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The Study of Global Warming._ a Discourse on Salinity, Early Life and the Environment of the Ancient Earth

The Study of Global Warming._ a Discourse on Salinity, Early Life and the Environment of the Ancient Earth

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Published by Ionut Dobrinescu

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Published by: Ionut Dobrinescu on Aug 04, 2011
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TUESDAY, MARCH 15, 2011
A discourse on salinity, early life and the environment of theancient Earth.
One of the problems with ocean chemistry was that oceanographers were trying to solve the great salinitymystery. And what was that?Oceanographers had known for a long time that the salt concentration of the oceans could be accountedfor by rivers dissolving salt and depositing it in the seas where it concentrates. At the rate of saltdeposition by rivers, the oceans were about 80-90 million years old. This had been known since the late19th century.And in fact there was another factor. There is an old Norse myth that the reason the oceans are salty isthat there is a giant salt mill under the sea, forever churning away. The Norse were not far wrong---thespreading centers at the mid-ocean ridges are continuously putting more salt in the sea. We've all seenthose hydrothermal vents---they are full of salt dissolved very efficiently from the hot rocks they percolatethrough. So the actual time it takes to achieve today's ocean salinity is only 60 million years.This age for the oceans was supported byLord Kelvin, who believed that the sun was not much more than100 million years old, and probably less.The young salt oceans were used to support evolution (our blood is about 0.8% salt, and it was supposedthat this was the salinity of the ocean when our amphibian ancestors left the sea, with that concentration'preserved' in our bodies till this day (I read this in my 10th grade biology book as well) It was also used toattack evolution because Charles Darwin thought the world had to be several billion years old.Geological evidence by the 1920s with radioactive decay of uranium into lead proved that the world wasover 2 billion years old. The question immediately became, why aren't the oceans more salty?Equilibrium had long been recognized as the oceans being 15% salt. That's what the salinity would be if there was no way to remove salt from the oceans. That clearly hadn't happened. And had never happened.Our cells, animal, fish, plant, cannot tolerate that much salt. Of course a 2% salt concentration would killus very quickly through osmotic dessication. But even if the concentration is even between cell walls andtheir surrounding fluid, at 5% the 'pulls' of the sodium and chlorine ions dissolved in the water will pullapart the phospholipids that make up the cell membrane.Yes, there are freaky organisms like brine shrimp that are able to keep salt out of their bodies (their internal salt concentration is the same as ours) Life is still possible with salinity over 5%, but all higher forms of life would go extinct faced with such salinity (aside from oddballs like brine shrimp) and the formsof life would have been very different even if salinity had reached 5%--and such life forms are rarelyobserved in the fossil record. Also, marine organisms that would have gone extinct if salinity
had 
risenabove 5% have not.This drove oceanographers to distraction. How the hell do oceans get rid of their salt? Salt spray carryingsalt back to the land was out. Except for hurricanes, salt spray does not go far inland, and any saltdeposited on shore a few yards away washes back in with the next rain. And analysis of rainwater showsthat salt is present in the most miniscule amounts.It has been recognized that salt can be removed through evaporite deposits and covered with sedimentthat prevents it redissolving into the sea. When the Mediterranean dried up several times 5-6 million yearsago each occurrence removed trillions of tons of salt that were covered by river and wind-borne sediments.Salt domes form in similar circumstances, through evaporation from restricted marine basins and burialunder sediment.That was worked out gradually in the 1960s and 1970s, but there is still a nagging problem. That canaccount for the salinity of the oceans staying well below 5%, but it seems a bit weak to most. After all,what happens if due to some continental configuration, there just aren't any restricted marine basins (or enough of them) to form enough salt deposits to keep ocean salinity down? This salt deposition processcan account for the average salinity of the oceans, but with varying continental configurations there wouldbe large and lethal salt variations.
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Another mechanism for salt removal is the subduction of oceanic crust, impregnated with salt water inevery pore---steam is released in volcanoes, but not much salt (usually---there are a few volcanoes alongsubduction zones that have very salty magma)Proponents of GAIA theorypropose that ocean salinity is under biological control. They propose two mainmechanisms---salt being captured/incorporated into diatom and coccolith shells as they drift to the oceanfloor after the animals die. The higher the salinity, the more salt they would capture. This hypothesis wastossed around a lot in the 1970s, but has since been found wanting. Diatoms do not capture more salt intheir shells when salinity rises---and at much above 4.5% salinity they die.The other is that reef building organisms help create restricted basins that trap salt deposits under sediments and marine skeletons. This does have some backing to it--coral atolls do trap layers of salt inlagoons and bury it under coral skeletons, and the Great Barrier Reef could certainly trap many billions of tons of salt.But even this hypothesis seems weak. Reef building organisms have existed for several hundred millionyears, with different types of organisms forming them in different periods. But the oceans formed morethan 4 billion years ago. So reef-building organisms cannot account for the stability of the salinity of theoceans for over 3 billion years. (Yes there werestromatolites3 billion years ago. And they do trap salt, toa degree. Quite avidly, actually. But they live in tidal zones, and not in shallow marine seas, where theycould trap salt on a much larger scale. Stromatolites simply can't trap enough salt to keep the salinitystable)There are some negative feedbacks that help stabilize the salinity of the oceans in the absence of biological control. During the time of Pangaea, all the continents were together, and there were nomarginal, enclosed seas, or very few compared to today (The Gulf of Mexico, the Red Sea, theMediterranean Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Caspian Sea, among other examples). But computer modelingand geologic evidence also shows that most of Pangaea was very arid--far away from the oceans and their moisture bearing winds. Much like the interior of Asia, only more so. And large endorheic basins trappedsalt carried by what rivers there were in evaporite deposits in the interior of continents. (although thesecould get washed out later when exposed to rainfall when the continents separated)So, supercontinent---not many marginal seas to form evaporite deposits, but not much salt transport fromthe land. Continents scattered about--more rainfall on land but more marginal/partially enclosed seas totrap salt.But it's still hard to see how there wouldn't be salinity crises occasionally. Until recently, we didn't evenknow how continents assembled and broke apart very well before Pangaea. But over the last 15 yearsthere has been a revolution in paleocontinent studies---through careful exploration and analysis of isotopes in rocks, geologists believe that they have identified all the prior supercontinents!It has to be said that supercontinents have been increasing in size ascontinental crustincreases withtime. Before Vallbara, there is no evidence for continents at all. Earth seems to have removed its heatthroughhot spots. 4 billion years ago, if we had seen the Earth we would have seen a planet-wide ocean,probably less than 3% coverage of land, but lots of volcanic island chains, and some island arcs assubductionbegan. The first "continents" were probably large islands similar in size to Borneo andMadagascar today. That is not to say these were the first "continents"---they were not.Continental crust is considerably less dense than oceanic crust, and much less dense than the mantle.Granites and other "light" rocks form from differentiation in subduction zones. Less dense minerals stayon the surface of the Earth, and heavier minerals form oceanic crust or remain in themantle. Continents,includingcontinental shelves, cover almost 40% of the surface of the Earth.This addition of continental crust, currently a few cubic kilometers a year, has some interestingimplications. Assuming that the volume of the oceans has been broadly similar for the past 4 billionyears, small, isolated subcontinents would not have had marine continental shelves. A few percent of thesurface of the earth in elevated continental crust would have let the oceans "fit" around them. Ascontinents took up more and more surface area, oceans would necessarily shrink in area and becomedeeper. When continental crust reached a large fraction of the surface of the earth, the oceans would nothave as much room, and spread over the lower margins of continents.Think of it this way. If 
all
the Earth was covered by continental crust, the oceans would still exist andsimply cover the lower areas of the continents. There would be less land area than today, with highmountain chains and plateaus like Tibet being the only land areas.This helps find the solution to a mystery--why did photosynthetic bacteria "wait" over 1.5 billion years tochange the atmosphere, releasing enough oxygen to become a part of the atmosphere (oxygen is a veryreactive gas). Fossil bacteria from over 2.5 billion years ago have very similar appearances to modernphotosynthetic bacteria today. In fact, some may be the same species! Bacteria multiply very quickly---if we found an earthlike planet, devoid of life, with oceans and continents, a similar climate and enoughtrace elements and minerals that bacteria need, we could seed the planet with bacteria and they wouldmultiply and become ubiquitous in a few years. So why didn't bacteria do that during theArchean era?
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The answer may be that until the time of theGreat Oxygenation Eventthere were not enough continents--or more properly, continents covering enough of the surface area of the Earth to have continental shelves.Continental shelves are good environments for bacteria---shelf waters receive minerals and other dissolvedsolids from wind erosion (dust) and more importantly river erosion. The first continental shelves may haveformed 2.5 billion years ago, and triggered a population explosion of bacteria---which were finally able torelease oxygen fast enough, and in large enough quantities, to fill up the "oxygen sinks". The primary sinkseems to have been dissolved iron in the oceans. In the absence of free oxygen, iron compounds aremostly easily soluble in water. The anoxic oceans of the early Earth were a rich soup of dissolved metalcompounds. But in the presence of oxygen, iron forms iron oxides (rust) that are
not 
soluble in water.The release of large quantities of free oxygen had tremendous effects on the Earth and it's environment.Iron and other metals used by bacteria precipitated out of the oceans to form trillions of tons of bandediron formationsthat are still important today---most of our iron we mine comes from those formations.Within a brief geological period, minerals precipitated out, and bacteria had to evolve in a newmineral/metal-poor environment, evolving new metabolic pathways to use what iron and other metals theyneeded more efficiently.And also with free oxygen present in the oceans, for the first timeEukaryotesevolved. These are morecomplex cells that haveorganellesand nuclei--specialized structures better able to deal with the metal-poor seas. It has to be said here that the fossil record of life before large animals and plants evolved is notall we could wish for. Rock formations become increasingly rare beyond 2 billion years ago, andmicroscopic organisms are difficult to detect. Instead of just looking at a rock outcrop and seeing itpacked withtrilobites, scientists have to pick rock that they hope will contain microscopic fossils, andinspect the rocks very carefully to find them.Another difficulty is that almost all old rocks are continental crust. Seafloor subduction eliminates almostall oceanic crust--the oldest oceanic crust on the sea floor is 180 million years old and is about to besubducted under thePhilippine Plate.Oceanic crust almost as old is present in the Gulf of Mexico,caught and dragged along by theNorth American Plate. This may last longer than 180 million years, butstill is not helpful for seeing how Archean ocean life evolved.The earliest eukaryotic organism that we know of isgrypania, a form of algae.Note that higher plants and animals evolved from the same eukaryotic root. Plants did not evolve out of photosynthesizing bacteria, and animals did not evolve from other bacteria. The eukaryotic cell evolvedonly once, with plants, animals, fungi all springing from one eukaryotic ancestor. Pretty much the life wesee.The differences between eukaryotic cells and prokaryotic cells are fundamental:A eukaryotic cell:
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