Pushing back the “vestige of a beginning”

About 4.5 billion years ago the Moon formed, probably as a result of a stupendous collision between the original Earth and a body about the size of Mars.  That would have left Earth with its outer parts molten in a global magma ocean, and without any atmosphere.  Such a dreadful condition formed the point of departure for all subsequent evolution of our home world; the beginning of geological history.  No matter how many terrestrial rocks geochronologists analyse, it seems pretty clear that they are never going to push back their erstwhile grail of the oldest one beyond 4 billion years.  Among the oldest rocks, those from Akilia in west Greenland contain sedimentary evidence for flowing water and the isotopic signature of established life.  The date 4 billion years before the present seems to be the maximum for every aspect of geological research that might support theory with concrete evidence, which is sad, because both continents and oceans existed, the planet was inhabited, some form of tectonics operated and water moved matter around.  Studying the emergence of such broadly familiar processes is a lost cause, at least on this planet, for a half billion years has simply vanished.

The enduring outer skin of the Earth, continental crust, is made mainly of two minerals, quartz and feldspar.  Feldspar can be dated, but it breaks down to clay and soluble compounds, so the weather removes it as a source of information,.  Quartz offers not a single clue to when it formed, even though its hardness and stable molecule mean that it is durable.  Its abundance of silicon demands several stages of evolution from the silicon-poor mantle.  Quartz is quintessentially continent stuff.  Probably among those quartz grains found on a beach or in a sandstone some date back to the emergence of the first crust, but you would never know.  Even more durable is zirconium silicate, or zircon, tiny amounts of which settle from many sands because it is denser than quartz.  Zircon’s structure is hospitable to several elements rarer still, including radioactive uranium and thorium. Build up of radiogenic lead isotopes inside zircon crystals means that grains carry their own history.  Zirconium finds no easy resting place in minerals that form the bulk of the mantle.  So it tends selectively to enter magma formed there.  Nor are the minerals of oceanic crust particularly accommodating.  Naturally, zirconium becomes concentrated in materials that end up as continental crust, so to form zircons.  A handful of zircons from beach sands continually sorted according to density on the Coromandel Coast contains the entire history of the formation of the Indian continent – they are sold in bottles by urchins at tourist resorts as one of Lord Krishna’s five varieties of “rice”.

The mount Narryer Quartzite of Western Australia is a similarly well sorted, though 3 billion-year old sedimentary repository.  Fourteen years ago, Bill Compston and Bob Pidgeon managed to extract 17 tiny zircons from it that extinguished at a stroke the ambitions of other geochronologists to date the oldest rock in the world.  Their ages, obtained by methods based on the build up of lead isotopes from decayed uranium and thorium reached back to 4.27 billion years.  They had discovered the oldest continent, but one sneeze and they would have lost the lot.  Mount Narryer made the front pages early in January by providing even older zircons that post-date “Year Zero” by a mere hundred million years.  Some continental material was around 4.4 billion years ago (Wilde, S.A. et al.  2001.  Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago.  Nature, v. 409, p. 175-178).  Oxygen isotopes in these tiny, aged grains offer another insight.  They have contents of 18O that are too high to have formed other than in an environment that involved liquid water reacting with the source of the zircon-forming magma (Wilde et al., 2001; Mojzsis, S.J et al. 2001.  Oxygen-isotope evidence from ancient zircons for liquid water at the Earth’s surface 4,300 Myr ago.  Nature, v. 409, p. 178-181).

Evidence for such old liquid water drew attention from many planetary scientists.  Life is impossible without it.  The conclusion drawn is that it could have been around so close to “Year Zero” .  But evidence for early water is no surprise.  Earth’s high content of volatiles ensures that water in one phase or another must always play a role in its internal processes.  Hot as it must have been immediately following Moon formation, convection in its “magma ocean” and radiation from its surface (proportional to the fourth power of surface temperature) would have been so efficient that cooling to permit liquid water at the surface may have taken less than 100 million years.  The maximum temperature of the liquid water that interacted with the zircon-forming magma depended on the pressure of the environment where that happened.  That was not necessarily an ocean or even “some warm little pond”.  Water is liquid, if the pressure is high enough, at temperatures up to 274°C, which is too high for most of life’s molecules.

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