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EARTH SCIENCE

VIOLENT ORIGINS of
Did asteroid strikes during the earths youth spawn
the earliest fragments of todays landmasses?

By Sarah Simpson

KEY CONCEPTS
Asteroid collisions rocked
the earth for much more
of its early history than
previously thought.
New evidence reveals
that nine major strikes oc-
curred between 3.8 billion
and 2.5 billion years ago
the eon during which the
planets first continents
were coming to be.
A bold, new hypothesis
suggests these rogue space
rocks were not totally de-
structive; they might have
helped trigger the forma-
tion of continents.
The Editors
CONTINENTS

R oiling, incandescent magma


and boiling gases covered the
earth in the wake of its for-
mation 4.6 billion years ago. Regions
of this fiery sea eventually cooled
But recent fi ndings have turned the
spotlight toward a once heretical idea:
that large asteroid impacts played a
constructive role as well.
A basic assumption was that aster-
enough to crust over, leaving the plan- oid bombardments frequent during
ets first hard rocks floating like slag the earths infancy had all but pe-
on the white-hot liquid. But they were tered out by about 3.8 billion years
nothing more than a thin veneer. The ago. By then, the planet had cooled
thick roots of terra firma were much enough for nascent oceans to harbor
longer in the making. microscopic life. Major impacts since
Exactly how and how quickly that time were typically considered
continents arose and grew is a matter rare and utterly destructive. (Think
of ongoing debate. Scientific wisdom demise of the dinosaurs.)
DON DIXON

long held that the earths inner work- Recently, though, scientists have
ings alone drove continent formation. been forced to wrestle with the discov-

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 61
ery of an unexpected series of massive blows be- a continent is such a complicated process; it
tween 3.8 billion and 2.5 billion years ago, a requires building up a slab of crust so thick and
span of the earths youth known as the Archean buoyant that it can no longer sink back into the
eon. The crust-obliterating reputation of aster- earths hot interior. That quality is what makes
oids seems at odds with a hallmark of the todays continents so different from the crust
Archean: it was the most productive period of underlying the oceans. Relatively thin and dense,
continent formation in all of earth history. By iron-rich ocean crust sinks easily, most of it with-
some estimates, 65 percent of todays continental in a mere 200 million years of its formation. Con-
crust came into being during that time. tinental crust, on the other hand, is packed with
Attempting to reconcile this apparent conun- lower density rocks such as granite, which have
drum, geologists are scouring the ancient rock kept some ancient fragments afloat, like icebergs
record for clues about how these colossal colli- at sea, for nearly four billion years.
sions shaped the planet. One of these geologists The story of the earths first continent varies
Andrew Y. Glikson, a professor at the Australian from one textbook to another, but one common
National University in Canberra has been con- version unfolds something like this:
vinced by 40 years of fieldwork that extraterres- During brief reprieves from the heavy asteroid
trial impacts actually aided the growth of the bombardment following the planets birth, the
planets first continents, including ones with rem- earths natural tendency to cool caused the sur-
nants now preserved in the ancient cores of South face to crust over repeatedly. This crust was not
Africa and Western Australia. perfectly continuous; it consisted of several doz-
Many scientists cast Gliksons assertion a ten- en pieces that skidded across the ever churning
tative glance, arguing that direct evidence for magma. Like hot wax rising in a lava lamp,
what was happening on the ancient earth is ex- plumes of hot mantle rock rose up, cooled slight-
ceedingly rare and controversial. Yet computer ly as they moved across the surface, and then
simulations of the potential effects of large im- sank easily dragging those original, ultradense
pacts lend some intriguing support to his hypoth- crustal fragments down with them. Meanwhile
esis. It may be too early to overhaul the classic volcanoes spewing gases from the earths interior
view of the early evolution of continents, but even created a primitive atmosphere, and rain con-
skeptics agree it is time to consider the earthly densed out of the sky, forming shallow oceans
outcomes of these powerful forces from space. atop the thin, crusted magma.
The embryo of a continent formed, so contin-
Land, Ho! ues this storyline, when the heat from a rising
Scientists spent decades deciphering the origin of plume partially melted a patch of the dense crust
continents before the potential influence of before it could sink allowing lighter minerals,

DON DIXON
Archean asteroid impacts came into focus. These which have a lower melting point, to separate
efforts have always been tricky because creating out. More buoyant than the surrounding rock,
[SNAPSHOTS IN TIME]

4.6 billion years ago 4.5 billion years ago

INCANDESCENT HEAVY
MAGMA OCEAN BOMBARDMENT
As the earth condenses from The planet solidifies as it
the debris swirling within the loses heat. But blows by
solar nebula, it is a roiling ball massive asteroids, one
of magma and boiling gases. probably the size of Mars,
destroy nearly all of the
nascent crust.

62 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN J a n u a r y 2 0 10
this newly separated magma tended to rise up; spent months combing the dry, brushy, hillside
once hardened, this lighter rock was less likely to outcrops of both regions. Im a fi rm believer
By three billion
sink later on. that Barberton and Pilbara are one continent that years ago the
Repeated cycles of partial melting and separa- got split in two.
tion of lighter magma led eventually to the pro- Where on the globe the fi rst continent sat
earth had its
duction of granite. It is impossible to know the is unknown, but as the earths hot interior con- first bona fide
precise timing of this process, but at least one tinued churning, that landmass split apart
trace from the first 160 million years of the as others sprung up. A well-documented series
continent: a
earths infancy remains: tiny, 4.4-billion-year- of breakups and mergers of continents ensued, barren mound
old zircon crystals eroded from a primordial leading eventually to the modern arrangement.
granite and were later deposited within younger
of rock strewn
sedimentary rock formations in what is now Knowing Where to Look with volcanoes.
Australia [see A Cool Early Earth? by John W. The dance of crustal plates clearly explains the
Valley; Scientific American, October 2005]. transition of continents from youth into adult-
These traces of early granite were probably a hood. But what transpired beforehand is rife
minor component of the fi rst masses of rock to with uncertainty. That is why geologists turn to
grow thick enough to protrude above the early those ancient landforms in South Africa and
oceans. And they certainly would have been a far Australia for clues about continental nativity.
cry from todays continents, which cover 30 per- Compared with the cratons of other modern con-
cent of the planets surface and are on average 35 tinents, Kaapvaal and Pilbara have undergone
kilometers thick. Early protocontinents probably less metamorphism and remain some of the most
gained stature slowly, much as landmasses do to- well-preserved traces of Archean-aged crust. Of
day: collisions among them merged thickened particular interest within these cratons are green-
crust into larger masses, and hot mantle plumes stone belts rock formations that took shape
triggered surges of fresh magma from below. between 3.5 billion and 2.4 billion years ago,
By three billion years ago, most geologists right as the first continents were coming to be.
agree, the earth had its first bona fide continent: Since the 1970s most geologists have inter-
a barren, volcano-strewn mound of rock almost preted greenstone belts as ancient analogs to the
certainly smaller than present-day Australia. It is strings of volcanic islands that arise along the
even possible that ancient cores, or cratons, of overlapping edges of colliding crustal plates
present-day Australia and Africa were part of and later become part of a continental landmass.
that original continent. Western Australias Crustal collision continues over millions of years,
Pilbara craton and the Kaapvaal craton of South and the lower plate dives ever deeper into the
Africas scenic Barberton Mountain lands are earths hot interior, forming a deep trench known
stunningly similar geologically, notes geologist as a subduction zone. As the islands ride the sink-
Bruce M. Simonson of Oberlin College, who has ing plate toward the trench, these thicker parts

3.2 billion years ago 1.1 billion years ago

FLEDGLING FIRST
LANDMASSES SUPERCONTINENT
Partial melting and Collisions among crustal
amalgamation of older fragments merge fledgling
crustal fragments have landmasses into the
produced the first bona earths first well-known
fi de continent. Large supercontinent, Rodinia.
impacts still occur, though
less frequently.

w w w. S c i e n t i f i c A m e r i c a n . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 63
are thrust onto the side of a looming landmass; of hollow, glasslike beads. On closer inspection,
Clearly, the rather than being pulled down with their parent these sand-size spheres appeared nearly identical
early Archean crust, they are scraped right off the top. The Si- to the so-called impact spherules that became
erra Nevada and other mountain ranges of the some of the strongest evidence of an asteroid
impacts were western U.S. glommed onto western North striking the planet 65 million years ago, ending
not something America in this way. the reign of the dinosaurs. These Barberton
Yet this modern style of continental growth spherules, dated to 3.2 billion years ago plus
the planet cannot explain all the geologic features seen in another spherule bed found in Australias
took lightly. the greenstone belts, Glikson notes. When Pilbara craton became the first evidence that
studying the South African and Australian belts large extraterrestrial objects smashed into the
in detail years ago, he found that the belts old- earth during the Archean.
est segments those between three billion and Additional discoveries followed. Knowing
3.5 billion years old all appeared to have accu- that the spherule layer from the dino-killing im-
mulated vertically, as eroded material was laid pact showed up around the globe, Lowe and By-
down in layers between dome-shaped bodies of erly soon correlated the Australian bed with a
granite-forming magma pushing up from be- 3.5-billion-year-old impact they found in Bar-
low. These formations showed none of subduc- berton. They also discovered two more 3.2-
tions telltale signs: sediments and volcanic ma- billion-year-old spherule beds in South Africa.
terial that accrued horizontally as two crustal Simonson, too, ran across unexpected spherule
fragments collided. beds during his explorations of iron formations
A dearth of evidence for subduction is not sur- in the Pilbara region in the early 1990s, extend-
prising. Most researchers agree that plate tecton- ing the surprising series of asteroid strikes just
ics was probably less efficient in the early beyond the end of the Archean eon, 2.5 billion

BRUCE M. SIMONSON Oberlin College (spherules); SCOTT HASSLER Oberlin College (Pilabara region); DON LOWE Stanford University (Barberton Mountains); CAT WILSON (maps)
Archean, if it operated at all. The planet was hot- years ago.
ter then, and so less vigorous was the lava lamp Inspecting the Archean greenstone belts with
like convection that drives plate motion. Still, ancient impacts in mind gave these geologists ad-
something swift must have taken a hand in the ditional insight into the asteroids and their after-
formation of the oldest parts of the Archean math. From the magnesium- and iron-rich com-
belts, Glikson says. The specific ages of various position of the spherules, for example, Lowe and
rocks within them suggest that massive granite Byerly deduced that the errant space rocks most
bodies were emplaced in a series of abrupt, well- likely struck the dense rock of an ocean basin
defined episodes. But if subduction was not the probably a fair distance away from the regions
driving force, what was? where the preserved spherules landed. Signs of
These difficulties led Glikson to seek new ex- globe-sweeping tsunamis that accompany each
planations for what shaped the Archean earth. of the spherule beds they have uncovered in South
He knew that one factor most geologists had ig- Africa further corroborate that the asteroids
nored was the potential effect of collisions by smashed into an ocean rather than an exposed
asteroids and comets. Asteroid bombardment landmass, they say.
peaked around 3.9 billion years ago, yet studies Glikson noted that the timing of some strikes
of moon craters indicate large impacts continued coincides with the formation of an abundant
until about 3.2 billion years ago. Could those lat- supply of angular boulders, including blocks up
er bombardments have been involved? The first to 250 meters across, in the Pilbara region. Such
step in finding out would be identifying good ev- jumbled blocks are the shattered result of the rise
idence of such strikes on the earth. Had this evi- and collapse of the earths surface along major
dence been destroyed, or were geologists looking earthquake faults in the area. Indeed, intense
at it without recognizing it? swarms of strong earthquakes would be one of
the most immediate effects of a large asteroid
Solid Blows impact.
A pair of American geologists answered the lat- Clearly, the early Archean impacts were not
ter question in 1986. During their annual re- something the planet took lightly. Lowe and By-
search excursions to the greenstone belt in the erly estimated their asteroids were big: between
Barberton Mountains, Donald R. Lowe of Stan- 20 and 50 kilometers in diameter, based on the
ford University and Gary R. Byerly of Louisiana distribution of spherules and other comparisons
State University had stumbled across a thin layer with the ejecta from younger impacts. (For com-
of ancient ocean sediment containing hundreds parison, best estimates suggest that the errant as-

64 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN J a n u a r y 2 0 10
S Sand-size spheres called impact
spherules condensed from a cloud of
hot, vaporized rock kicked up during
an asteroid collision with the earth
2.5 billion years ago. Winds dispersed
this rock vapor around the globe, and
as it cooled, it condensed as droplets
that solidified and fell to earth, becom-
ing entrained in layers of ancient
seafloor sediment now exposed on
land in northwestern Australia.

w w w. S c i e n t i f i c A m e r i c a n . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 65

1 SECONDS BEFORE IMPACT ...
Doomed islands

Approaching
asteroid

Ocean crust

Protocontinent

Mantle Rising mantle plume INNER WORKINGS: An approaching asteroid,


some 50 kilometers across, poses certain
doom for volcanic islands that built up
slowly above a rising mantle plume.

2 100 YEARS AFTER THE IMPACT ...

Impact site
(sea of molten rock)

Shattered rock

Stifled mantle plume PURE DESTRUCTION: The asteroid shatters or


melts all rock within a 500-kilometer
radius, leaving behind a fiery sea of mag-
ma that stifles the plume temporarily.

3 200,000 YEARS LATER ...

New islands

Impact site
(solidified)

Field of
supervolcanoes

New, dense crust


NEW LAND: A deflected plume fuels mas-
sive supervolcanoes atop a nearby proto-
continent and adds new, dense crust to
Deflected mantle plume
the base; another generates new islands.
66
66 SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN J a n u a r y 2 0 10
10
teroid that killed the dinosaurs was no more than Simonson suggests. But if the early Archean
15 kilometers wide.) Such indications of the as- impacts were truly double that size, they could
teroids size fueled Gliksons notion that they have left a more lasting impression. In particu-
could have played a role in continent formation. lar, impacts as large as 50 kilometers in diameter
He soon began drawing attention to other abrupt could indeed shift patterns of heat flow inside
changes in the rock record right around the time the earth, says geophysicist Jay Melosh of Pur-
of what he sees as a particularly illuminating trio due University. Based on computer simulations
of impacts: those Lowe and Byerly found clus- of hypothetical impacts that he and his col-
tered in South African sediments deposited leagues have developed for other purposes,
around 3.2 billion years ago. Melosh describes how a sufficiently large early
In a recent technical paper, Glikson observes Archean asteroid impact might actually help a
that the timing of these impacts coincides with continent bulk up [see box on opposite page].
major signs that these regions were rising above In this hypothetical scenario, Melosh assumes
sea level for the first time presumably forming that an asteroid 50 kilometers wide smacks into
a new continental landmass. Specifically, the an ocean basin at about 20 kilometers per sec-
rock record laid down before the impacts con- ond. Such an impact does not excavate a crater; DENSITY MATTERS: Basalt (top) is
sists of thick layers of ocean crust and types of instead it generates an enormous sea of molten the main rock type making up
sediments that form on the seafloor. During the rock some 500 kilometers across and nearly as ocean basins. Less-dense gran-
period encompassing the asteroid strikes, those deep. If such an asteroid-induced magma lake ite (bottom) is a prime compo-
basalt layers are deformed, uplifted and eroded forms atop a mantle plume, its intense heat stifles nent of continents. Its buoyancy
kinds of upheaval easily attributable to the shock the rising plume and then deflects it to surround- keeps continents afloat while
of asteroid collisions, he explains. In contrast, all ing regions. A plume deflected underneath dense ocean floor sinks readily into
the earths hot interior.
the rocks formed after the time of the impact trio ocean crust might generate new islands that
KEVIN HAND (illustration on opposite page), SOURCE: JAY MELOSH Purdue University; PETER SCOONES Getty Images (basalt); ERICH SCHREMPP Photo Researchers, Inc. (granite)

represent the eroded remnants of rocks that could might much later find their way to a subduction
have formed only on land. This change suggests zone and thicken a growing continent from the
that not long after the asteroid strikes, great forc- side. Or if the deflected plume happened to rise
es within the earth raised the crust above the sur- below a protocontinent already containing less
face of the ocean, granites and other continental- dense rock, the new heat source might be suffi-
type rocks formed, and they eventually eroded. cient to produce fresh upward surges of granitic
Glikson further suggests that the asteroid magma such as those located in the greenstone
strikes themselves were the source of this upheav- belts of Pilbara and Kaapvaal, thereby thicken-
al. Most critical to his argument are the great ing the continent from below.
masses of granite-forming magmas that intruded But this scenario is rife with uncertainty,
into both the Pilbara and Kaapvaal regions from Melosh warns. Proving that a given asteroid de-
below about 3.2 billion years ago. The similar flected mantle plumes to create specific continen-
timing of the asteroid impacts and the formation tal embryos found in the rock record is virtually
of this new magma was more than a mere coin- impossible. The craters the asteroids generated
cidence, Glikson argues; they were cause and ef-
fect. He asserts that their planet-altering forces
have long since been subducted or eroded away.
And even if a plume was indeed responsible for
MORE TO
caused major uplift of earlier nascent continents the production of the granite, who is to say it was
EXPLORE
and intrusion of granitic magmas, both testify- not already rising beneath a protocontinent even The Evolution of Continental
Crust. S. Ross Taylor and Scott M.
ing to the violent origin of at least some parts of before the asteroid hit?
McLennan in Scientific American,
continental crust. The critical question is: What In the end, Glikson has illuminated an amaz- Vol. 274, No. 1, pages 7681;
heating process generated the magma? Gliksons ing coincidence in timing between the early January 1996.
answer: the disruptive force of the 3.2-billion- Archean asteroid strikes and insurgence of new
year-old asteroid impacts shifted mantle convec- magma in ancient fragments of todays conti- Field Evidence of Eros-Scale
Asteroids and Impact Forcing of
tion patterns, triggering new mantle plumes that nents and he has tied them together with a cred-
Precambrian Geodynamic Epi-
rose up and heated the crust from below. ible mechanism for how a cosmic strike could ac- sodes, Kaapvaal (South Africa)
tually lead to the production of such magma. and Pilbara (Western Australia)
Constructive Criticism Its a very possible hypothesis of what might Cratons. Andrew Y. Glikson in Earth
The plausibility of Gliksons assertion hinges in have happened, Lowe says. But its only one in- and Planetary Science Letters, Vol.
267, pages 558570; 2008.
great part on the size of the errant asteroid. From terpretation. Undoubtedly, though, planet-al-
the perspective of the earths inner workings, a tering impacts interrupted the earths internal Explore the aftermath of asteroid
rock the size of the dino-killing asteroid would dynamics and their violence may not have been impacts at www.lpl.arizona.edu/
be hardly more than a bug on the windshield, entirely destructive. impacteffects

w w w. S c i e n t i f i c A m e r i c a n . c o m SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN 67