retain significantly more solar heat than do gravelly to dust-sized materials:  thermal inertia of the crater floor therefore decreases steadily with age.

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Blocky surface of a relatively young lunar crater (Credit: NASA)

As well as day- and night thermal data provided by the Diviner instrument, from which thermal inertia values are calculated, the LRO deploys two cameras that capture black and white images of the surface in the visible range, with a resolution of about a metre. They enable the blockiness of crater floors to be estimated. Sara Mazrouei and colleagues measured blockiness and thermal inertia of the floors of 111 craters more than 10 km across, ages of nine of which had been modelled independently using counts of smaller craters that subsequently accumulated on their floors shown by even finer resolution images from the Japanese Kaguya orbiter. Their results are surprising. About 290 Ma ago the rate of large impacts on the Moon increased by a factor of 2.6. This might explain why the Neoproterozoic and Palaeozoic Eras are deficient in terrestrial craters. Another inference from the results is that the number of objects in Earth-crossing orbits suddenly increased at the end of the Carboniferous. Maybe that resulted from an episode of collisions and break-up of large bodies in the Asteroid Belt or, perhaps, some kind of gravitational perturbation by Jupiter. The age-distribution of large craters on Earth is no help because of their ephemeral nature. Moreover, apart from Chicxulub that is bang on the K-Pg boundary, there is little evidence of an increase in impact-driven mass extinctions in the Mesozoic and Cenozoic. Nor for that matter did igneous activity or sediment deposition undergo any sudden changes. There are sediments that seem to have formed as a result of tsunami devastation, but none greater in magnitude than could have been caused by major earthquakes. Or … maybe geologists should have another look at the stratigraphic record.

Early stone tools spread more widely

The rift systems of Ethiopia, Kenya and Tanzania, and the limestone caverns near Johannesburg, South Africa have a long history of intensive archaeological study, rewarded by many finds of hominin skeletal remains and artifacts over the last century. Each region lays claim to be the birthplace of humans, that in South Africa being grandiloquently dubbed ‘The Cradle of Humankind’. Of course, the realistic chances of making discoveries and careers draws scientists and funds back to these regions again and again: a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy fueled by the old miners’ adage, ‘to find elephants you must go to elephant country’. The key site for the earliest stone tools was for a long time Tanzania’s Olduvai Gorge, thanks to finds of deliberately shaped choppers, hammer stones and sharp edges from about 2 Ma ago in close association with remains of Homo habilis by the Leakeys. Termed ‘Oldowan’, signs of this industry emerged from 2.6 Ma sediments in the Afar Depression of Ethiopia in 2010, but with no sign of who had made them. By 2015 the cachet of ‘first tools’ moved to Lomekwi on the shore of Lake Turkana in Kenya, dated to 3.3 Ma but again with no evidence for a maker. In fact the oldest evidence for the use of tools emerged with the 2010controversial discovery at Dikika in Afar of 3.4 Ma old bones that carry cut marks, but no sign of tools nor whoever had used them. However remains of Australopithecus afarensis occur only a few kilometers away.

Excavations outside the East African Rift System and South Africa are still few and far between, especially from before 1 Ma. The High Plateaus of eastern Algeria include one ancient site, near Ain Hanech, which yielded 1.8 Ma Oldowan stone artifacts as long ago as 1992. A nearby site at Ain Boucherit takes the North African record back to 2.4 Ma with both Oldowan tools and cut-marked bones of horse and antelope (Sahnouni, M. and 12 others 2018. 1.9-million- and 2.4-million-year-old artifacts and stone tool–cutmarked bones of from Ain Boucherit, Algeria. Science, v. 362, p. 1297-1301; DOI: 10.1126/science.aau0008). Tool makers had clearly diffused across what is now the Sahara Desert by that time. Given the distance between the Lomekwi and Dikika sites in East Africa that is hardly a surprise, provided climatic conditions were favourable. Michel Brunet’s discovery in 3.3 Ma old sediments of an australopithecine (Au. bahrelghazali) in central Chad demonstrates that early hominins were quite capable of spreading across the African continent. Yet, to wean palaeoanthropologists and their sponsors from hitherto fruitful, ‘elephant’ areas to a more ‘blue skies’ approach is likely to be difficult. There are plenty of sedimentary basins in Africa that preserve Miocene to Recent sediments that may yet turn up fossils and artifacts that take the science of human origins and peregrinations further and possibly in unexpected taxonomic directions

Related article: Gibbons, A. 2018. Strongest evidence of early humans butchering animals discovered in North Africa. Science News online; doi:10.1126/science.aaw2245.