Letter

Oxygen-isotope evidence from ancient zircons for liquid water at the Earth's surface 4,300 Myr ago

  • Nature volume 409, pages 178181 (11 January 2001)
  • doi:10.1038/35051557
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Abstract

Granitoid gneisses and supracrustal rocks that are 3,800–4,000 Myr old are the oldest recognized exposures of continental crust1. To obtain insight into conditions at the Earth's surface more than 4 Gyr ago requires the analysis of yet older rocks or their mineral remnants. Such an opportunity is presented by detrital zircons more than 4 Gyr old found within 3-Gyr-old quartzitic rocks in the Murchison District of Western Australia2,3. Here we report in situ U–Pb and oxygen isotope results for such zircons that place constraints on the age and composition of their sources and may therefore provide information about the nature of the Earth's early surface. We find that 3,910–4,280 Myr old zircons have oxygen isotope (δ18O) values ranging from 5.4 ± 0.6‰ to 15.0 ± 0.4‰. On the basis of these results, we postulate that the 4,300-Myr-old zircons formed from magmas containing a significant component of re-worked continental crust that formed in the presence of water near the Earth's surface. These data are therefore consistent with the presence of a hydrosphere interacting with the crust by 4,300 Myr ago.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by grants from NASA and NSF. Technical assistance from C. D. Coath is gratefully appreciated. We thank S. Claesson and J. Valley for providing the zircon oxygen standards. We also thank A. Halliday and C. Miller for comments on the manuscript. We are grateful to the McTaggart family of Mt Narryer station and the Broad family of Milly Milly station, Western Australia, for their hospitality in the field. We acknowledge support from the Instrumentation and Facilities Program of the National Science Foundation.

Author information

Author notes

    • Stephen J. Mojzsis

    Present address: Department of Geological Sciences, University of Colorado, Boulder, Colorado 80309-0399, USA.

Affiliations

  1. *Department of Earth and Space Sciences and IGPP Center for Astrobiology, University of California Los Angeles, Los Angeles, California 90095-1567, USA

    • Stephen J. Mojzsis
    •  & T. Mark Harrison
  2. ‡Department of Applied Geology, Curtin University of Technology, Perth, WA 6001, Australia

    • Robert T. Pidgeon

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Correspondence to Stephen J. Mojzsis.

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