Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Plate Tectonics 4 Billion Years Old

Low heat flow inferred from >4 Gyr zircons suggests Hadean plate boundary interactions. 2008. M. Hopkins et al. Nature 456: 493-496.

From the press release:
A new picture of the early Earth is emerging, including the surprising finding that plate tectonics may have started more than 4 billion years ago — much earlier than scientists had believed.
"We are proposing that there was plate-tectonic activity in the first 500 million years of Earth's history," said geochemistry professor Mark Harrison.

"Unlike the longstanding myth of a hellish, dry, desolate early Earth with no continents, it looks like as soon as the Earth formed, it fell into the same dynamic regime that continues today," Harrison said. "Plate tectonics was inevitable, life was inevitable. In the early Earth, there appear to have been oceans; there could have been life — completely contradictory to the cartoonish story we had been telling ourselves."

The research is based on their analysis of ancient mineral grains known as zircons found inside molten rocks, or magmas, from Western Australia that are about 3 billion years old. The analysis determined that some of the zircons found in the magmas were more than 4 billion years old. They were also found to have been formed in a region with heat flow far lower than the global average at that time.

"The global average heat flow in the Earth's first 500 million years was thought to be about 200 to 300 milliwatts per meter squared," Hopkins said. "Our zircons are indicating a heat flow of just 75 milliwatts per meter squared — the figure one would expect to find in subduction zones, where two plates converge, with one moving underneath the other."

Evidence for water on Earth during the planet's first 500 million years is now overwhelming, according to Harrison. "You don't have plate tectonics on a dry planet," he said.