RIVERSIDE, Calif. Geologists at the University of California, Riverside have found chemical evidence in 2.6-billion-year-old rocks that indicates that Earth's ancient oceans were oxygen-free and, surprisingly, contained abundant hydrogen sulfide in some areas.
"We are the first to show that ample hydrogen sulfide in the ocean was possible this early in Earth's history," said Timothy Lyons, a professor of biogeochemistry and the senior investigator in the study, which appears in the February issue of Geology. "This surprising finding adds to growing evidence showing that ancient ocean chemistry was far more complex than previously imagined and likely influenced life's evolution on Earth in unexpected ways such as, by delaying the appearance and proliferation of some key groups of organisms."
Ordinarily, hydrogen sulfide in the ocean is tied to the presence of oxygen in the atmosphere. Even small amounts of oxygen favor continental weathering of rocks, resulting in sulfate, which in turn gets transported to the ocean by rivers. Bacteria then convert this sulfate into hydrogen sulfide.
How then did the ancient oceans contain hydrogen sulfide in the near absence of oxygen, as the 2.6-million-year-old rocks indicate? The UC Riverside-led team explains that sulfate delivery in an oxygen-free environment can also occur in sufficient amounts via volcanic sources, with bacteria processing the sulfate into hydrogen sulfide.
Specifically, Lyons and colleagues examined rocks rich in pyrite an iron sulfide mineral commonly known as fool's gold that date back to the Archean eon of geologic history (3.9 to 2.5 billion years ago) and typify very low-oxygen environments. Found in Western Australia, these rocks have preserved chemical signatures that constitute some of the best records of the very early evolutionary history of life on the planet.
The rocks formed
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University of California - Riverside