Letter | Published:

Widespread mixing and burial of Earth’s Hadean crust by asteroid impacts

Nature volume 511, pages 578582 (31 July 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

The history of the Hadean Earth (4.0–4.5 billion years ago) is poorly understood because few known rocks are older than 3.8 billion years old1. The main constraints from this era come from ancient submillimetre zircon grains2,3. Some of these zircons date back to 4.4 billion years ago when the Moon, and presumably the Earth, was being pummelled by an enormous flux of extraterrestrial bodies4. The magnitude and exact timing of these early terrestrial impacts, and their effects on crustal growth and evolution, are unknown. Here we provide a new bombardment model of the Hadean Earth that has been calibrated using existing lunar4 and terrestrial data5. We find that the surface of the Hadean Earth was widely reprocessed by impacts through mixing and burial by impact-generated melt. This model may explain the age distribution of Hadean zircons and the absence of early terrestrial rocks. Existing oceans would have repeatedly boiled away into steam atmospheres as a result of large collisions as late as about 4 billion years ago.

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Acknowledgements

We thank H. J. Melosh, S. J. Mojzsis, T. M. Harrison, A. J. Cavosie, A. I. S. Kemp, W. L. Griffin, M. M. Wielicki, R. J. Walker, E. B. Watson, P. Holden, O. Abramov, R. M. Canup, H. F. Levison, D. Nesvorny, O. Nebel, N. H. Sleep and N. Arndt for comments and criticisms that helped to shape the current paper. We gratefully acknowledge the developers of iSALE-2D/3D (http://www.isale-code.de/). S.M., W.F.B. and D.A.K. received support from the NASA Solar System Exploration Research Virtual Institute grant no. NNA14AB03A and NNA14AB07A; K.W. and M.B. were supported by the Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft Deutscher Forschungszentren e.V. Alliance ‘Planetary Evolution and Life’. A.M. was supported by the European Research Council Advanced Grant ‘ACCRETE’ (contract number 290568).

Author information

Author notes

    • L. T. Elkins-Tanton

    Present address: School of Earth and Space Exploration, Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona 85287, USA.

Affiliations

  1. Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado 80302, USA

    • S. Marchi
    •  & W. F. Bottke
  2. Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC 20015, USA

    • L. T. Elkins-Tanton
  3. Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin 10115, Germany

    • M. Bierhaus
    •  & K. Wuennemann
  4. Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur, Nice 06304, France

    • A. Morbidelli
  5. Universities Space Research Association, Lunar and Planetary Institute, Houston, Texas 77058, USA

    • D. A. Kring

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Contributions

S.M. conceived the paper, built the Monte Carlo code and executed the simulations. W.F.B. and A.M. contributed to calibration and testing of the code, and to performing the fit of zircon age distributions. M.B. and K.W. executed iSALE impact simulations and processed the results. L.T.E.T. performed the geophysical interpretation of the output of the simulations. D.A.K. interpreted the melt volume. All authors contributed to the discussion of the results and their implications and to the crafting of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to S. Marchi.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13539

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