MADISON The strikingly banded rocks scattered across the upper Midwest and elsewhere throughout the world are actually ambassadors from the past, offering clues to the environment of the early Earth more than 2 billion years ago.
Called banded iron formations or BIFs, these ancient rocks formed between 3.8 and 1.7 billion years ago at what was then the bottom of the ocean. The stripes represent alternating layers of silica-rich chert and iron-rich minerals like hematite and magnetite.
First mined as a major iron source for modern industrialization, BIFs are also a rich source of information about the geochemical conditions that existed on Earth when the rocks were made. However, interpreting their clues requires understanding how the bands formed, a topic that has been controversial for decades, says Huifang Xu, a geology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
A study appearing today (Oct. 11) as an advance online publication in Nature Geoscience offers a new picture of how these colorful bands developed and what they reveal about the composition of the early ocean floor, seawater, and atmosphere during the evolution of the Earth.
Previous hypotheses about band formation involved seasonal fluctuations, temperature shifts, or periodic blooms of microorganisms, all of which left many open questions about how BIFs dominated the global marine landscape for two billion years and why they abruptly disappeared 1.7 billion years ago.
With Yifeng Wang of Sandia National Laboratories, Enrique Merino of Indiana University and UW-Madison postdoc Hiromi Konishi, Xu developed a BIF formation model that offers a more complete picture of the environment at the time, including interactions between rocks, water, and air.
"They are all connected," Xu explains. "The lithosphere affects the hydrosphere, the hydrosphere affects the atmosphere, and all those eventually affect the biosphere on the early
|Contact: Huifang Xu|
University of Wisconsin-Madison