Great Moments in Earth History: Antarctic Glaciation

Buried under thousands of feet of hard, ancient ice lies the solid earth of the Antarctic continent. For some 34 million years, vast glacial plains have ebbed and flowed over this rocky land. But the initiation of Antarctic glaciation—the point in time when conditions became right for snowfall to exceed snowmelt year after year—began suddenly and enigmatically.

satellite imagery of Antarctica

Antarctica today.

The growth of glaciers on Antarctica marks the end of the geologic epoch known as the Eocene—an epoch actually known for some of the hottest global temperatures in Earth’s geologically recent history. High CO2 punctuated by extreme bursts of even more CO2 caused significant warming for the early part of the Eocene’s 22 million year span. Fossil records show that the Antarctic continent was not only ice free then, but that it supported rainforests and crocodiles!

So the transition from a lush tropical landscape to a barren ice covered wasteland is a mystery that scientists have yet to fully explain. Cooling began gradually around the middle Eocene, and it made a pronounced and sudden shift at the Eocene’s conclusion 34 million years ago.

At that time, CO2 levels plummeted. In a geological instant—400,000 years—Antarctica was covered in ice. Some sort of threshold must have been passed, geologists reason. Cooling can beget more cooling because ice reflects incoming heat from the Sun back into space. This undoubtedly happened. But something else had to have occurred to cause the drop in CO2 that allowed the world to become cool enough to form glaciers in the first place.

Read the rest of this entry »


Great Moments in Earth History: The Hadean

No complete rocks have survived to tell of the formative years following Earth’s formation some 4.56 billion years ago. The material that would have existed at that time has been broken apart by the power of wind and water. It has melted and metamorphosed under the immense pressure and heat deep within Earth’s interior. It has been recycled back on to the surface. It has existed at every stage of the rock cycle many, many times over.

Despite the thousands of millions of years Earth’s earliest material has encountered, tiny pieces of some of these rocks still exist. Small microscopic grains of a mineral, once part of rocks that would have witnessed Earth as it existed just a couple of hundred million years after its formation, survive to this day.

A black and white image of a zircon crystal

A polished section of the oldest known piece of Earth. Credit: NASA

The oldest known terrestrial material is a single grain of a mineral called zircon which was found in the Jack Hills formation in western Australia. It is 4.4 billion years old. The grain itself was part of a rock composed of the broken and eroded bits of other ancient material that itself has been subject to billions of years of geologic reworking.

Zircon is an extremely rugged mineral made up of silicon and the obscure element zirconium. Its tenacity in the face of time and its ability to provide scientists with enough information to figure out the age when it was formed are among the many reasons it is exciting to geologists. Read the rest of this entry »


Great Moments in Earth History: The Messinian Salinity Crisis and the Zanclean Flood

Author’s note: This post is the first in a series of great Earth history moments. Stay tuned for a new post every other week.

Around 6 million years ago, the Mediterranean Sea became separated from the Atlantic. Cut off from the world’s oceans, it began to evaporate. By 5.3 million years ago, there was literally no sea left. 1000 years later, it was refilled in a geologic instant.

A number of discoveries led to the conclusion that the Mediterranean dried out completely sometime in the past. The first came in the 1960s, when seismic studies of the floor of the Mediterranean revealed a unique layer – dubbed the M reflector – across the whole basin. Scientists interpreted it to be a large layer of salt distributed evenly across the seafloor.

The Glomar Challenger discovered a thick layer of evaporite minerals deep in the Mediterranean seafloor.

The Glomar Challenger discovered a thick layer of evaporite minerals deep in the Mediterranean seafloor. Credit: Ocean Drilling Program, Texas A&M University.

Later, in 1970, a leg of the Deep Sea Drilling Project cored deep into the Mediterranean seabed. They found what the seismic data predicted: a hard layer of evaporites – rocks composed of salts.

The only way to get evaporite rocks at the base of a sea is to evaporate water until it becomes so concentrated with salts that they can no longer be dissolved. This forces them to precipitate into a solid form.

Just as enigmatic as the salt layer, engineers mapping the base of the Nile River in preparation for the construction of the Aswan Dam around this time found that carved deep beneath the silty floor of the Nile was a canyon whose ancient base was well below sea level.

The only way  for a canyon to be carved into bedrock is for a river to flow through it. But a river won’t cut lower than sea level. This deep canyon meant that Medteranian sea level must have been dramatically lower in the past.

In 1972, Kenneth Hsu, the primary investigator on the Deep Sea Drilling Leg that cored the Mediterranean, authored a paper in Nature concluding that the sea must have evaporated nearly completely to produce such an anomalous layer of evaporite minerals and to have cut canyons so deep. In the paper he admitted it was a “preposterous idea,” but stated that no other explanation presented itself. Read the rest of this entry »


The Rise of the Adirondacks

The Adirondacks are something of a paradox. Made from some of the oldest rocks on Earth, they are one of the youngest mountain ranges in existence. Pushing their way through the younger rocks of the Appalachians, this jagged, deformed mess of ancient rock, once trapped deep in the crust, has been rising for the past 15-20 million years. And nobody really knows why.

A view from one of the High Peaks in the Adirondacks

Over a billion years ago, standing high above the lifeless lowlands of the supercontinent Rodinia, a massive mountain range known as the Grenville Orogen extended from coast to coast – one of the largest and longest lived ranges our planet has ever known. Formed when prehistoric continents collided to form a single and massive landmass, its rocks have since fallen deep into fractured valleys and risen once more. They have formed the floors of ancient oceans, and they have withstood the extreme heat of deep burial. These are the rocks that are forcing their way to the surface as the Adirondacks. This complex history makes them unlike any other mountain range – a lesson I learned the hard way.

As a young and somewhat naive hiker in my freshmen year at Skidmore College, I had my heart set on climbing as many of the Adirondack ‘high peaks’ as possible, those peaks that are higher than 4000 feet. I picked up a map of the high peak region and quickly identified what I felt was a surefire way to conquer as many mountains in one trip as possible – I would traverse the Great Range in two days, allowing myself nine peaks in one trip. I was familiar with the ridges of the White Mountains in nearby New Hampshire, and felt assured that it would be similar to those experiences. There I was able to climb to the highest point of a ridge and slowly descend it, making only slight climbs to ascend the other peaks as I moved forward.

The trip was a categorical failure. Two peaks into the trip, my hiking buddy and I were woefully behind schedule and dangerously exhausted. After finishing only the second mountain of what was supposed to be many more that day, I was both dehydrated and incoherent from the effects of mild hypothermia. (Though the trip was late May, there was still three feet of snow on the ground.)  Slurring my words, I explained to my friend that I thought we might have set our sights a bit too high.

The author on top of the second peak of his ill-fated hike. Don’t be fooled by my half smile, I was too disoriented to realize I was on top of the mountain when this photo was taken.

Unfortunately we were too high to set up camp – it would have been both illegal and too cold. Returning to camp was not easy though. There were two mountains on either side of us, requiring a significant hike before we could get to a lower elevation. Forced to climb, we ascended both Basin and Saddleback mountains, some of the most challenging hikes in the Adirondacks. One of the most terrifying and beautiful sights I have ever seen as a hiker was the sun setting while we were on top of this final mountain, miles from any safe campsite. Beaten by the mountains, we did make it to camp that night, but ended our trip a day early.

We were entirely unprepared for the conditions, and had no business hiking at that time of year. These issues aside, though, there was a more central problem at hand. The Adirondacks are not like the White Mountains, nor are they like any other mountain range on our planet. The ridges that characterize so many mountain ranges, formed by the fault lines of colliding land, do not exist in the Adirondacks. To tackle all the peaks of the Great Range, a hiker must ascend and descend each peak nearly in full, finding no benefit in a raised line of topography.

This difference is rooted in how mountains form in the first place. The White Mountains, for example, are part of the larger Appalachian mountain range. (The Adirondacks are technically considered part of the Appalachians as well, but only because they are close to the other ranges.)  The formation of the Appalachians is typical of most mountain ranges. These mountains trace their origins to a time many hundreds of millions of years after the great Grenville Mountains. Rodinia, the supercontinent which held the Grenville Orogen, began to rift apart about 800 million year ago. The process that destroyed those mountains created the Iapetus Ocean – named after the Greek father of Atlantis.

Around 500 million years ago, the Iapetus Ocean began to close.  As it closed, landmasses within the Iapetus crashed into the eastern side of what is now North America. As seafloor was forced under North America, volcanoes formed, erupting through land and forming islands that eventually crashed into the continent as well. This process continued for many millions of years, until 250 million years ago, when the super continent Pangea was formed. As this myriad of landmasses hit the North American continent, they formed long ridges – reminiscent of the ridges of a car’s hood after a head-on crash. They are beautifully clear if you get a chance to fly over them, and they make for easy hiking, as peaks connected by a ridge require less descent and ascent.

Artist’s conception of the supercontinent Rodinia. The raised mountains are the Grenville Orogen. Image credit: C. R. Scotese, PALEOMAP Project (www.scotese.com)

The Adirondacks, however, are like a giant wart, pushing its way through the beautifully ordered structure of the Appalachians. A giant dome, the Adirondacks look misplaced on even the simplest of maps. The reason for this is unclear. What is known is that for about 15-20 million years the crust under the Adirondacks has been rising, forcing the younger, more typical Appalachian mountains above to erode away. As they erode and the crust continues to rise, the deepest, oldest rocks are exposed – the Grenville ones. Because these rocks have been subject to one billion years of torture, they have a jagged and disordered topography, making the typical ridges I was used to hiking non-existent.

How fast they are rising is the subject of much debate. Some say they are rising nearly as fast as the Himalayas, thought to be the fastest rising mountain range today. Others say they may not be rising much at all. Even more enigmatic is why they are rising. “Both the existence of current uplift and its modus operandi remain a mystery,” states an official 1995 United States Geologic Survey report on the Adirondacks. The mystery remains unsolved.

The most popular idea is that there is a hotspot under the Adirondacks, creating a pocket of relatively less dense mantle, which, forced to rise, pushes the crust above, and ultimately the Adirondacks, to the surface.  This would explain why the Adirondacks are dome shaped, but the hypothesis is hard to test.

What was not hard to test was how different the Adirondacks were to other mountain ranges I had climbed. The disconnected peaks of the Adirondacks are a completely different world compared with the ridge-connected peaks of the rest of the Appalachians. Exceedingly beautiful and unique, they remain my favorite mountains of the many I have visited, but they taught me a cruel geologic lesson. Know the history of your mountains, as enigmatic as it may be, before you try to conquer them.


The Revolution Will Be Clumpy

Geologists are able to tell you the exact history of the waxing and waning of glaciers over the past five million years because microscopic creatures in the ocean have been unwittingly recording this dance in their shells. Their shells are made from the carbon and oxygen found in seawater. As glaciers form, seawater is removed from the ocean and trapped on land, resulting in subtle changes in the chemistry of the ocean. These changes are recorded in the shells, which create a detailed history as they pile up on the ocean floor.

The microscopic shell of a foraminifera. Shells from these creatures are commonly used in isotopic studies of past climate.

For decades paleoclimatologists have used the records of seashells to reconstruct either the volume of glacial ice trapped on land or the temperature history of the ocean, providing a beautifully detailed picture of climate over the past 5 million years. These approaches, however, are limited by the fact that the scientist must know the exact chemistry of the water that the shells were formed in to calculate temperature, or the exact temperature at which they formed to calculate the chemistry of the water. This fact has confounded hundreds of studies about the history of our planet. A revolutionary new method has solved that problem. It also has its sights set on topics as diverse as the biology of dinosaurs and the evolution of man.

These methods work because some molecules of the same element have different masses. These variants are known as isotopes. Many of these isotopes are unstable, meaning they break down into other elements while releasing harmful radiation. Just as important to geologists, though, are the stable ones – atoms that exist for eternity with a fixed number of protons and neutrons. Carbon has two stable isotopes, one with an atomic mass of 12, and one with an atomic mass of 13. Similarly, oxygen as three: masses 16, 17, and 18. In both cases the light isotopes are common, while the heavier ones are exceedingly rare.

Because of these variations in mass, nature treats the heavy isotopes slightly differently than the light ones. When the shells of ocean creatures are formed, they form with a fixed ratio of heavier and lighter isotopes, leaving hints about environmental conditions at that time. These ratios are trapped in carbonate, a molecule that contains one carbon and three oxygen atoms and is the primary building block of seashells (among many other things).

Relative changes in the temperature of the ocean at the time the shell formed can be calculated using these ratios. This is because at colder temperatures oxygen 18 and oxygen 16 behave more similarly than at warm temperatures, when increased energy makes oxygen 16 more likely to react and form carbonate than oxygen 18. Shells that form under colder temperatures, then, will have more oxygen 18 than at warm temperatures.

A record of climate for the past 540 million years derived from the ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in marine fossils. Absolute temperature values cannot be derived using this method.

Information like this is critical if we wish to understand how our climate system operates, and what changes humanity will face as our planet continues to warm. But actual temperature values (i.e. degrees Celsius) would be even more useful.

Using oxygen isotope ratios to calculate absolute temperature is problematic, though. This ratio is also affected by the amount of oxygen 18 and oxygen 16 in the water to begin with. Ice prefers to form from oxygen 16. Therefore as more ice is trapped on land, more oxygen 16 is stripped from the ocean water. This results in oceans with more oxygen 18 in glacial times. This is the principle that is employed when scientists study shells to reconstruct the history of ice ages, but it means that more than one process can affect the oxygen isotope ratio in shells.

Because fluctuations in this ratio can be driven by both temperature and the original isotopic composition of the seawater, a researcher could not simply take, for example, a 65 million year old seashell and tell you the temperature of the water was when it formed. Absolute temperature values are almost impossible to calculate from oxygen isotopes in older carbonate samples.

That was before 2006, before the term ‘clumped-isotope’ entered the geologic lexicon and revolutionized the use of isotopes to study temperature. Using a new method known as ‘clumped-isotope paleothermometry,’ a researcher could indeed pick up a 65 million year old seashell and tell you the temperature in which it was formed without knowing anything else about it.

While the technique represents a complex and technical scientific achievement, the premise behind the method is fairly straightforward. When a carbonate molecule forms with more than one heavy isotope, the bond holding that molecule together is stronger than if it formed with only the common light isotopes. Before a carbonate mineral is formed and locked in place as a bone, shell, or rock, the carbon and oxygen atoms dance around, repeatedly switching partners. Because of this dance, you might expect a random distribution of light isotope to light isotope bonds (i.e. carbon 12 bonded to oxygen 16) and heavy-to-heavy bonds (i.e carbon 13 to oxygen 18).

The beauty lies in the fact that this is not the case. Because heavy-to-heavy bonds are stronger, they last just a little bit longer than the other arrangements. This is especially true in cold conditions, when there is less energy to break bonds to begin with. The higher the temperature in this sea of isotopes, the more chaotic the dance becomes. With more chaos, the ability for heavy-to-heavy bonds to remain together is reduced, and eventually removed, yielding the random distribution of bonds one might expect. The result is simple: carbonate formed in cool conditions will have more molecules with more than one heavy isotope, whereas carbonate formed in warm conditions will have fewer.

The process by which heavy isotopes join together is referred to as ‘clumping,’ and with the advent of new and highly sophisticated laboratory equipment, scientists can measure the degree to which it has occurred in carbonate. Years of experiments have related the amount of clumping in carbonate directly to temperature. Best of all, the starting composition of the water that formed the carbonate is irrelevant. If it formed at the same temperature, a researcher will get the same value whether large amounts of oxygen 16 were removed from the ocean by ice or not.

Ocean temperatures are not the only questions that can be addressed using clumped-isotopes, though.

Drs. Benjamin Passey and Naomi Levin at Johns Hopkins University, for example, are interested in human evolution. They wanted to tackle an old but important question: was the time period that led to the emergence of hominids cooler than the present in key anthropologic sites in Africa? Some researchers have said yes, but many have suggested that it was significantly warmer than present.

Many theories of human evolution depend on knowing what the environment was like at this time, so Passey and Levin decided to apply clumped-isotope methods to fossilized African soil (soil commonly contains carbonate minerals). They found that temperatures over the past 5 million years have been either the same as, or warmer than, the present. This limits, in their view, any hypothesis relating the evolution of human traits to those that can be explained by similar or warmer temperature to the present.

Jumping back many millions of years, Dr. Robert Eagle at Caltech wanted to know more about the metabolism of sauropod dinosaurs, massive creatures like the famous Brachiosaurus. A long-standing debate amongst paleontologists is whether these creatures were cold-blooded, deriving their energy from the environment like modern day reptiles, or if they possessed some form of endothermy, maintaining their body heat internally as mammals and birds do today.

A brachiosaurus looking unconcerned about finding warmth from the environment.

Because the bone and teeth of vertebrates are composed of bioapatite, a carbonate mineral, Eagle decided to use clumped isotopes to tackle this question. Previous work on modern animals has shown that the temperatures derived from teeth are representative of body temperatures. So in a 2011 paper, he looked at the temperatures recorded in the fossilized teeth of sauropods. He determined that the temperature at which the bioapatite in their teeth were forming was much higher than those for modern reptiles, similar to mammals, but lower than birds. This ruled out a cold-blooded dinosaur, and posed new questions about dinosaur biology.

Clumped-isotope paleothermometry is still in its infancy, but it is rapidly expanding. 2006 was the first year any paper used the term “clumped-isotope.” In 2011, 19 papers did, and many more are on the horizon.

Still many kinks need to be worked out. Methods need to be standardized and conclusions need to be scrutinized. Undoubtedly a period of time will come, as is the case with most scientific developments, where researchers identify more and more problems, adding a dose of reality to optimism. For now, though, the slight preference for some isotopes to stay bonded together is ushering in a new world of possibilities for earth scientists. This is the beginning of something big.


The Massive Log Jam That Was

It's hard to see, but there is a human being standing one of these logs in this 19th-century photo of The Great Raft.

It filled the river in both directions as far as the eye could see and continued on for many miles. It was called the Great Raft, and it lived in the Red River, which lines the Texas-Oklahoma border and ends at the Mississippi River in Louisiana. It was an unusual sight: an enormous log jam that, depending on the account, stretched anywhere from 100 to 210 miles long. It’s also the kind of thing you don’t see in the North American wilderness any more.

It’s unknown how old it was, but it was almost certainly caused by the natural migration of the river. Rivers are not the motionless, changeless squiggly lines that you see on maps. They shift across their floodplains, gradually, like a giant worm that takes millennia to squirm. Often, they even sever some of their curves and bends, leaving behind small lakes that look like a loop snipped off a length of ribbon. The Great Raft probably developed slowly as the river undercut its shoreline forestland, and the trees toppled in and accumulated.

In the 1830s, the federal government decided to open the Red River up for travel and commerce. It took them five years to remove the raft using steamboats and manual labor. But nature was stubborn — soon after they were done the raft began to regenerate, and within years it extended for miles all over again. The second removal attempt was interrupted by the Civil War and its surrounding political turmoil. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers returned to the project in the 1870s using crane boats and explosives, until it was finally completely cleared away in 1873.

Though a log jam may look like just a messy obstruction — piles of rotting wood laying in dirty water — dead trees can have an impact on the environment just as living ones do. Robert Gastaldo, a geologist at Colby College in Maine, studies the evolution of terrestrial plants and the ecology of eras long passed. He has also used historical records about The Great Raft as a basis for comparison for his research on log jams from millions of years ago. His best guess is that the Great Raft would not have been an impediment to the flow of water in the same way it was an impediment to human travel. The raft’s removal would have slowed the river down because, without the squeeze from the logs, the water could move at a slower speed and still deposit its water at about the same rate.

The removal of the logs would likely have caused problems for fish that stay near the woody covering for protection. Records also show some small trees took root on the decaying wood. As the wood rotted it became like any other organic soil, Gastaldo says, and if a seed landed there it would have taken root, resulting in little trees growing on the floating remains of bigger trees. “It would’ve changed the ecology for sure,” says Gastaldo of the raft’s removal. “But who’s to say it was for the better or for the worse?”

Any sign of the raft is long gone now. To the 19th century Army Corps of Engineers, the raft was just a roadblock that had to be removed. The landscape was deforested for agriculture after the Civil War, and much of the earth that had gathered under the raft was moved downriver into the Mississippi. Though Gastaldo notes that modern-day engineers know that log jams would impact the river flow and would take the overall impact into account.

Some links if you want to read more:


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