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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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.
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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.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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Water/rock ratio results of ‘leave-one-out’ inversions, removing one sample each time for all synthetic datasets (21; 18; 23).
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.
The third column shows the true aspect ratio of all datasets, highlighting that the geometry of the study area does not affect inverse estimates.
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.
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 Figs. 1–5 and Tables 1 and 2.
The oxygen isotope and temperature data for the Panorama VMS district, Australia.
The sampled dataset from Wing and Ferry21 used to tune the smoothing parameter for the inverse model.
The kinetic forward model data from Cathles23 used to validate the smoothing parameter.
The oxygen isotope and temperature data from the East Pacific Rise (Gillis et al.25).
The oxygen isotope and temperature data from Fukazawa district for inversion (Green et al.26).
The oxygen isotope and temperature data used in the inversion from the Solea Graben (Schiffman and Smith27).
The oxygen isotope data from Lear et al.29 used as a record of Cenozoic seawater.
The sample set from the oxygen isotope model results from Norton and Taylor18 of plagioclase in the Skaergaard intrusion.
These files include a read_me (describes the contents of the zipped file and how to run the code), matrix_average.py (helps make the grid structure for the inversion), nan_helper.py (helps remove nans from datasets), o_isotope_invert.py (takes input data and inverts to estimate the total fluid input) and model_code_driver.py (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). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41561-020-0538-9