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March 16, 2017
Two geologists studying North America’s oldest rocks have uncovered ancient minerals that are remnants of the Earth’s original crust which first formed more than 4.2 billion years ago.
These rocks appear to preserve the signature of an early Earth that presumably took shape within the first few hundred million years of Earth’s history.
Jonathan O’Neil and Richard Carlson uncovered the samples on a trek to the northeastern part of Canada to study the Canadian Shield formation, a large area of exposed continental crust underlying, centered on Hudson Bay, which was already known to contain some of the oldest parts of North America. O’Neil calls it the core or nucleus of the North American continent. “That spot on the shore of Hudson Bay has this older flavor to it, this older chemical signature.”
To O’Neil, an assistant professor of geology at the University of Ottawa, rocks are like books that allow geologists to study their compositions and to learn about the conditions in which they form. But as far as rock records go, the first billion years of the Earth’s history is almost completely unrepresented.
“We’re missing basically all the crust that was present about 4.4 billion years ago. The question we’re after with our study is: what happened to it?” said Carlson, director of the Carnegie Institution of Washington. “Part of the goal of this was simply to see how much crust was present before and see what that material was.”
While most of the samples are made up of a 2.7 billion-year-old granite, O’Neil said these rocks were likely formed by the recycling of a much older crust. “The Earth is very, very good at recycling itself. It constantly recycles and remelts and reworks its own crust,” O’Neil said. He and Carlson arrived at their conclusion by determining the age of the samples using isotopic dating and then adding on the estimate of how long it would have taken for the recycled bits to have originally formed.
O’Neil and Carlson’s estimate relies on the theory that granite forms through the reprocessing of older rocks. “That is a possibility that they form that way, but that is not the only way you can form these rocks,” said Oliver Jagoutz, an associate professor of geology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Their interpretation really strongly depends on their assumption that that is the way these granites form.
The nature of Earth’s first crust has largely remained a mystery because there simply aren’t very many rocks that have survived the processes that can erase their signature from the geologic record. Crust is often forced back into the Earth’s interior, which then melts it down, the geologic equivalent of sending silver jewelry back into the forge. That makes it challenging for geologists to reconstruct how the original looked.
These new findings give geologists an insight into the evolution of the oldest elements of Earth’s outer layer and how it has come to form North America. “We’re recycling extremely, extremely old crust to form our stable continent,” O’Neil said.