Science & Technology

How life on Earth shaped its geology

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It is well known that life on Earth and the geology of the planet are intertwined–a new study shows just how deep—literally—that connection goes.

( Bucholtz. C, Caltech)

Geoscientists at Caltech and UC Berkeley were able to spot a chemical signature in igneous rocks that record the beginning of oxygenation of Earth’s deep oceans. Remarkable, as this signal has managed to survive the violent furnace-like conditions of Earth’s mantle.

Oxygenation is of great interest in various areas of science as it ushered in the modern era of high atmospheric and oceanic oxygen levels, as well as allowing the diversification of life in the sea.

The team’s findings–published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science– support a leading theory about the geochemistry of island arc magmas and offer a rare example of biological processes on the planet’s surface affecting the inner Earth.

The stuble art of Subduction: Building Island Arcs and volcanoes

Subduction is the process by which tectonic plate descends beneath another and releases water-rich fluids into the overlying mantle, causing it to melt and produce magmas that ultimately ascend to the surface of the earth. The process builds island arc volcanoes like those found today in the Japanese islands and elsewhere in the Pacific Ring of Fire.

A figure showing the oceanic plate sliding beneath the continental plate. Credit: USGS
A figure showing the oceanic plate sliding beneath the continental plate. (USGS)

Eventually, through plate tectonics, these island arcs collide with and are incorporated into continents, preserving them in the rock record over geological time.

The most abundant magmatic, or igneous, rocks are basalts—dark-coloured and fine-grained rocks commonly found in lava flows. Most basalts on the earth today do not form near island arcs but at mid-ocean ridges deep underwater. The difference between the two being that island arc basalts are more oxidized than those found at mid-ocean ridges.

The leading hypothesis for this difference is that oceanic crust is oxidized by oxygen and sulfate in the deep ocean before being subducted into the mantle. Thus, it delivers oxidized material to the mantle source of island arcs above the subduction zone.

But Earth is not thought to have always had an oxygenated atmosphere and deep ocean. Scientists suspect, rather, the emergence of oxygen—and with it, the ability for the planet to sustain aerobic life—occurred in two steps.

The first step, an event, taking place between about 2.3 and 2.4 billion years ago, resulting in a greater than a 100,000-fold increase in atmospheric O2. Bringing it up to about 1% of modern levels.

Though dramatically higher than it had previously been, the atmospheric O2 concentration at this time still was too low to oxygenate the deep ocean– thought to have remained anoxic until around 400 to 800 million years ago.

Around that time–the second step saw atmospheric O2 concentrations increase to 10 to 50% of modern levels. This second jump likely to have allowed oxygen to circulate into the deep ocean.


Daniel Stolper one of the authors of the paper and an assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Science at UC Berkeley, explains: “If the reason why modern island arcs are fairly oxidized is due the presence of dissolved oxygen and sulfate in the deep ocean, then it sets up an interesting potential prediction.

“We know roughly when the deep oceans became oxygenated and thus, if this idea is right, one might see a change in how oxidized ancient island arc rocks were before versus after this oxygenation.”

Searching for a signal.


Seperate research suggests that these2 billion years old fossils represent an early life form that experimented with evolving into some kind of multicellular lifeform, but did not succeed right around the time of the first oxygenation event (Abder El Albani)

To search for the signal of this oxygenation event in island arc igneous rocks, Stolper teamed up with Caltech assistant professor of geology Claire Bucholz, who studies modern and ancient arc magmatic rocks.

Stolper and Bucholz combed through published records of ancient island arcs and compiled geochemical measurements that revealed the oxidation state of arc rocks that erupted tens of millions to billions of years ago.

Their idea was simple–if oxidized material from the surface is subducted and oxidizes the mantle regions that source island arc rocks, then ancient island arc rocks should be less oxidized– thus more “reduced”–than their modern counterparts.


Bucholz explains: “It’s not as common anymore, but scientists used to routinely quantify the oxidation state of iron in their rock samples.

“So there was a wealth of data just waiting to be reexamined.”

The pair’s analysis revealed the distinct signature of a detectable increase in oxidized iron in bulk-rock samples between 800 and 400 million years ago–the same time interval that independent studies proposed the oxygenation of the deep ocean occurred.

To be thorough, the researchers also explored other possible explanations for the signal. For example, it is commonly assumed that the oxidation state of iron in bulk rocks can be compromised by metamorphic processes—the heating and compaction of rocks—or by processes that alter them at or near the surface of the earth.

To test this, Bucholz and Stolper constructed a variety of experiments to determine whether such processes had affected the record–concluding that some alteration almost certainly occurred, but consistent everywhere that samples were taken.

Bucholz says: “The amount of oxidized iron in the samples may have been shifted after cooling and solidification, but it appears to have been shifted in a similar way across all samples.”

The team also compiled another proxy thought to reflect the oxidation state of the mantle source of arc magmas. This completely independent record yielded similar results to the iron-oxidation-state record.

Based on this, the researchers propose that the oxygenation of the deep ocean impacted not only on the earth’s surface and oceans but also changed the geochemistry of a major class of igneous rocks.

A symbiotic history–the evolution of Earth and life intertwined

This work builds upon earlier research by Bucholz that examines changes in the oxidation signatures of minerals in igneous rocks associated with the first oxygenation event 2.3 billion years ago.

Claire Bucholz studies igneous rocks from the transition between the Archean and Proterozoic aeons 2.5 billion years ago, which roughly coincides with a time period known as the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) (Bucholz)
Claire Bucholz studies igneous rocks from the transition between the Archean and Proterozoic aeons 2.5 billion years ago, which roughly coincides with a time period known as the Great Oxygenation Event (GOE) (Bucholz)

She collected sedimentary-type, or S-type, granites, which are formed during the burial and heating of sediments during the collision of two landmasses—for example, in the Himalayas, where the Indian subcontinent is colliding with Asia.

She says: “The granites represent melted sediments that were deposited at the surface of Earth. I wanted to test the idea that sediments might still record the first rise of oxygen on Earth, despite having been heated up and melted to create granite.

“And indeed, it does.”

Both studies speak to the strong connection between the geology of Earth and the life that flourishes on it, adds Bucholz.

She concludes: “The evolution of the planet and of the life on it are intertwined. We can’t understand one without understanding the other.”

The PNAS study is titled “Neoproterozoic to early Phanerozoic rise in island arc redox state due to deep ocean oxygenation and increased marine sulfate levels.”

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