Traces of Earth’s early magma ocean identified in Greenland rocks

  Isua in Greenland  Credit: Hanika Rizo

New research led by the University of Cambridge has found rare evidence – preserved in the chemistry of ancient rocks from Greenland - which tells of a time when Earth was almost entirely molten.

The study, published in the journal Science Advances, yields information on an important period in our planet’s formation, when a deep sea of incandescent magma stretched across Earth’s surface and extended hundreds of kilometres into its interior.

It is the gradual cooling and crystallisation of this ‘magma ocean’ that set the chemistry of Earth’s interior – a defining stage in the assembly of our planet’s structure and the formation of our early atmosphere.

Scientists know that catastrophic impacts during the formation of the Earth and Moon would have generated enough energy to melt our planet's interior. But we don’t know much about this distant and fiery phase of Earth’s history because tectonic processes have recycled almost all rocks older than 4 billion years.

Now researchers have found the chemical remnants of the magma ocean in 3.6-billion-year-old rocks from southwestern Greenland.

The findings support the long-held theory that Earth was once almost entirely molten and provide a window into a time when the planet started to solidify and develop the chemistry that now governs its internal structure. The research suggests that other rocks on Earth’s surface may also preserve evidence of ancient magma oceans.

“There are few opportunities to get geological constraints on the events in the first billion years of Earth’s history. It’s astonishing that we can even hold these rocks in our hands – let alone get so much detail about the early history of our planet,” said lead author Dr Helen Williams, from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences.

The study brings forensic chemical analysis together with thermodynamic modelling in search of the primeval origins of the Greenland rocks, and how they got to the surface.

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Image: Isua in Greenland

Credit: Hanika Rizo

Reproduced courtesy of the University of Cambridge


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