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Limited Archaean continental emergence reflected in an early Archaean 18O-enriched ocean


The origin and evolution of Earth’s biosphere were shaped by the physical and chemical histories of the oceans. Marine chemical sediments and altered oceanic crust preserve a geochemical record of these histories. Marine chemical sediments, for example, exhibit an increase in their 18O/16O ratio through time. The implications of this signal are ambiguous but are typically cast in terms of two endmember (but not mutually exclusive) scenarios. The oceans may have been much warmer in the deep past if they had an oxygen isotope composition similar to that of today. Alternatively, the nature of fluid–rock interactions (including the weathering processes associated with continental emergence) may have been different in the past, leading to an evolving oceanic oxygen isotope composition. Here we examine approximately 3.24-billion-year-old hydrothermally altered oceanic crust from the Panorama district in the Pilbara Craton of Western Australia as an alternative oxygen isotope archive to marine chemical sediments. We find that, at that time, seawater at Panorama had an oxygen isotope composition enriched in 18O relative to the modern ocean with a δ18O of 3.3 ± 0.1‰ VSMOW. We suggest that seawater δ18O may have decreased through time, in contrast to the large increases seen in marine chemical sediments. To explain this possibility, we construct an oxygen isotope exchange model of the geologic water cycle, which suggests that the initiation of continental weathering in the late Archaean, between 3 and 2.5 billion years ago, would have drawn down an 18O-enriched early Archaean ocean to δ18O values similar to those of modern seawater. We conclude that Earth’s water cycle may have gone through two separate phases of steady-state behaviour, before and after the emergence of the continents.

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Fig. 1: Simplified geologic map and reconstructed temperature and oxygen isotope cross-sections of the Panorama District.
Fig. 2: Results of ‘leave-one-out’ inversions, removing one sample each time from each dataset and re-running the entire inverse procedure.
Fig. 3: Calculated seawater δ18O evolution for different rate efficiency and continental emergence scenarios.

Data availability

Oxygen isotope data and associated spatial data were previously published in refs. 18,21,23,25,26,40. Temperature data are mostly from the same references as the oxygen isotope data, with the exception of those for Panorama, which were from ref. 39.

We have provided all data used in the inversions in csv files in the Supplementary Information.

Code availability

All model code and data used for inversions are available in the Supplementary Information and on the corresponding author’s github repository ( In addition, the corresponding author is happy to send code upon email request.


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We acknowledge NSF grant support for B.W.J. (EAR-PF 1725784) and B.A.W. (EF 1724393), as well as the American Philosophical Society’s Lewis and Clark Grant for field work in Astrobiology to B.W.J. We thank C. Brauhart for discussions on the geology of Panorama and guidance in the field, and E. Pope for constructive criticism that materially improved the paper in scope and detail.

Author information




B.W.J. and B.A.W. conceived the project. B.A.W. developed the inverse method. B.W.J. performed the data assimilation, inverse modelling and ocean isotope exchange modelling. B.W.J. and B.A.W. interpreted model results and wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Benjamin W. Johnson.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Estimated fluid rock ratios for ‘leave-one-out’ inversions.

Water/rock ratio results of ‘leave-one-out’ inversions, removing one sample each time for all synthetic datasets (21; 18; 23).

Extended Data Fig. 2 Estimated incoming fluid oxygen isotope composition from synthetic datasets.

Results of ‘leave-one-out’ inversions, removing one sample each time (21; 18; 23). Each set of inversions has the same number of runs as there are samples for each set. Arrows indicate imposed incoming fluid δ18O, and inset shows the models on the same isotopic scale as the crustal sections in Fig. 2.

Extended Data Fig. 3 δ18O and temperature contours for all datasets.

The third column shows the true aspect ratio of all datasets, highlighting that the geometry of the study area does not affect inverse estimates.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Schematic of the Earth system water cycle.

Fluxes in bold are used in the kinetic model for seawater δ18O, while those in italics are not considered to be important isotopically for the long-term evolution of seawater δ18O.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Modeled oxygen isotope exchange rates over time.

Oxygen isotope exchange rates used to make different δ18O curves in Figure 3. We assume 2 - 4% modern exchange rates initially for the first row, which then increase to modern rates by 2.5 Ga The second through fourth rows impose continental emergence at 4.4, 3, and 0.9 Ga, increasing to modern values over ≈ 500 million years.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Figs. 1–5 and Tables 1 and 2.

Supplementary Data 1

The oxygen isotope and temperature data for the Panorama VMS district, Australia.

Supplementary Data 2

The sampled dataset from Wing and Ferry21 used to tune the smoothing parameter for the inverse model.

Supplementary Data 3

The kinetic forward model data from Cathles23 used to validate the smoothing parameter.

Supplementary Data 4

The oxygen isotope and temperature data from the East Pacific Rise (Gillis et al.25).

Supplementary Data 5

The oxygen isotope and temperature data from Fukazawa district for inversion (Green et al.26).

Supplementary Data 6

The oxygen isotope and temperature data used in the inversion from the Solea Graben (Schiffman and Smith27).

Supplementary Data 7

The oxygen isotope data from Lear et al.29 used as a record of Cenozoic seawater.

Supplementary Data 8

The sample set from the oxygen isotope model results from Norton and Taylor18 of plagioclase in the Skaergaard intrusion.

Supplementary Software 1

These files include a read_me (describes the contents of the zipped file and how to run the code), (helps make the grid structure for the inversion), (helps remove nans from datasets), (takes input data and inverts to estimate the total fluid input) and (wrapper file that calls all needed codes and produces figures).

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Johnson, B.W., Wing, B.A. Limited Archaean continental emergence reflected in an early Archaean 18O-enriched ocean. Nat. Geosci. 13, 243–248 (2020).

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