The scalding-hot sea that supposedly covered the early Earth may in fact never have existed, according to a new study by Stanford University researchers who analyzed isotope ratios in 3.4 billion-year-old ocean floor rocks. Their findings suggest that the early ocean was much more temperate and that, as a result, life likely diversified and spread across the globe much sooner in Earth's history than has been generally theorized.
It also means that the chemical composition of the ancient ocean was significantly different from today's ocean, which in turn may change interpretations of how the early atmosphere evolved, said Page Chamberlain, professor of environmental earth system science. …
From a cauldron to a nice warm bath
“By looking at both oxygen and hydrogen in these ancient rocks we were able to put some constraints on how different the ancient ocean composition may have been from today, and then use that composition to try to determine how hot the ancient ocean was,” said Hren, who is the lead author of a paper describing the work being published online Nov. 12 by Nature. Tice and Chamberlain are coauthors.
Having data from isotope ratios of two elements allowed the researchers to calculate upper and lower bounds for the range of temperature and composition that could have given rise to the observed ratios. They determined that the ocean temperature could not have been more than 40 C (104 F) – the temperature of a hot tub – and may have been lower in some parts.
“This means that by 3.4 billion years ago, there were at least some places on the surface of the Earth where organisms that could not survive in these hot hydrothermal conditions could exist and thrive,” Hren said. “It also suggests that the chemical composition of the ancient ocean was probably not identical to today, as previous studies assumed. It may have been quite different.”
The researchers found that the ratio of the two stable isotopes of hydrogen in the chert was tilted away from the heavier of the isotopes – called deuterium.
“The ancient ocean had a lot more hydrogen in it, relative to deuterium, than modern oceans,” Chamberlain said.
If the composition of the Archean ocean was significantly different from today, then the atmosphere must have been markedly different, too, owing to the ease with which gases move across the air-water boundary as the ocean and lower atmosphere strive to stay in a rough equilibrium.
That means that sometime during the past 3.4 billion years, the ocean had to lose a lot of hydrogen to the atmosphere to bring the hydrogen isotope ratio in seawater to where it is today. And since oxygen, not hydrogen, has built up in Earth’s atmosphere over that same period of time, the atmosphere must have discharged a lot of hydrogen to the only other place it could go: space.
Hren said that some recent models of the early Earth atmosphere suggest that there may have been a prolonged period of hydrogen escaping to space, which would be consistent with the Stanford team’s findings.
Little land, but happy lives on the early Earth
The chemical composition of air and water weren’t the only things different about Earth during the Archean era.
“We are talking about a time when, if you were looking at the Earth from space, you would hardly see any land mass at all,” Tice said. “It would have almost been an ocean world.” …