Author Archives: Steve Drury

Neanderthal demographics and their extinction

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About 39 thousand years ago all sign of the presence of Neanderthal bands in their extensive range across western Eurasia disappears.Their demise occurred during a period of relative warmth (Marine-Isotope Stage-3) following a cold period at its worst around 65 ka (MIS-4). They had previously thrived since their first appearance in Eurasia at about 250 ka, surviving at least two full glacial cycles. Their demise occurred around 5 thousand years after they were joined in western Eurasia by anatomically modern humans (AMH). During their long period of habitation they had adapted well to a range of climatic zones from woodland to tundra. During their overlap both groups shared much the same food resources, dominated by large herbivores whose numbers burgeoned during the warm period, with the difference that Neanderthals seemed to have depended on ranges centred on fixed sites of habitation while AMH maintained a nomadic lifestyle. Having shared a common African ancestry about 400 thousand years ago, DNA studies  have revealed that the two populations interbred regularly, probably in the earlier period of overlap in west Asia from around 120 thousand years ago and possibly in Europe too after 44 ka. Considering their previous tenacity, how the Neanderthals met their end is something of a mystery. It may have been a result of competition for resources with AMH, which could be countered by the increase in food resources. Maybe physical conflict was involved, or perhaps disease imported with AMH from warmer climes. Genetic absorption through interbreeding of a small population with a larger one of AMH is a possibility, although DNA evidence is lacking. An inability to adapt to climate change contradicts the Neanderthals long record and their disappearance during MIS-3. Previous population estimates of changing Neanderthal populations in the Iberian Peninsula (see Fig. 2 in Roberts, M.F. & Bricher, S.E 2018. Modeling the disappearance of the Neanderthals using principles of population dynamics and ecology. Journal of Archaeological Science, v. 100, p.16-31; DOI: 10.1016/j.jas.2018.09.012) show decline from about 70,000 to 20,000 before MIS-4, then recovery to about 40,000 before the arrival of AMH at 44 ka followed by a decline to extinction thereafter. Roberts and Bricher developed a model for investigating demographics from archaeological evidence that is neutral as regards any particular hypothesis for Neanderthal extinction.

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Artistic reconstruction of Neanderthal family group (credit: Nikola Solic, Reuters)

Attempting to take modelling further, another research consortium from France has focussed on the demographic changes needed to draw Neanderthals to extinction (Degioanni, A. et al. 2019. Living on the edge: Was demographic weakness the cause of Neanderthal demise? PLOS One, v. 14(5): e0216742; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0216742). It is based on studies of living hunter-gatherer groups and those from the recent past. Survival of individuals in such groups is strongly age-dependent, i.e. low survival among juveniles, high among individuals in their prime and decreasing among the elderly. Fertility also varies among females, increasing from post-pubescence to ages between 21 to 30 years. In groups that practice sexual pairing between individuals from different communities (exogamy) migration from one to another is necessary to avoid inbreeding. The modellers assumed that only individuals from 16 to 18 years old migrated in this way. They found that a small decrease (~8%) in the fertility rate of younger females (<20 years) having a child for the first time could produce the decreasing trend in Neanderthal populations during the 5,000 year period of sharing resources with AMH populations. This would have culminated in the extinction of the Neanderthals, irrespective of the fertility rates of older, pre-menopausal females. So what could trigger such a change from a primiparous fertility rate that gave stable or growing population to one that ended so badly? The authors make no suggestion, eschewing the ‘why’ for the ‘how’. All they suggest is that the decrease in Neanderthals, which would have benefited AMH settlement in the vacated areas, could have occurred without any need for some catastrophic event, such as disease, slaughter or climate change. Any of these causes would probably have resulted in more rapid extinction. However, the lead author, Anna Degioanni from Aix Marseille Université, when interviewed by The Independentnewspaper said. ‘First-time pregnancies, especially in young females (less than 20 years old), are on average more at risk than second and other pregnancies… a slight decrease in food may explain a reduction in fertility, especially among first-time mothers’.

One of the key features of Neanderthals is that they were probably sedentary with widely spaced communities across their huge range. So exogamy would have been more difficult for them than it would have been for nomadic groups. Genetic evidence from a few Neanderthals suggests that inbreeding was an issue. Had it been widespread among Neanderthals – risky to infer from such scanty information – that may also account for decreased primiparous fertility and also survival of newborns.

Related article: Neanderthals may have died out because of infertility, new model suggests. (The Independent)

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Earth’s water and the Moon

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Where did all our water come from? The Earth’s large complement of H2O, at the surface, in its crust and even in the mantle, is what sets it apart in many ways from the rest of the rocky Inner Planets. They are largely dry, tectonically torpid and devoid of signs of life. For a long while the standard answer has been that it was delivered by wave after wave of comet impacts during the Hadean, based on the fact that most volatiles were driven to the outermost Solar System, eventually to accrete as the giant planets and the icy worlds and comets of the Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud, once the Sun sparked its fusion reactions That left its immediate surroundings depleted in them and enriched in more refractory elements and compounds from which the Inner Planets accreted. But that begs another question: how come an early comet ‘storm’ failed to ‘irrigate’ Mercury, Venus and Mars? New geochemical data offer a different scenario, albeit with a link to the early comet-storms paradigm.

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Simulated view of the Earth from lunar orbit: the ‘wet’ and the ‘dry’. (credit: Adobe Stock)

Three geochemists from the Institut für Planetologie, University of Münster, Germany, led by Gerrit Budde have been studying the isotopes of the element molybdenum (Mo) in terrestrial rocks and meteorite collections. Molybdenum is a strongly siderophile (‘iron loving’) metal that, along with other transition-group metals, easily dissolves in molten iron. Consequently, when the Earth’s core began to form very early in Earth’s history, available molybdenum was mostly incorporated into it. Yet Mo is not that uncommon in younger rocks that formed by partial melting of the mantle, which implies that there is still plenty of it mantle peridotites. That surprising abundance may be explained by its addition along with other interplanetary material after the core had formed. Using Mo isotopes to investigate pre- and post-core formation events is similar to the use of isotopes of other transition metals, such as tungsten (seePlanetary science, May 2016).

Budde and colleagues showed that the 95Mo and 94Mo abundances in water- and carbon-poor meteorites that come from the Asteroid Belt and formed in the inner Solar System differ consistently from those in volatile-rich carbonaceous chondrites that formed much further away from the Sun. The average abundances of the two molybdenum isotopes in the Earth’s silicate rocks, which ultimately had their origin in the mantle, fall between those of the two classes of meteorites (Budde, G. et al.  2019. Molybdenum isotopic evidence for the late accretion of outer Solar System material to Earth. Nature Astronomy, v. 3, online ; DOI: 10.1038/s41550-019-0779-y). They must reflect the materials that accreted after core formation. If the 95Mo and 94Mo abundances resembled those in non-carbonaceous, dry meteorites that would suggest late accretion with much the same composition as expected from Earth’s position in the Inner Solar System. Alternatively, some molybdenum from Earth’s original formative materials failed to unite with iron in the core. The Mo ‘signature’ of volatile-rich carbonaceous meteorites in the mantle’s make-up points to a large amount of accreting material from the Outer Solar System. In contrast, lunar rocks show no carbonaceous meteorite component of Mo isotopes, which helps to explain its overall dryness compared with the Earth. Yet, the Moon is strongly believed to have formed from material blasted away by an impact between the proto-Earth and an errant, Mars-sized body (Theia).

The authors suggest a high probability that Theia was a carbon- and volatile-rich body from the outer Solar System flung inwards by gravitational perturbation associated with the then unstable orbits of the giant planets Jupiter and Saturn. In that case Theia could have delivered not only the anomalous molybdenum, but most of Earth’s water and other volatile compounds.   If the theory is correct, then the cataclysmic event that formed the Moon laid the basis for Earth’s continual tectonic activity and its eventually sparking up life; without the Moon, there would be no life on Earth. That kind of chance event isn’t a factor considered in either the Drake Equation or the Goldilocks Zone. Life, natural selection and sentient beings that might spring from them may be a great deal more elusive than commonly believed by exobiologists.

See also: Formation of the moon brought water to Earth (Science Daily, 21 May 2019)

Anthropocene edging closer to being ‘official’

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The issue of erecting a new stratigraphic Epoch encompassing the time since humans had a global effect on the Earth System has irked me ever since the term emerged for discussion and resolution by the scientific community in 2000. An Epoch in a chronostratigraphic sense is one of several arbitrary units that encompass all the rocks formed during a defined interval of time. The last 541 million years (Ma) of geological time is defined as an Eon – the Phanerozoic. In turn that comprises three Eras – Palaeozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic. The third level of division is that of Periods, of which there are 11 that make up the Phanerozoic. In turn the Periods comprise a total of 38 fourth-level Epochs and 85 at the fifth tier of Ages. All of these are of global significance, and there are even finer local divisions that do not appear on the International Chronostratigraphic Chart . If you examine the Chart you will find that no currently agreed Epoch lasted less than 11.7 thousand years (the Holocene) and all the others spanned 1 Ma to tens of Ma (averaged at 14.2 Ma). Indeed, even Ages span a range from hundreds of thousands to millions of years (averaged at 6 Ma).

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The Vattenfall lignite mine in Germany; the Anthropocene personified

In the 3rd week of May 2019 the 34-member Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) of the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) sat down to decide on when the Anthropocene actually started. That date would be passed on up the hierarchy of the geoscientific community  eventually to meet the scrutiny of its highest body, the executive committee of the International Union of Geological Sciences, and either be ratified or not. In the meantime the AWG is seeking a site at which the lower boundary of the Anthropocene would be defined by the science’s equivalent of a ‘golden spike’; theGlobal boundary Stratotype Section and Point (GSSP).

Several options were tabled for discussion and decision, summarised by a 2015 paper in Nature. A case against the erection of an official Anthropocene Epoch on stratigraphic grounds appeared in a GSA Todaypaper in 2016. Despite the fact that there is evidence for the start of human geological, geochemical and biological influences as far back as 8 000 years ago (in effect the Holocene is the Epoch of rapid human growth and transformations), the 2015 paper concludes that there are two candidates for the base of the Anthropocene. The earliest is the decline in atmospheric CO2 that began around 1570 CE and its recovery around 1620 CE recorded in Greenland ice cores. This is suggested to mark a fall in the indigenous population of the Americas from ~60 to ~6 million that followed the completion of European conquest, as a result of genocide, disease and famine. Regeneration of the American forest lands (~5 x 107 hectare) that the dead had once occupied drew down CO2.  However this overlaps with the coolest part of the Little Ice Age which may also have resulted in absorption of the greenhouse gas by cooled ocean water. The beginning of the industrial revolution was discounted on the grounds that it was diachronous as well as being difficult to define, having arisen first in Europe at some time in the 18th century. The second candidate was the period when ~500 nuclear weapons were tested above-ground, beginning in 1945 and ending by treaty between the then nuclear powers in 1963. These distributed long-lived plutonium globally, which resides in sediments as a ‘spike’. Around 1963 there are also clear signs that plastics, aluminium, artificial fertilisers, concrete and lead from petrol began to increase in sediments. It is this last option upon which the AWG settled, with 29 members for and 5 against, and is to forward up the ‘chain of command’ in the geoscientific bureaucracy. A detailed and sometimes amusing account of the AWG’s deliberations appeared in the online Guardian newspaper on 30 May 2019.

The decision, in my opinion, signifies that the Anthropocene is an Epoch that includes the future, which is somewhat pessimistic as well as being scientific nonsense. Yet, coinciding as it does with rapidly escalating efforts, mainly by young people, to end massive threats to the Earth System, that can only be welcomed. It is an essentially political statement, albeit with a learned cloak thrown over it.  The only way to erase the exponentially growing human buttock print on our home world is for growth-dependent economics to be removed too. That is the only logical basis for the ‘green’ revolt that is unfolding. If that social revolution doesn’t happen, there will be a mass extinction to join the ‘Big Five’, and society in all its personifications will collapse. That is known as barbarism…

 

The effect of surface processes on tectonics

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The Proterozoic Eon of the Precambrian is subdivided into the Palaeo-, Meso- and Neoproterozoic Eras that are, respectively, 900, 600 and 450 Ma long. The degree to which geoscientists are sufficiently interested in rocks within such time spans is roughly proportional to the number of publications whose title includes their name. Searching the ISI Web of Knowledge using this parameter yields 2000, 840 and 2700 hits in the last two complete decades, that is 2.2, 1.4 and 6.0 hits per million years, respectively. Clearly there is less interest in the early part of the Proterozoic. Perhaps that is due to there being smaller areas over which they are exposed, or maybe simply because what those rocks show is inherently less interesting than those of the Neoproterozoic. The Neoproterozoic is stuffed with fascinating topics: the appearance of large-bodied life forms; three Snowball Earth episodes; and a great deal of tectonic activity, including the Pan-African orogeny. The time that precedes it isn’t so gripping: it is widely known as the ‘boring billion’ – coined by the late Martin Brazier – from about 1.75 to 0.75 Ga. The Palaeoproterozoic draws attention by encompassing the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’ around 2.4 Ga, the massive deposition of banded iron formations up to 1.8 Ga, its own Snowball Earth, emergence of the eukaryotes and several orogenies. The Mesoproterozoic witnesses one orogeny, the formation of a supercontinent (Rodinia) and even has its own petroleum potential (93 billion barrels in place in Australia’s Beetaloo Basin. So it does have its high points, but not a lot. Although data are more scanty than for the Phanerozoic Eon, during the Mesoproterozoic the Earth’s magnetic field was much steadier than in later times. That suggests that motions in the core were in a ‘steady state’, and possibly in the mantle as well. The latter is borne out by the lower pace of tectonics in the Mesoproterozoic.

For decades geologists have pondered on ‘orogenic cycles’ and whether they are roughly equally spaced in time. The ‘boring billion’ refutes any such regularity. Stephan Sobolev and Michael Brown of the universities of Potsdam in Germany, and Maryland, USA, have investigates an hypothesis that may account for the long-term irregularity in tectonic processes (Sobolev, S.V. & Brown, M. 2019. Surface erosion events controlled the evolution of plate tectonics on Earth. Nature, v. 570, p. 52-57; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1258-4). This stems from a suggestion in the late 1980’s that, once they begin to be subducted, unconsolidated sediments have a lubricating effect. If so, in the long term, the rate of accumulation of sediments at continental margins has a lot to do with the pace of tectonics. And that leads back to the rate of continental erosion. The two authors use a proxy for the global rate of subduction based on the variation over time of the cumulative length of mountain belts that show paired high- and low-pressure zones of metamorphism. They chart variations in continental erosion from its geochemical effects on ocean water, recorded by strontium isotopes in limestones, and by changes in the hafnium and oxygen isotopes of detrital zircons through time. Three time intervals show increases in Sr and O isotope parameters while that for Hf decreases. These indicators of greater continental erosion coincide with evidence for increased tectonic activity around the end of the Archaean Eon (centred on 2.5 Ga), in the early Palaeoproterozoic (2.2 Ga) and the early Neoproterozoic (0.75 Ga). The latter two bracket episodes of global glaciation that would certainly have shifted eroded material towards continental margins. Sobolev and Brown make a case for each representing episodes of increased lubrication. Lying between the last two tectonic paroxysms, the ‘boring billion’ delivered little sediment from the continents so any subduction was frictionally slowed.

I have little doubt that this view will have its detractors, not the least because the Earth continually generates heat as a result of its internal radioactivity. Plate tectonics is the main means whereby that heat emerges at the surface and radiates to space, thereby balancing heat production. Another issue is that mountain building elevates Earth’s surface, which provides the gravitational potential to drive products of erosion oceanwards. But it increases frictional resistance

Related article: Behr, W. 2019. Earth’s evolution explored. Nature, v. 570, p. 38-39; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-01711-8

Chang’E-4 and the Moon’s mantle

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The spacecraft Chang’E-4 landed on the far side of the Moon in January; something of a triumph for the Peoples’ Republic of China as it was a first. It was more than a power gesture at a time of strained relations between the PRC and the US, for it carried a rover (Yutu2) that deploys a panoramic camera, ground penetrating radar, means of assessing interaction of the solar wind with the lunar surface, and a Visible and Near-infrared Imaging Spectrometer (VNIS). The lander module itself bristles with instrumentation, but Yutu2 (meaning Jade Rabbit) has relayed the first scientific breakthrough.

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Variation in topography (blue – low to red – high) over the Moon’s South Pole, showing the Aitken Basin and the Chang’E landing site. (Credit: NASA/Goddard)

The landing site is within the largest impact structure on the Moon, the 2500 km-wide Aitken Basin. Unlike the near-side maria, Aitken has only a small masking veneer of flood basalts that formed by internal melting resulting from the mare-forming impacts. Instead it is surrounded by the heavily cratered lunar crust of the Highlands made of calcium-rich plagioclase feldspar, i.e. anorthosite. Within the Aitken Basin lies the 930 km Orientale impact structure. The dark colour of the massive basin contrasts with the highly reflective nature of the Highlands and, in the absence of a basalt veneer, suggests that impacts penetrated the lunar crust to fling mantle material across the surface. The Chang’E landing site therefore offered a chance to examine samples of the Moon’s mantle for the first time – none of the samples returned by the Apollo programme of the 196Os and 70s are of such material.

While Chang’E is not equipped for sample return, the Jade Rabbit’s VNIS is capable of supplying information bearing on the minerals strewn across the basin. The instrument detects reflected radiation from the 450 to 2400 nm wavelength range split into many narrower channels, thereby reconstructing detailed spectra. These can be matched with reference spectra of a large range of minerals. The first results reveal the presence of the minerals olivine ((Mg,Fe)SiO4) and orthopyroxene ((Mg,Fe)Si2O6) in the lunar soil close to the lander, both of which could be from the Moon’s mantle (Li, C. and 16 others 2019. Chang’E-4 initial spectroscopic identification of lunar far-side mantle-derived materials. Nature, v. 569, p. 378–382; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1189-0). Such material may represent the denser, mafic crystalline products of a magma ocean through which they sank, while lower density feldspar floated to the surface to form the Moon’s highly reflective crust.

While the spectral signature of olivine has been detected by similar instruments on satellites in lunar orbit, such results stemmed from broad areas of mixed materials. The Jade Rabbit’s discoveries can be related to actual rock fragments.

Related article: Pinet, P. 2019. The Moon’s mantle unveiled. Nature, v. 569, p. 338-339; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-01479-x

Younger Dryas impact trigger: evidence from Chile

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A sudden collapse of global climate around 12.8 ka and equally brusque warming 11.5 ka ago is called the Younger Dryas. It brought the last ice age to an end. Because significant warming preceded this dramatic event palaeoclimatologists have pondered its cause since it came to their attention in the early 20th century as a stark signal in the pollen content of lake cores – Dyas octopetala, a tundra wild flower, then shed more pollen than before or afterwards; hence the name. A century on, two theories dominate: North Atlantic surface water was freshened by a glacial outburst flood that shut down the Gulf Stream [June 2006]; a large impact event shed sufficient dust to lower global temperatures [July 2007]. An oceanographic event remains the explanation of choice for many, whereas the evidence for an extraterrestrial cause – also suggested to have triggered megafaunal extinctions in North America – has its supporters and detractors. The first general reaction to the idea of an impact cause was the implausibility of the evidence [November 2010], yet the discovery by radar of a major impact crater beneath the Greenland ice cap [November 2018] resurrected the ‘outlandish’ notion. A recent paper in Nature: Scientific Reports further sharpens the focus.

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Temperature fluctuations over the Greenland ice cap during the past 17,000 years, showing the abrupt cooling during the Younger Dryas. (credit: Don Easterbrook)

Since 2007, a team of Chilean and US scientists has been working on a rich haul of late Pleistocene fossil mammals from Patagonian Chile that turned up literally in someone’s suburban back garden in the town of Osorno. The stratigraphy has been systematically dated using the radiocarbon method. A dark layer composed of peat with abundant charcoal gave an age of about 12.8 ka, thereby marking both the local base of the Younger Dryas episode and a cap to the rich mammalian fossil assemblage. Similar beds have been found at more than 50 sites elsewhere in the world at this stratigraphic level, including a site in Arizona carrying Clovis artifacts. Steadily, such ‘black mats’ have been yielding magnetised spherules, elevated concentrations of platinum-group metals, gold, native iron, fullerenes and microscopic diamonds, plus convincing signs of wild fires at some sites; the very evidence that most researchers had panned when first reported. The Chilean example contains much the same pointers to an extraterrestrial cause, attributed to air-burst impacts (Pino, M. and 14 others 2019. Sedimentary record from Patagonia, southern Chile supports cosmic-impact triggering of biomass burning, climate change, and megafaunal extinctions at 12.8 ka. Scientific Reports, v. 9, article 4413; DOI: 10.1038/s41598-018-38089-y)

A larger team of researchers, to which several of the authors of the Chilean paper are affiliated, claim the evidence supports some kind of impact event 12.8 ka ago, possibly several produced by the break-up of a comet. Yet the criticisms persist. For instance, had there been wildfires on the scales suggested, then there ought to be a significant peak in the proportion of charcoal in lake bed sediments from any one region at 12.8 ka. In fact such data from North America show no such standalone peak among many from the age range of the Younger Dryas. The fossil record from the last few millennia of the Pleistocene does not support a sudden extinction, but a decline. The Clovis-point culture, thought by many to have wrought havoc on the North American megafauna, may have come to an end around 12.8 ka, but was quickly succeeded by an equally efficient technology – the Folsom point.  As regards the critical evidence for impacts, shocked mineral grains, none are reported, and some of the reported evidence of microspherules and nanodiamonds is not strongly supported by independent analysis – and nor are they unique to impact events. How about the dating? The evidence from ice cores strongly suggests that the Younger Dryas began with an 8° C temperature decline over less than a decade, and the end was equally as sudden. Is radiocarbon dating capable of that time resolution and accuracy? Certainly not

Related articles: Gramling, C. 2018. Why won’t this debate about an ancient cold snap die? (Science News); Easterbrook, D.L. 2012.The Intriguing Problem Of The Younger Dryas—What Does It Mean And What Caused It? (Watts Up With That); Wolbach, W.S. and 26 others 2018.  Extraordinary Biomass-Burning Episode and Impact Winter Triggered by the Younger Dryas Cosmic Impact ∼12,800 Years Ago. 1. Ice cores and Glaciers. Journal of Geology, v. 126, p. 165-184; DOI: 10.1086/695703; Wolbach, W.S. and 30 others 2018. Extraordinary Biomass-Burning Episode and Impact Winter Triggered by the Younger Dryas Cosmic Impact ∼12,800 Years Ago. 2. Lake, Marine, and Terrestrial Sediments. Journal of Geology, v. 126, p. 185-205; DOI: 10.1086/695704.

Frack me nicely?

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‘There’s a seaside place they call Blackpool that’s famous for fresh air and fun’. Well, maybe, not any more. If you, dear weekender couples, lie still after the ‘fun’ the Earth may yet move for you. Not much, I’ll admit, for British fracking regulations permit Cuadrilla, who have a drill rig at nearby Preston New Road on the Fylde coastal plain of NW England, only to trigger earthquakes with a magnitude less than 0.5 on the Richter scale. This condition was applied after early drilling by Cuadrilla had stimulated earthquakes up to magnitude 3. To the glee of anti-fracking groups the magnitude 0.5 limit has been regularly exceeded, thereby thwarting Cuadrilla’s ambitions from time to time. Leaving aside the view of professional geologists that the pickings for fracked shale gas in Britain [June 2014] are meagre, the methods deployed in hydraulic fracturing of gas-prone shales do pose seismic risks. Geology, beneath the Fylde is about as simple as it gets in tectonically tortured Britain. There are no active faults, and no significant dormant ones near the surface that have moved since about 250 Ma ago; most of Britain is riven by major fault lines, some of which are occasionally active, especially in prospective shale-gas basins near the Pennines. When petroleum companies are bent on fracking they use a drilling technology that allows one site to sink several wells that bend with depth to travel almost horizontally through the target shale rock. A water-based fluid containing a mix of polymers and surfactants to make it slick, plus fine sand or ceramic particles, are pumped at very high pressures into the rock. Joints and bedding in the shale are thus forced open and maintained in that condition by the sandy material, so that gas and even light oil can accumulate and flow up the drill stems to the surface.

Shale, being dominated by ultra-fine clay minerals, is slippery when wet. Consequently, any elastic strain built-up in the rock, either by active tectonics or from long in the past, is likely to be released by fracking. The fractures that release the gas also facilitate the escape of formation water locked in the shale from when it was originally deposited. Being rich in organic matter, target shales maintain highly reducing chemical conditions. So as well as being salty, such formation water may contain high abundances of heavy metals and arsenic, unlike the groundwater in naturally permeable and oxygenated rocks, such as sandstones and limestones. Fracking carries a pollution risk too. Toxic waste fluid is generally disposed of by pumping into permeable strata beneath the well site. There is no knowing where such noxious water might go, other than to follow lines of least resistance, such as large joints and dormant faults that may well be unsuspected at the depths to which drilling might penetrate. That too poses seismic rick by lubrication of the pathways taken by the fluids.

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The sheer scale of shale-gas fracking in the US is indicated by the light emitted at night by well-lit installations and gas flares in a mature shale-gas basin in Texas targeting the mature, gas-rich Eagle Ford shale. (see: https://geology.com/articles/eagle-ford/)

Britain has barely been touched by fracking or conventional petroleum drilling, unlike large swathes of North America. Fracking began in Kansas, USA in 1947 but got underway in earnest in the 1970s to dominate US natural gas production since the 1990s. The effects of fracking in the long term [July 2013] show up in the active shale-gas basins there. Even in geological settings as quiescent as the Fylde seems to be, the picture is one of repeated earthquakes induced by fracking, which often exceed magnitude 3.0, including one of magnitude 5.6 in Oklahoma that destroyed 14 homes in 2016. A recent paper in Science examines how fluid migration induces dormant structures to move again (Bhattacharya, P. & Viesca, R.C. 2019. Fluid-induced aseismic fault slip outpaces pore-fluid migration. Science, v. 364, p. 464-468; DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7354). The authors, from Tufts University in the US, used experimental fluid injection in France to indicate that aseismic slip resulting from fluid injection transmits stress far and wide, and more quickly than expected from the outward movement of the injected fluids. This explains why earthquakes produced by deliberate fluid injection into the crust often occur more frequently in active shale-gas basins than they do in areas of naturally high seismic activity

Related article: Fracking: Earthquakes are triggered well beyond fluid injection zones (Science News)

Denisovan on top of the world

Who the Denisovans were is almost completely bound up with their DNA. Until 2019 their only tangible remains were from a single Siberian cave and amounted to a finger bone, a toe bone three molars and fragment of limb bone. Yet they provided DNA from four individuals who lived in Denis the Hermit’s cave from 30 to more than 100 thousand years ago. The analyses revealed that the Denisovans, like the Neanderthals, left their genetic mark in modern people who live outside of Africa, specifically native people of Melanesia and Australia . Remarkably, one of them revealed that a 90 ka female Denisovan was the offspring of a Denisovan father and  a Neanderthal mother whose DNA suggested that she may have come from the far-off Balkans. Living, native Tibetans, whose DNA has been analysed, share a gene (EPAS1) with Denisovans, which regulates the body’s production of haemoglobin and enables Tibetans and Nepalese Sherpas to thrive at extremely high altitudes (see The earliest humans in Tibet).

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Baishya Karst Cave in eastern Tibet with Buddhist prayer flags (Credit: Dongju Zhang, Lanzhou University)

Part of a hominin lower jaw unearthed by a Buddhist monk in 1980 from a cave on the Tibetan Plateau, at a height of 3280 m, found its way by a circuitous route to the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in 2016. It carries two very large molars comparable in size with those found at the Denisova Cave, and which peculiarly have three roots rather than the four in the jaws of non-Asian, living humans’. East Asians commonly show this trait. This and other aspects of the fossil teeth resemble those of some uncategorised early hominin fossils from China. Dating of speleothem calcium carbonate with which the jaw is encrusted suggests that the fossil dates back to at least 160 thousand years ago, around the oldest date recovered from Denisova Cave; during the glacial period before the last one. So the individual was able to survive winter conditions worse than those experienced today on the Tibetan Plateau. Further excavation in the cave found numerous stone artefacts and cut-marked animal bones (Chen, F. and 18 others 2019. A late Middle Pleistocene Denisovan mandible from the Tibetan Plateau. Nature, v. 569, published online; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1139-x).

Unfortunately the Tibetan Jaw did not yield DNA capable of being sequenced, so the issues of inheritance of the ‘high-altitude’ gene and wider relatedness of the individual could not be checked. However, one of the teeth did contain preserved protein that can be analysed in an analogous way to DNA, but with less revealing detail. The results were sufficient to demonstrate that the mandible was consistent with a hominin population closely related to the Denisovans of the Siberian cave.

No doubt a path has already been beaten to the Tibetan cave, in the hope of further hominin material. To me the resemblance of the Tibetan fossil jaw to other hominin finds in China, including those from Xuchang, summarised here, is exciting. None of them have been subject to modern biological analysis. Perhaps the ‘real Denisovan’ will emerge from them.

See also: Mysterious ancient human found on the ‘roof of the world’ (National Geographic magazine); Major discovery suggests Denisovans lived in Tibet 160,000 years ago (New Scientist) ; Finally, a Denisovan specimen from somewhere beyond Denisova Cave (Ars Technica)

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A role for iron in the origin of life

Experiments aimed at suggesting how RNA and DNA – prerequisites for life, reproduction and evolution – might have formed from a ‘primordial soup’ have made slow progress. Another approach to the origin of life is investigation of the most basic chemical reactions that it engages in. Whatever the life form, prokaryote or eukaryote, its core processes involve reducing carbon dioxide, or other simple carbon-bearing compounds, and water to synthesise organic molecules that make up cell matter. Organisms also engage in metabolising biological compounds to generate energy. At their root, these two processes mirror each other; a creative network of reactions and another that breaks compounds down, known as the Krebs- and the reverse-Krebs cycles. In living organisms both are facilitated by other organic compounds that, of course, are themselves produced by cells. How such networks arose under inorganic conditions remains unknown, but three biochemists at the University of Strasbourg in France (Muchowska, K.B. et al. 2019. Synthesis and breakdown of universal metabolic precursors promoted by iron. Nature, v. 569, p. 104-107;  DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1151-1) have designed an inorganic experiment. They aimed to investigate how two simple organic compounds, which conceivably could have formed in a lifeless early environment, might have been encouraged to kick-start basic living processes. These are glyoxylate (HCOCO2) and pyruvate (CH3COCO2).

The most difficult chemical step in building complex organic compounds is inducing carbon atoms to bond together through C-C bonds; a process that thermodynamics tends to thwart but is accomplished in living cells by adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). Previous workers focussed on interactions between reactive compounds, such as cyanide and formaldehyde, as candidates for the precursors of life, but such chemistry is totally different from what actually goes on in organisms. Joseph Moran, one of the co-authors of the paper, and his research group recently settled on five fundamental linkages of C, H and O as ‘universal hubs’ at the core of the Krebs cycle and its reverse. Kamila Muchowska and co-workers found that glyoxylate and pyruvate introduced into a simulated hydrothermal fluid that contains ions of ferrous iron (reduced Fe2+) were able to combine in producing all five ‘universal hubs. Ferrous iron clearly acted as a catalyst, through being a powerful reducing agent or electron donor, to get around the stringencies of classic thermodynamics. Moran’s team had previously shown that pyruvate itself can form inorganically from CO2 in water laced with iron, cobalt and nickel ions. Formation of glyoxylate in such a manner has yet to be demonstrated. Nevertheless, the two together in a watery soup of transition metal ions seem destined to produce an abundance of exactly the compounds at the root of living processes. In fact the experiment showed that all but two of the eleven components of the Krebs cycle can be synthesised inorganically.

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Metal-rich ‘black smoker’ at a hydrothermal vent on the mid-Atlantic ridge(credit: Kate Larkin, Seascape, Belgium)

Until the rise of free oxygen in the Earth system some 2400 Ma ago, the oceans would have been awash with soluble ferrous iron. This would have been especially the case around hydrothermal vents that result from the interaction between water and hot mafic lavas of the oceanic crust, together with less abundant transition-metal ions, such as those of nickel and cobalt. The ocean-vent hypothesis for the origin of life seems set for a surge forward.

See also: Katsnelson, A. 2019. Iron can catalyse metabolic reactions without enzymes.

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‘Hobbits’ found in the Philippines

The earliest signs that hominins had colonised the island of Luzon in the Philippines took the form of crude stone tools found around half a century ago. Re-excavation of one of the sites uncovered yet more tools buried in a river-channel deposit, along with remains of a butchered rhinoceros dated at around 700 ka by two methods (see Clear signs of a hominin presence on the Philippines at around 700 ka May 2018). The primitive nature of the tools and their age suggested that Asian Homo erectus had managed to reach the Philippine archipelago, despite it being separated from larger islands by deep water.  Even during large falls in sea level (up to 130 m) during glacial periods that exposed Sundaland, which linked the larger islands of Indonesia to mainland Eurasia, at best only a narrow stretch of sea (~20 km) connected the Philippines to the wider world. For most of the time since the earliest known colonisation any hominins on the islands would have been cut off from other populations.

Philippines

Topography of the Philippines, showing location of the Kalinga site. Palest blue sea may have been above sea level only during extreme glacial maxima. (credit: Wikipedia)

The first hominin fossil found by archaeologists in 2007 was a 67 ka old toe bone (metatarsal) in cave sediments from Northern Luzon. It was undoubtedly from Homo, but which species was unclear.  More recent excavations added a mere 12 fossil fragments, probably from three individuals; 7 teeth, 4 adult finger- and toe bones and part of the femur of a juvenile (Détroit, F. and 8 others 2019. A new species of Homo from the Late Pleistocene of the Philippines. Nature, v.  568, p. 181–186; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1067-9). The finger bones, being curved, are unlike those of modern humans and H. erectus. The teeth are even more different; for instance the premolars show two or three roots – ours have but one – and their unusually tiny molars only a single root. The combined features are sufficiently distinct to suggest a separate species (H. luzonensis). The small teeth may indicate that the adults may have been even smaller that the ‘Hobbits’ of Flores and anatomically different.

Like H. floresiensis, as a result of isolation the new human species probably evolved to become small, possibly from very low number of H. erectus original colonisers. But an even stranger possibility is suggested by their curved toe and finger bones. They may have been habitual climbers as much as walkers – unlike us and H. erectus. Could that indicate that their ancestors left Africa already distinct from the rest of Late Pleistocene humans? That is also a disputed hypothesis for the origins of H. floresiensis  remains of whom are more complete. Similarly, they pose the issue of how their progenitors managed to get to the archipelago: deliberately by boat or being carried there clinging in desperation to vegetation torn-up by tsunamis and transported seawards by the back-wash.

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