Oxygen and hydrogen isotope evidence for a temperate climate 3.42 billion years ago


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.

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Figure 1: δ 18 O and δD of Buck Reef Cherts.
Figure 2: Buck Reef Chert stratigraphy.
Figure 3: Isothermal exchange paths during water–rock interaction.


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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.

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Correspondence to M. T. Hren or M. M. Tice.

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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

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