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Hydrogeological constraints on the formation of Palaeoproterozoic banded iron formations


Banded iron formations are critical to track changes in Archaean to Palaeoproterozoic ocean chemistry, with deposition triggered by water column iron oxidation. Recently, however, it was suggested that reduced iron minerals were the primary precipitates, and these were subsequently oxidized by oxygen-bearing groundwater. If true, this would cast doubt on our understanding of how banded iron formations were deposited and their ability to record early ocean chemistry. Here we present a hydrogeological box model, based on the approximately 2.5 billion year old Hamersley Basin of Western Australia, developed to evaluate the plausibility of secondary iron oxidation. The box model calculates the time required for groundwater to flux enough oxygen through the basin to oxidize a given amount of ferrous iron. Less than 9% of nearly four million model iterations returned oxidation times less than the age of the basin. Successful simulations required simultaneously steep hydraulic gradients, high permeability and elevated oxygen concentrations. Our simulations show that the postdepositional oxidation of large banded iron formations is unlikely, except on a limited scale (that is, during secondary ore formation), and that oxidized iron phases were probably the precursor to large Palaeoproterozoic banded iron formations.

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All data supporting this study are included in the manuscript and Supplementary Information.

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The customized MATLAB code used for the hydrogeological box model calculations is available in the Supplementary Information. The equations and values that underlie the calculations are described in detail in Methods.

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L.J.R. acknowledges a NSERC Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship and T.J.W. a NSERC CGS-M. This work was supported by NSERC Discovery Grants to K.O.K. (RGPIN-165831) and D.S.A. (RGPIN-04134). N. MacPherson and W. Hao are thanked for thoughtful discussions and input on an early draft.

Author information

L.J.R., K.O.K. and D.S.A. designed the study, and L.J.R., S.P.F., K.O.K., D.S.A. and B.J.R. designed and evaluated the hydrogeological model. A.J.B.S. and N.J.B. provided the geological context that aided the interpretation of the model. All the authors contributed to the interpretation and writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to Leslie J. Robbins.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    Supplementary information on the Hamersley Basin and box model and Supplementary Figs. 1 and 2.

  2. Model code

    Model code

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Fig. 1: Conceptual model for the postdepositional oxidation of greenalite by oxidative groundwater (for example, Rasmussen et al.14 and Johnson et al.15).
Fig. 2: Geometry of the Hamersley Basin BIF.
Fig. 3: Distribution of simulation times for groundwater to oxidize the Hamersley Basin BIF.