At a rough estimate the material that has pushed back the oldest direct dating of supposedly continental material is about the size of a pinch of salt. It consists of detrital zircon grains contained in Archaean sedimentary quartzites from Western Australia, the oldest of which give U-Pb ages of 4.4 Ga, 400 Ma older than the earliest rocks of the continents. Arguably, the zircons are products of repeatedly recycled debris from the earliest silica-rich magmas formed in the Hadean: zircon is hard and not affected by sedimentary processes. Any subduction processes in the early Earth might well have produced silicic magmas by a variety of petrogenetic processes: modern ocean crust contains tiny amounts of plagiogranites. Minute inclusions of quartz, mica and feldspar in the zircons suggest that such igneous rocks may have formed by partial melting of the clay-rich sedimentary veneer on Hadean oceanic crust when it descended. So, the only surprise in a chronological sense is that a few grains have been found among those formed in the 1.4 Ga until the deposition of the 3 Ga old Jack Hills quartzite in which they found a resting place. The zircons are controversial for another reason. They contain high concentrations of 18O that indicate a role for water in their formation.
Bruce Watson and Mark Harrison of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York and the Australian National University have devised a way of establishing the temperatures at which the zircon formed, from their content of titanium (Watson, E.B & Harrison, T.M. 2005. Zircon thermometer reveals minimum melting conditions on earliest Earth. Science, v. 308, p. 841-844). Their results from 54 zircons aged from 4.0 to 4.35 Ga cluster around 700°C, which is what would be expected had their parent magmas formed at the minimum temperature for partial melting of sediments to form granite-like magmas in the presence of a water-rich fluid (the “wet-granite minimum”): they look very similar to modern zircons. This confirms the results from earlier oxygen-isotope studies. Because the oldest of the Jack Hills zircons are only 75 Ma younger than the mighty thermal effect of the Earth’s collision with a smaller planetary body that excavated matter that formed the Moon, the influence of water in the zircons’ formation has been interpreted as having monumental significance for the effectively vanished 400 Ma-long Hadean Eon. It has been taken as support for oceans at the Earth’s surface, as well as “normal” plate tectonic processes that can generate continental crust, but also that conditions amenable to pre-biotic chemistry and even the origin of life existed.
The Earth could not have escaped the massive Hadean bombardment of the lunar surface by planetesimals that climaxed between 4.0 and 3.8 Ga. Rocks from the lunar highlands preserve ages back to 4.45 Ga, close to the time of its origin, and at that time the Moon must have had a solid crust below about 400°C for radiogenic isotopes to accumulate in minerals. The Earth equally must have had at least a surface veneer of relative cool rock at that time. So, since the Apollo samples yielded these dates in the 1970’s, the popular image of a long-lived magma ocean has been insupportable, even though it probably existed shortly after the cataclysm of the formation of the Earth-Moon system. In that sense, evidence in ancient zircons for plate-like processes is not a surprise, although an interesting confirmation of long-held beliefs. Nor does their showing the influence of water come as a shock. The Earth is tectonically active partly through it not having been thoroughly dried by Moon formation; lunar rocks are a great deal drier and the Moon is as dead as a doorknob. At 700°C water cannot exist as a liquid, so its influence in partial melting is not evidence for surface water. However, the most efficient means of heat loss from any heated body is by radiation to space, and simple calculations show that it would be highly unlikely for Earth not to have had liquid surface water about 100 Ma after Moon formation. That in itself indicates that there would have been a water-rich atmosphere too. No matter how much “shock and awe” might colour our view of repeated bombardment during the Hadean, no sane impact theorist has suggested that sufficient energy was delivered to recreate a global magma ocean. Water may have been boiled off to the atmosphere by the biggest, but only to fall again as rain between major impacts. Given favourable chemical conditions and liquid water, the route to life might well have opened up in the Hadean itself: some have suggested that it happened again and again only to be snuffed out by high powered impacts, until the Inner Solar System became a safer place after 3.8Ga. The real mystery of the aged zircons concerns the rocks in which they crystallised: where on Earth are they? Four decades of radiometric dating of actual rocks has failed to break the 4.0 Ga barrier, so if relics do remain they are either buried or have been reduced to sediments, as the Jack Hills quartzite so nicely demonstrates.
See also: Reich, E.S. 2005. What the hell…? New Scientist 14 May 2005, p. 41-43.