Nav: Home

New theory on how Earth's crust was created

May 05, 2017

More than 90% of Earth's continental crust is made up of silica-rich minerals, such as feldspar and quartz. But where did this silica-enriched material come from? And could it provide a clue in the search for life on other planets?

Conventional theory holds that all of the early Earth's crustal ingredients were formed by volcanic activity. Now, however, McGill University earth scientists Don Baker and Kassandra Sofonio have published a theory with a novel twist: some of the chemical components of this material settled onto Earth's early surface from the steamy atmosphere that prevailed at the time.

First, a bit of ancient geochemical history: Scientists believe that a Mars-sized planetoid plowed into the proto-Earth around 4.5 billion years ago, melting the Earth and turning it into an ocean of magma. In the wake of that impact -- which also created enough debris to form the moon -- the Earth's surface gradually cooled until it was more or less solid. Baker's new theory, like the conventional one, is based on that premise.

The atmosphere following that collision, however, consisted of high-temperature steam that dissolved rocks on the Earth's immediate surface -- "much like how sugar is dissolved in coffee," Baker explains. This is where the new wrinkle comes in. "These dissolved minerals rose to the upper atmosphere and cooled off, and then these silicate materials that were dissolved at the surface would start to separate out and fall back to Earth in what we call a silicate rain."

To test this theory, Baker and co-author Kassandra Sofonio, a McGill undergraduate research assistant, spent months developing a series of laboratory experiments designed to mimic the steamy conditions on early Earth. A mixture of bulk silicate earth materials and water was melted in air at 1,550 degrees Celsius, then ground to a powder. Small amounts of the powder, along with water, were then enclosed in gold palladium capsules, placed in a pressure vessel and heated to about 727 degrees Celsius and 100 times Earth's surface pressure to simulate conditions in the Earth's atmosphere about 1 million years after the moon-forming impact. After each experiment, samples were rapidly quenched and the material that had been dissolved in the high temperature steam analyzed.

The experiments were guided by other scientists' previous experiments on rock-water interactions at high pressures, and by the McGill team's own preliminary calculations, Baker notes. Even so, "we were surprised by the similarity of the dissolved silicate material produced by the experiments" to that found in the Earth's crust.

Their resulting paper, published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters, posits a new theory of "aerial metasomatism" -- a term coined by Sofonio to describe the process by which silica minerals condensed and fell back to earth over about a million years, producing some of the earliest rock specimens known today.

"Our experiment shows the chemistry of this process," and could provide scientists with important clues as to which exoplanets might have the capacity to harbor life Baker says.

"This time in early Earth's history is still really exciting," he adds. "A lot of people think that life started very soon after these events that we're talking about. This is setting up the stages for the Earth being ready to support life."
-end-
Funding for the research was provided by an NSERC Discovery grant to Baker and an NSERC Summer Undergraduate Research Assistant grant to Sofonio.

"A metasomatic mechanism for the formation of Earth's earliest evolved crust," Don R. Baker, Kassandra Sofonio, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 1 April 2017. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0012821X17300341

McGill University

Related Atmosphere Articles:

Estuaries are warming at twice the rate of oceans and atmosphere
A 12-year study of 166 estuaries in south-east Australia shows that the waters of lakes, creeks, rivers and lagoons increased 2.16 degrees in temperature and increased acidity.
What makes Saturn's atmosphere so hot
New analysis of data from NASA's Cassini spacecraft found that electric currents, triggered by interactions between solar winds and charged particles from Saturn's moons, spark the auroras and heat the planet's upper atmosphere.
Galactic cosmic rays affect Titan's atmosphere
Planetary scientists using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) revealed the secrets of the atmosphere of Titan, the largest moon of Saturn.
Physics: An ultrafast glimpse of the photochemistry of the atmosphere
Researchers at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universitaet (LMU) in Munich have explored the initial consequences of the interaction of light with molecules on the surface of nanoscopic aerosols.
Using lasers to visualize molecular mysteries in our atmosphere
Molecular interactions between gases and liquids underpin much of our lives, but difficulties in measuring gas-liquid collisions have so far prevented the fundamental exploration of these processes.
The atmosphere of a new ultra hot Jupiter is analyzed
The combination of observations made with the CARMENES spectrograph on the 3.5m telescope at Calar Alto Observatory (Almería), and the HARPS-N spectrograph on the National Galileo Telescope (TNG) at the Roque de los Muchachos Observatory (Garafía, La Palma) has enabled a team from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC) and from the University of La Laguna (ULL) to reveal new details about this extrasolar planet, which has a surface temperature of around 2000 K.
An exoplanet loses its atmosphere in the form of a tail
A new study, led by scientists from the Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias (IAC), reveals that the giant exoplanet WASP-69b carries a comet-like tail made up of helium particles escaping from its gravitational field propelled by the ultraviolet radiation of its star.
Iron and titanium in the atmosphere of an exoplanet
Exoplanets can orbit close to their host star. When the host star is much hotter than our sun, then the exoplanet becomes as hot as a star.
Astronomers find exoplanet atmosphere free of clouds
Scientists have detected an exoplanet atmosphere that is free of clouds, marking a pivotal breakthrough in the quest for greater understanding of the planets beyond our solar system.
Helium detected in exoplanet atmosphere for the first time
Astronomers have detected helium in the atmosphere of a planet that orbits a star far beyond our solar system for the very first time.
More Atmosphere News and Atmosphere Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#568 Poker Face Psychology
Anyone who's seen pop culture depictions of poker might think statistics and math is the only way to get ahead. But no, there's psychology too. Author Maria Konnikova took her Ph.D. in psychology to the poker table, and turned out to be good. So good, she went pro in poker, and learned all about her own biases on the way. We're talking about her new book "The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Uncounted
First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.