Stable oxygen isotope ratios (δ18O) of Precambrian cherts have been used to establish much of our understanding of the early climate history of Earth1,2,3 and suggest that ocean temperatures during the Archaean era (∼3.5 billion years ago) were between 55 °C and 85 °C (ref. 2). But, because of uncertainty in the δ18O of the primitive ocean, there is considerable debate regarding this conclusion. Examination of modern and ancient cherts indicates that another approach, using a combined analysis of δ18O and hydrogen isotopes (δD) rather than δ18O alone, can provide a firmer constraint on formational temperatures without independent knowledge of the isotopic composition of ambient waters4,5. Here we show that δ18O and δD sampled from 3.42-billion-year-old Buck Reef Chert rocks in South Africa are consistent with formation from waters at varied low temperatures. The most 18O-enriched Buck Reef Chert rocks record the lowest diagenetic temperatures and were formed in equilibrium with waters below ∼40 °C. Geochemical and sedimentary evidence suggests that the Buck Reef Chert was formed in shallow to deep marine conditions, so our results indicate that the Palaeoarchaean ocean was isotopically depleted relative to the modern ocean and far cooler (≤40 °C) than previously thought2.
Subscribe to Journal
Get full journal access for 1 year
only $3.83 per issue
All prices are NET prices.
VAT will be added later in the checkout.
Rent or Buy article
Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.
All prices are NET prices.
Knauth, L. P. & Lowe, D. R. Oxygen isotope geochemistry of cherts from the Onverwacht group (3.4 Ga), Transvaal, South Africa, with implications for secular variations in the isotopic compositions of cherts. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 41, 209–222 (1978)
Knauth, L. P. & Lowe, D. R. High Archean climatic temperature inferred from oxygen isotope geochemistry of cherts in the 3.5 Ga Swaziland Supergroup, South Africa. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 115, 566–580 (2003)
Robert, F. & Chaussidon, M. A palaeotemperature curve for the Precambrian oceans based on silicon isotopes in cherts. Nature 443, 969–972 (2006)
Knauth, L. P. & Epstein, S. Hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios in nodular and bedded cherts. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 40, 1095–1108 (1976)
Knauth, L. P. Oxygen and Hydrogen Isotope Ratios in Cherts and Related Rocks. 1–369, PhD thesis (CalTech, 1973)
Perry, E. C. The oxygen isotope chemistry of ancient cherts. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 3, 62–66 (1967)
Clayton, R. N., O'Neil, J. R. & Mayeda, T. K. Oxygen isotope exchange between quartz and water. J. Geophys. Res. 77, 3057–3067 (1972)
Knauth, L. P. & Epstein, S. Hydrogen and oxygen isotope ratios in silica from the JOIDES Deep Sea Drilling Project. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 25, 1–10 (1975)
Gaucher, E. A., Govindarajan, S. & Ganesh, O. K. Palaeotemperature trend for Precambrian life inferred from resurrected proteins. Nature 451, 704–708 (2008)
Kasting, J. F. et al. Paleoclimates, ocean depth, and the oxygen isotopic composition of seawater. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 252, 82–93 (2006)
Shields, G. & Vezier, J. Precambrian marine carbon isotope database: version 1. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 3, 10,1029/2001GC000266 (2002)
Walker, J. C. G. & Lohmann, K. C. Why the oxygen isotopic composition of seawater changes with time. Geophys. Res. Lett. 16, 323–326 (1989)
Wallman, K. Impact of atmospheric CO2 and galactic cosmic radiation on Phanerozoic climate change and the marine δ18O record. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 5 10.10029/2003G000683 (2004)
Sleep, N. H. & Hessler, A. M. Weathering of quartz as an Archean climatic indicator. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 241, 594–602 (2006)
Lowe, D. R. A comment on “Weathering of quartz as an Archean climatic indicator” by N.H. Sleep and A.M. Hessler. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 253, 530–533 (2007)
van den Boorn, S. H. J. M., van Bergen, M. J., Nijman, W. & Vroon, P. Z. Dual role of seawater and hydrothermal fluids in Early Archean chert formation: evidence from silicon isotopes. Geology 35, 939–942 (2007)
Knauth, L. P. & Epstein, S. The nature of water in hydrous silica. Am. Mineral. 67, 510–520 (1982)
Sharp, Z. D., Durakiewicz, T., Migaszewski, Z. M. & Atudorei, V. N. Antiphase hydrogen and oxygen isotope periodicity in chert nodules. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 66, 2865–2873 (2002)
Abruzzese, M. J., Waldbauer, J. R. & Chamberlain, C. P. Oxygen and hydrogen isotope ratios in freshwater chert as indicators of ancient climate and hydrologic regime. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 69, 1377–1390 (2005)
Tice, M. M. & Lowe, D. R. Photosynthetic microbial mats in the 3,416-Myr-old ocean. Nature 431, 549–552 (2004)
Tice, M. M. & Lowe, D. R. The origin of carbonaceous matter in pre-3.0 Ga greenstone terrains: a review and new evidence from the 3.42 Ga Buck Reef Chert. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 76, 259–300 (2006)
Lowe, D. R. & Knauth, L. P. Sedimentology of the Onverwacht Group (3.4 billion years), Transvaal, South Africa, and its bearing on the characteristics and evolution of the Early Earth. J. Geol. 85, 699–723 (1977)
Lowe, D. R. in Geologic Evolution of the Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa (eds Lowe, D. R. & Byerly, G. R.) Vol. 329 83–114 (Geological Society of America Special Paper, 1999)
Xie, X., Byerly, G. R. & Ferrell, R. E. IIb trioctahedral chlorite from the Barberton greenstone belt: crystal structure and rock composition constraints with implications to geothermometry. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 126, 275–291 (1997)
Hofmann, A. & Harris, C. Silica alteration zones in the Barberton greenstone belt: A window into subseafloor processes 3.5–3.3 Ga ago. Chem. Geol. 257, 221–239 (2008)
Suzuoki, T. & Epstein, S. Hydrogen isotope fractionation between OH-bearing silicate minerals and water. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 40, 1229–1240 (1976)
Taylor, H. P. The application of oxygen and hydrogen isotope studies to problems of hydrothermal alteration and ore deposition. Econ. Geol. 69, 843–883 (1974)
Tice, M. M. & Lowe, D. R. Hydrogen-based carbon fixation in the earliest-known photosynthetic organisms. Geology 34, 37–40 (2006)
Jaffrés, J. B. D., Shields, G. A. & Wallmann, K. The oxygen isotope evolution of seawater: a critical review of a long-standing controversy and an improved geologic water cycle model for the past 3.4 billion years. Earth Sci. Rev. 83, 83–122 (2007)
Genda, H. & Ikoma, M. Origin of the ocean on Earth: early evolution of water D/H in a hydrogen-rich atmosphere. Icarus 194, 42–52 (2008)
We thank D. Rye and K. Turekian for discussions and D. Lowe for sample materials and discussions.
Author Contributions All authors contributed extensively to the data interpretation and editing of this manuscript. M.T.H. performed all sample analyses and manuscript preparation. M.M.T. conducted Monte Carlo and bootstrapping simulations and petrographic work.
About this article
Cite this article
Hren, M., Tice, M. & Chamberlain, C. Oxygen and hydrogen isotope evidence for a temperate climate 3.42 billion years ago. Nature 462, 205–208 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature08518
Chemistry – An Asian Journal (2020)
The end of life on Earth is not the end of the world: converging to an estimate of life span of the biosphere?
International Journal of Astrobiology (2020)
Science Advances (2020)
Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta (2020)
Cysteine, glutathione and a new genetic code: biochemical adaptations of the primordial cells that spread into open water and survived biospheric oxygenation
Biological Chemistry (2020)