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Old 2008-12-02, 21:15   #1
ewmayer
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Default Study: Early Earth Not as Hellish as Once Believed

A New Picture of the Early Earth
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By KENNETH CHANG
Published: December 1, 2008

The first 700 million years of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year existence are known as the Hadean period, after Hades, or, to shed the ancient Greek name, Hell.

That name seemed to fit with the common perception that the young Earth was a hot, dry, desolate landscape interspersed with seas of magma and inhospitable for life. Even if some organism had somehow popped into existence, the old story went, surely it would soon have been extinguished in the firestorm of one of the giant meteorites that slammed into the Earth when the young solar system was still crowded with debris.

Scars on the surface of the Moon record a hail of impacts during what is called the Late Heavy Bombardment. The Earth would have received an even more intense bombardment, and the common thinking until recently was that life could not have emerged on Earth until the bombardment eased about 3.85 billion years ago.

Norman H. Sleep, a professor of geophysics at Stanford, recalled that in 1986 he submitted a paper that calculated the probability of life surviving one of the giant, early impacts. It was summarily rejected because a reviewer said that obviously nothing could have lived then.

That is no longer thought to be true.

“We thought we knew something we didn’t,” said T. Mark Harrison, a professor of geochemistry at the University of California, Los Angeles. In hindsight the evidence was just not there. And new evidence has suggested a new view of the early Earth.

Over the last decade, the mineralogical analysis of small hardy crystals known as zircons embedded in old Australian rocks has painted a picture of the Hadean period “completely inconsistent with this myth we made up,” Dr. Harrison said.

Geologists now almost universally agree that by 4.2 billion years ago, the Earth was a pretty placid place, with both land and oceans. Instead of hellishly hot, it may have frozen over. Because the young Sun put out 30 percent less energy than it does today, temperatures on Earth might have been cold enough for parts of the surface to have been covered by expanses of ice.

In a new analysis, published in the current issue of the journal Nature, the zircons, the only bits of earth older than 4 billion years definitively known to have survived, provide another tantalizing hint about the Hadean period. Dr. Harrison and two U.C.L.A. colleagues, Michelle Hopkins, a graduate student, and Craig Manning, a professor of geology and geochemistry, report that minerals trapped inside zircons offer evidence that the processes of plate tectonics — the forces that push around the planet’s outer crust, forming and shaping the continents and oceans — had already begun.

“The picture that’s emerging is a watery world with normal rock recycling processes,” said Stephen J. Mojzsis, a professor of geology at the University of Colorado who was not involved with the U.C.L.A. research. “And that’s a comforting thought for the origin of life.”

With the old views of the Hadean period, the origin of life on Earth posed a huge problem. The earliest, and still debated, evidence for life lies within rocks in Greenland dated at 3.83 billion years. The rocks show a shift in the relative amounts of carbon-12, the usual form of carbon, and carbon-13, a less common but stable form of carbon. That shift was attributed to the presence of microorganisms, which would tend to concentrate the lighter carbon.

What was surprising, perhaps unbelievable, in the old views was that life started immediately at the end of the Late Heavy Bombardment, seemingly showing up the instant that it was possible.

In the new view of the early Earth, life could have emerged hundreds of millions of years earlier. “This means the door is open for a long, slow chemical evolution,” Dr. Mojzsis said. “The stage was set for life probably 4.4 billion years ago, but I don’t know if the actors were present.”

...

Earth, like the other planets, coalesced more than 4.5 billion years ago. It is commonly hypothesized that almost immediately, a Mars-size object about 4,000 miles wide hit it — a true cataclysm that vaporized much of the object and Earth. Some of the debris ejected into orbit became the Moon. The molten Earth cooled quickly, probably within a few million years, and nothing that large ever struck again.

Dr. Sleep said his calculations suggested that during the 700 million years of the Hadean period about 15 objects 100 miles wide or wider hit the Earth. About four of the objects were wider than 200 miles, and those collisions would have been violent enough to boil off most of the oceans. (By contrast, the more recent object that hit the Earth 65 million years ago and helped kill off the dinosaurs was about 6 miles wide.)

But in numerical simulations that will be presented this month at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, Dr. Mojzsis and Oleg Abramov, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Colorado, show that the Late Heavy Bombardment impacts were not quite as lethal as had been thought.

“Things are hurt really bad,” Dr. Mojzsis said. But the computer calculations indicated that even rocks up to 300 miles wide would not kill everything, that pockets would exist where organisms that thrive in high-temperature environments like hydrothermal vents could survive.

Genetic studies of current life support that notion, pointing to an organism that lived in a high-temperature environment as the last common ancestor. That does not mean that life started there, but that is almost certainly where survivors of the giant impacts would have huddled.
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Old 2008-12-03, 03:27   #2
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Verrry interrresting. Thanks for posting it.
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