Lost Continent Of Zealandia: Scientists Return From Expedition To Sunken Land

After a nine-week voyage to study the lost, submerged continent of Zealandia in the South Pacific, a team of 32 scientists from 12 countries has arrived in Hobart, Tasmania, aboard the research vessel JOIDES Resolution.

Researchers affiliated with the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) mounted the expedition to explore Zealandia. IODP is a collaboration of scientists from 23 countries; the organization coordinates voyages to study the history of the Earth recorded in sediments and rocks beneath the seafloor.

“Zealandia, a sunken continent long lost beneath the oceans, is giving up its 60 million-year-old secrets through scientific ocean drilling,” said Jamie Allan, program director in the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which supports IODP.

“This expedition offered insights into Earth’s history, ranging from mountain-building in New Zealand to the shifting movements of Earth’s tectonic plates to changes in ocean circulation and global climate,” Allan said.

Earlier this year, Zealandia was confirmed as Earth’s seventh continent, but little is known about it because it’s submerged more than a kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) under the sea. Until now, the region has been sparsely surveyed and sampled.

Expedition scientists drilled deep into the seabed at six sites in water depths of more than 1,250 meters (4,101 feet). They collected 2,500 meters (8,202 feet) of sediment cores from layers that record how the geography, volcanism and climate of Zealandia have changed over the last 70 million years.

According to expedition co-chief scientist Gerald Dickens of Rice University in the U.S., significant new fossil discoveries were made. They prove that Zealandia was not always as deep beneath the waves as it is today.

“More than 8,000 specimens were studied, and several hundred fossil species were identified,” said Dickens.

“The discovery of microscopic shells of organisms that lived in warm shallow seas, and of spores and pollen from land plants, reveal that the geography and climate of Zealandia were dramatically different in the past.”

The new discoveries show that the formation 40 to 50 million years ago of the “Pacific Ring of Fire,” an active seafloor zone along the perimeter of the Pacific Ocean, caused dramatic changes in ocean depth and volcanic activity and buckled the seabed of Zealandia, according to Dickens.

Expedition co-chief scientist Rupert Sutherland of Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand said researchers had believed that Zealandia was submerged when it separated from Australia and Antarctica about 80 million years ago.

“That is still probably accurate, but it is now clear that dramatic later events shaped the continent we explored on this voyage,” Sutherland said.

“Big geographic changes across northern Zealandia, which is about the same size as India, have implications for understanding questions such as how plants and animals dispersed and evolved in the South Pacific.

“The discovery of past land and shallow seas now provides an explanation. There were pathways for animals and plants to move along.”

Studies of the sediment cores obtained during the expedition will focus on understanding how Earth’s tectonic plates move and how the global climate system works. Records of Zealandia’s history, expedition scientists said, will provide a sensitive test for computer models used to predict future changes in climate.

Geologists Study The Drying Up Of The Mediterranean Sea 5.96 Million Years Ago

We already know that climate change influences such Earth processes as erosion and fluctuations in sea levels. But do surface processes in turn have an influence on volcanic activity? This was the question raised by geologists from the University of Geneva (UNIGE, Switzerland) and international collaborators. The researchers analysed volcanic data from the Messinian salinity crisis in the Mediterranean Sea, when the Strait of Gibraltar was blocked and the Mediterranean temporarily isolated from the Atlantic. After observing a sharp rise in volcanic activity during this period, and testing various scenarios, the geologists concluded that the increase in magmatic activity could only be explained by the almost total drying out of the Mediterranean. These results, published in Nature Geoscience, reveal the influence of surface processes, largely controlled by climate, on volcanic activity.

It is known that the Strait of Gibraltar was temporarily shut during the Messinian Era (more precisely, from 5.96 to 5.33 million years ago) and that the Mediterranean Sea was isolated from the Atlantic. In fact, as far back as the 1970s, scientists have found layers of salt several hundred metres thick on the seabed. The only explanation is that there was very limited connection between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The scientists also discovered huge underwater canyons dating back to the same period, hollowed out by rivers running over land that is now submerged, suggesting that the sea level was much lower at the time. This also points to the massive drying up of the Mediterranean with enormous geographical and climatic disruption across the entire basin. This hypothesis, however, continues to be a source of debate.

Nevertheless, a team of UNIGE-led geologists has provided new evidence of the Mediterranean’s drying up and the forcing of surface processes on magmatic activity. “We understand that what happens at the Earth’s surface, such as a sudden sea level lowering, causes the pressure to change at depth and has an effect on magma production,” says Pietro Sternai, researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences in UNIGE’s Science Faculty. Given that the salinity crisis was capable of generating these changes in pressure, the geologists, working on the hypothesis that the Mediterranean dried out, studied the changes in volcanic activity during this period.

When a volcano erupts, the magma cools on the Earth’s surface and the minerals crystallise. Based on these silent witnesses of volcanic activity, the scientists were able to establish that there were 13 eruptions around the Mediterranean between 5.9 and 5.3 million years ago. This is over twice the average activity, which is around 4.5 eruptions over a longer time length encompassing the salinity crisis. Why is the figure so high? “The single logical explanation,” suggests Sternai, “is the hypothesis that the sea dried out, since this is the only event powerful enough to alter the Earth’s pressure and magmatic production over the entire Mediterranean.”

The geologists used numerical models to test the hypothesis that the Mediterranean dried up. They reproduced the history of the charging and discharging of the weight of water and sediment in the Mediterranean as it was drying out. Then they calculated the changes in pressure at depth and the impact on magma production.

Two scenarios were examined: The first factored in the salinity crisis with drastic lowering of the sea level, and the second excluded the drawdown. “The simulations showed that the only way to account for the proven increase in volcanic activity was that the level (and thus the weight) of the Mediterranean Sea dropped by about two kilometres,” explains Sternai. “I leave it to you to imagine what the landscape looked like.”

In addition to providing further evidence of the drying out of the Mediterranean, the research also demonstrates the impact of climate change on the deep Earth. Climate change influences magmatic production, in particular via the effects on erosion and hydrology, which modify the pressure exerted at the Earth’s surface on the deep layers. Although we have been aware of the impact of volcanism on the climate for quite some time, the results presented in the study have disclosed that the opposite is also possible. “This pioneering work opens up new perspectives for interdisciplinary studies about the coupling between the solid Earth and the fluid Earth, and—for example—involving volcanologists, geomorphologists and climatologists,” concludes Sternai.

Large Meteorite Impacts Drove Plate-Tectonic Processes On The Early Earth

An international study led by researchers at Macquarie University has uncovered the ways in which giant meteorite impacts may have helped to kick-start our planet’s global tectonic processes and magnetic field. The study, being published in the premier journal Nature Geoscience, explores the effect of meteorite bombardment, in geodynamic simulations of the early Earth.

“Our results indicate that giant meteorite impacts in the past could have triggered events where the solid outer section of the Earth sinks into the deeper mantle at ocean trenches – a process known as subduction. This would have effectively recycled large portions of the Earth’s surface, drastically changing the geography of the planet,” explained lead author Associate Professor Craig O’Neill from Macquarie University.

“Large impact events may have also kick-started the Earth’s magnetic field by triggering the planet’s cold outer crust to suddenly move downward and interact with the Earth’s outer core. This affects convection in the core, and thus the geodynamo – the process that creates the Earth’s magnetic field,” he added.

To date, there is still not clear evidence to show whether plate tectonics operated in Earth’s early history, with the first 500 million years of our planet’s life, called the Hadean, often being dubbed as Earth’s geological dark ages. The little crust that has been preserved from this elusive period – mostly single grains of a mineral called zircon – has been used to argue for early tectonic activity. However, this is at odds with geochemical data and geodynamic simulations, which suggest that the Earth may instead have had a motionless ‘lid’ on its surface – in contrast to the actively moving combination of plates we see today.

“We know that meteorite impacts had a huge effect on the inner solar system at this time,” says Associate Professor O’Neill, “you only need to look at the Moon to see that. What isn’t clear was how our own impact history might have affected the planet’s evolution.”

“We’ve seen evidence of some geological activity that suggests something like subduction acted on the early Earth – but this is hard to reconcile with other geodynamic simulations. But if we consider Earth as part of an evolving early solar system, as opposed to only looking at the planet in isolation, then this evolution starts to make more sense,” he added.

O’Neill also notes that while the magnetic field for much of Earth’s ancient history has been quite low, but recent work has suggested field strengths up to present-day values existed between around 4.0-4.1 billion years ago.
“This is a really important age in the inner solar system. Impacting studies have suggested a big disturbance in the asteroid populations at this time, with perhaps a big upswing in impacts on the Earth. Our simulations show that larger amounts of meteorite collisions with the planet around this time could have driven the subduction process, explaining the formation of many zircons around this period, as well as the increase in magnetic field strength.”

Overall, the study adds evidence towards the fact that meteorite impacts likely had a role in the formation of the Earth that we know today.

“This work shows there is a strong connection between impacts and geophysical evolution capable of drastically altering a planet’s evolution,” said coauthor Dr Simone Marchi from the Southwest Research Institute in the USA.

“One has to wonder, how much of the current Earth, and other terrestrial planets, is the result of collisions that took place eons ago?” Dr Marchi concluded.

Changes In Earth’s Crust Caused Oxygen To Fill The Atmosphere

Scientists have long wondered how Earth’s atmosphere filled with oxygen. UBC geologist Matthijs Smit and research partner Klaus Mezger may have found the answer in continental rocks that are billions of years old.

“Oxygenation was waiting to happen,” said Smit. “All it may have needed was for the continents to mature.”

Earth’s early atmosphere and oceans were devoid of free oxygen, even though tiny cyanobacteria were producing the gas as a byproduct of photosynthesis. Free oxygen is oxygen that isn’t combined with other elements such as carbon or nitrogen, and aerobic organisms need it to live. A change occurred about three billion years ago, when small regions containing free oxygen began to appear in the oceans. Then, about 2.4 billion years ago, oxygen in the atmosphere suddenly increased by about 10,000 times in just 200 million years. This period, known as the Great Oxidation Event, changed chemical reactions on the surface of the Earth completely.

Smit, a professor in UBC’s department of earth, ocean & atmospheric sciences, and colleague, professor Klaus Mezger of the University of Bern, were aware that the composition of continents also changed during this period. They set out to find a link, looking closely at records detailing the geochemistry of shales and igneous rock types from around the world — more than 48,000 rocks dating back billions of years.

“It turned out that a staggering change occurred in the composition of continents at the same time free oxygen was starting to accumulate in the oceans,” Smit said.

Before oxygenation, continents were composed of rocks rich in magnesium and low in silica — similar to what can be found today in places like Iceland and the Faroe Islands. But more importantly, those rocks contained a mineral called olivine. When olivine comes into contact with water, it initiates chemical reactions that consume oxygen and lock it up. That is likely what happened to the oxygen produced by cyanobacteria early in Earth’s history.

However, as the continental crust evolved to a composition more like today’s, olivine virtually disappeared. Without that mineral to react with water and consume oxygen, the gas was finally allowed to accumulate. Oceans eventually became saturated, and oxygen crossed into the atmosphere.

“It really appears to have been the starting point for life diversification as we know it,” Smit said. “After that change, the Earth became much more habitable and suitable for the evolution of complex life, but that needed some trigger mechanism, and that’s what we may have found.”

As for what caused the composition of continents to change, that is the subject of ongoing study. Smit notes that modern plate tectonics began at around the same time, and many scientists theorize that there is a connection.

Smit and Mezger published their findings today in the journal Nature Geoscience. The research was funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

Measuring A Crucial Mineral In The Mantle

University of Delaware professor Jessica Warren and colleagues from Stanford University, Oxford University and University of Pennsylvania, reported new data that material size-effects matter in plate tectonics.

Plate tectonics, the way the Earth’s plates move apart and come back together, has been used since the 1960s to explain the location of volcanoes and earthquakes.

The study (link here) published Wednesday, Sept. 13 in the American Association for the Advancement of Science journal Science Advances, resolves 40 years of disagreement in datasets about the strength of olivine, the most abundant mineral found in the upper 250 miles or so of the Earth, known as the mantle.

“Measuring the strength of olivine is critical to understanding how strong tectonic plates are, which, in turn, matters to how plates break and create subduction zones like those along the Cascadia plate, which runs down the west coast of Canada to the west coast of the United States,” said Warren, a geologist in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment. It’s also important for understanding how plates move around over the million-year time scales.

The paper demonstrated that olivine’s strength is size-sensitive and that olivine is stronger the smaller the volume that is measured, something that has been known in materials science for many metals and ceramics, but has not been studied in a geological material before.

Warren explained that the problem with studying rocks on the earth’s surface is that they are no longer subjected to the high pressures found inside the earth that cause materials to flow (like ice in a glacier). Recreating these elevated pressures in the laboratory is difficult, making it hard for scientists to study material strength in the lab.

The researchers used a technique, called instrumented nanoindentation, to measure olivine’s strength. The technique allowed them to recreate pressure conditions similar to those inside the earth by pressing a diamond tip that was carefully machined to a specific geometry into the olivine crystal to measure the material’s response. The diamond tips ranged in size from 5 to 20 microns (0.000001 meter). The researchers performed hundreds of indentation tests on tiny olivine crystals less than a centimeter square and found that the olivine crystal became weaker as the size of the diamond tip increased.

To validate this size-effect, the researchers reviewed the available literature data on the strength of olivine to determine the sizes and areas that had been tested in previous experiments dating to the late 1970s. The size-effect showed up in the old data, too.

“The reason 40 years’ worth of data don’t agree from one experiment to the next is because scientists were measuring different sizes or areas of olivine,” Warren said. “But if you plot the same information as a function of the sample size, the datasets, in fact agree, and display the same general trend — the larger the indentation in the material tested, the weaker the olivine becomes.”

Now that Warren and her colleagues understand this size-effect, they are turning their attention to how temperature affects the strength of olivine, and more broadly, on where tectonic plates might break and give rise to potential subduction zones.

Temperatures inside the earth are much hotter than on the surface and can range from 1,470 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit (800 to 1,200 degrees Celsius).

The team also will consider what role water plays in the structure of olivine minerals and rocks in the earth. According to Warren, current estimates suggest the earth contains the equivalent of 50 percent to 4 times the amount of water found in the global ocean.

“When geologists look at how faults buckle and deform, it is at a very small length scale where conditions in size effect really matter, just like our olivine tests in the laboratory,” Warren said. “But this size effect disappears when you get to a large enough length scale on tectonic plates, so we need to consider other things like when temperature and water begin to play a role.”

More Than Expected Hidden Beneath Andean Plateau

Seismologists investigating how Earth forms new continental crust have compiled more than 20 years of seismic data from a wide swath of South America’s Andean Plateau and determined that processes there have produced far more continental rock than previously believed.

“When crust from an oceanic tectonic plate plunges beneath a continental tectonic plate, as it does beneath the Andean Plateau, it brings water with it and partially melts the mantle, the layer below Earth’s crust,” said Rice University’s Jonathan Delph, co-author of the new study published online this week in Scientific Reports. “The less dense melt rises, and one of two things happens: It either stalls in the crust to crystallize in formations called plutons or reaches the surface through volcanic eruptions.”

Delph, a Wiess Postdoctoral Research Associate in Rice’s Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Science, said the findings suggest that mountain-forming regions like the Andean Plateau, which geologists refer to as “orogenic plateaus,” could produce much larger volumes of continental rock in less time than previously believed.

Study lead author Kevin Ward, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Utah, said, “When we compared the amount of trapped plutonic rock beneath the plateau with the amount of erupted volcanic rock at the surface, we found the ratio was almost 30:1. That means 30 times more melt gets stuck in the crust than is erupted, which is about six times higher than what’s generally believed to be the average. That’s a tremendous amount of new material that has been added to the crust over a relatively short time period.”

The Andean Plateau covers much of Bolivia and parts of Peru, Chile and Argentina. Its average height is more than 12,000 feet, and though it is smaller than Asia’s Tibetan Plateau, different geologic processes created the Andean Plateau. The mountain-building forces at work in the Andean plateau are believed to be similar to those that worked along the western coast of the U.S. some 50 million years ago, and Delph said it’s possible that similar forces were at work along the coastlines of continents throughout Earth’s history.

Most of the rocks that form Earth’s crust initially came from partial melts of the mantle. If the melt erupts quickly, it forms basalt, which makes up the crust beneath the oceans on Earth; but there are still questions about how continental crust, which is more buoyant than oceanic crust, is formed. Delph said he and Ward began their research in 2016 as they were completing their Ph.D.s at the University of Arizona. The pair spent several months combining public datasets from seismic experiments by several U.S. and German institutions. Seismic energy travels through different types of rock at different speeds, and by combining datasets that covered a 500-mile-wide swath of the Andean Plateau, Ward and Delph were able to resolve large plutonic volumes that had previously been seen only in pieces.

Over the past 11 million years, volcanoes have erupted thousands of cubic miles’ worth of material over much of the Andean Plateau. Ward and Delph calculated their plutonic-to-volcanic ratio by comparing the volume of regions where seismic waves travel extremely slowly beneath volcanically active regions, indicating some melt is present, with the volume of rock deposited on the surface by volcanoes.

“Orogenic oceanic-continental subduction zones have been common as long as modern plate tectonics have been active,” Delph said. “Our findings suggest that processes similar to those we observe in the Andes, along with the formation of supercontinents, could have been a significant contributor to the episodic formation of buoyant continental crust.”

Ancient Earth’s Hot Interior Created ‘Graveyard’ Of Continental Slabs

Plate tectonics has shaped the Earth’s surface for billions of years: Continents and oceanic crust have pushed and pulled on each other, continually rearranging the planet’s façade. As two massive plates collide, one can give way and slide under the other in a process called subduction. The subducted slab then slips down through the Earth’s viscous mantle, like a flat stone through a pool of honey.

For the most part, today’s subducting slabs can only sink so far, to about 670 kilometers below the surface, before the mantle’s makeup turns from a honey-like consistency, to that of paste — too dense for most slabs to penetrate further. Scientists have suspected that this density filter existed in the mantle for most of Earth’s history.

Now, however, geologists at MIT have found that this density boundary was much less pronounced in the ancient Earth’s mantle, 3 billion years ago. In a paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the researchers note that the ancient Earth harbored a mantle that was as much as 200 degrees Celsius hotter than it is today — temperatures that may have brewed up more uniform, less dense material throughout the entire mantle layer.

The researchers also found that, compared with today’s rocky material, the ancient crust was composed of much denser stuff, enriched in iron and magnesium. The combination of a hotter mantle and denser rocks likely caused subducting plates to sink all the way to the bottom of the mantle, 2,800 kilometers below the surface, forming a “graveyard” of slabs atop the Earth’s core.

Their results paint a very different picture of subduction than what occurs today, and suggests that the Earth’s ancient mantle was much more efficient in drawing down pieces of the planet’s crust.

“We find that around 3 billion years ago, subducted slabs would have remained more dense than the surrounding mantle, even in the transition zone, and there’s no reason from a buoyancy standpoint why slabs should get stuck there. Instead, they should always sink through, which is a much less common case today,” says lead author Benjamin Klein, a graduate student in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences (EAPS). “This seems to suggest there was a big change going back in Earth’s history in terms of how mantle convection and plate tectonic processes would have happened.”

Klein’s co-authors are Oliver Jagoutz, associate professor in EAPS, and Mark Behn of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Temperature difference

“There’s this open question as to when plate tectonics really started in Earth’s history,” Klein says. “There’s general consensus that it was probably going on back at least 3 billion years ago. This is also when most models suggest the Earth was at its hottest.”

Around 3 billion years ago, the mantle was probably about 150-200 C warmer than it is today. Klein, Jagoutz, and Behn investigated whether hotter temperatures in the Earth’s interior made a difference in how tectonic plates, once subducted, were transported through the mantle.

“Our work started as this thought experiment to say, if we know temperatures were much hotter, how might that have modulated what the tectonics looked like, without changing it wholesale?” Klein says. “Because the debate before was this binary argument: Either there was plate tectonics, or there wasn’t, and we’re suggesting there’s more room in between.”

A “density flip”

The team carried out its analysis, making the assumption that plate tectonics was indeed shaping the Earth’s surface 3 billion years ago. They looked to compare the density of subducting slabs at that time with the density of the surrounding mantle, the difference of which would determine how far slabs would have sunk.

To estimate the density of ancient slabs, Klein compiled a large dataset of more than 1,400 previously analyzed samples of both modern rocks and komatiites — classic rock types that were around 3 billion years ago but are no longer produced today. These rocks contain a higher amount of dense iron and magnesium compared to today’s oceanic crust. Klein used the composition of each rock sample to calculate the density of a typical subducting slab, for both the modern day and 3 billion years ago.

He then estimated the average temperature of a modern versus an ancient subducting slab, relative to the temperature of the surrounding mantle. He reasoned that the distance a slab sinks depends on not only its density but also its temperature relative to the mantle: The colder an object is relative to its surroundings, the faster and further it should sink.

The team used a thermodynamic model to determine the density profile of each subducting slab, or how its density changes as it sinks through the mantle, given the mantle’s temperature, which they took from others’ estimates and a model of the slab’s temperature. From these calculations, they determined the depth at which each slab would become less dense than the surrounding mantle.

At this point, they hypothesized that a “density flip” should occur, such that a slab should not be able to sink past this boundary.

“There seems to be this critical filter and control on the movement of slabs and therefore convection of the mantle,” Klein says.

A final resting place

The team found that their estimates for where this boundary occurs in the modern mantle — about 670 kilometers below the surface — agreed with actual measurements taken of this transition zone today, confirming that their method may also accurately estimate the ancient Earth.

“Today, when slabs enter the mantle, they are denser than the ambient mantle in the upper and lower mantle, but in this transition zone, the densities flip,” Klein says. “So within this small layer, the slabs are less dense than the mantle, and are happy to stay there, almost floating and stagnant.”

For the ancient Earth, 3 billion years ago, the researchers found that, because the ancient mantle was so much hotter than today, and the slabs much denser, a density flip would not have occurred. Instead, subducting slabs would have sunk straight to the bottom of the mantle, establishing their final resting place just above the Earth’s core.

Jagoutz says the results suggest that sometime between 3 billion years ago and today, as the Earth’s interior cooled, the mantle switched from a one-layer convection system, in which slabs flowed freely from upper to lower layers of the mantle, to a two-layer configuration, where slabs had a harder time penetrating through to the lower mantle.

“This shows that when a planet starts to cool down, this boundary, even though it’s always there, becomes a significantly more profound density filter,” Jagoutz says. “We don’t know what will happen in the future, but in theory, it’s possible the Earth goes from one dominant regime of one-layer convection, to two. And that’s part of the evolution of the entire Earth.”

This research was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation.