Letter | Published:

Spatial variability in oceanic redox structure 1.8 billion years ago

Nature Geoscience volume 3, pages 486490 (2010) | Download Citation


The evolution of ocean chemistry during the Proterozoic eon (2.5–0.542 billion years ago) is thought to have played a central role in both the timing and rate of eukaryote evolution1,2. The timing of the deposition of iron formations implies that, early in the Earth’s history, oceans were predominantly anoxic and rich in dissolved iron3. However, global deposition of iron formations ceased about 1.84 billion years ago. This termination indicates a major upheaval in ocean chemistry4, but the precise nature of this change remains debated5,6,7,8. Here we use iron and sulphur systematics to reconstruct oceanic redox conditions from the 1.88- to 1.83-billion-year-old Animikie group from the Superior region, North America. We find that surface waters were oxygenated, whereas at mid-depths, anoxic and sulphidic (euxinic) conditions extended over 100 km from the palaeoshoreline. The spatial extent of euxinia varied through time, but deep ocean waters remained rich in dissolved iron. Widespread euxinia along continental margins would have removed dissolved iron from the water column through the precipitation of pyrite, which would have reduced the supply of dissolved iron and resulted in the global cessation of the deposition of ‘Superior-type’ iron formations. We suggest that incursions of sulphide from the mid-depths into overlying oxygenated surface waters may have placed severe constraints on eukaryotic evolution.

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We thank the staff at the Minnesota Geological Survey, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and the Department of Northern Development and Mines in Ontario for help in locating and accessing core material. Work was financially supported by a NERC Research Fellowship (S.W.P.), the Danish National Research Foundation (Danmarks Grundforskningsfond) and an NSERC Discovery Grant (P.W.F.). We are grateful to M. Hurtgen for constructive and supportive reviews.

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  1. School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Newcastle University, Drummond Building, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, UK

    • Simon W. Poulton
  2. Department of Geology, Lakehead University, Thunder Bay, Ontario P7B 5E1, Canada

    • Philip W. Fralick
  3. Nordic Center for Earth Evolution (NordCEE) and Institute of Biology, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, 5230 Odense M, Denmark

    • Donald E. Canfield


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S.W.P., P.W.F. and D.E.C. devised the project and collected samples. S.W.P. carried out all analyses, interpreted the data and wrote the manuscript, with significant contributions from both co-authors. In particular, P.W.F. provided detailed insight into the geological setting, stratigraphy and sedimentology.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Simon W. Poulton.

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