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Nature. 2012 Apr 25;484(7395):498-501. doi: 10.1038/nature11021.

Deposition of 1.88-billion-year-old iron formations as a consequence of rapid crustal growth.

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Department of Applied Geology, Curtin University, Kent Street, Bentley, Western Australia 6102, Australia.


Iron formations are chemical sedimentary rocks comprising layers of iron-rich and silica-rich minerals whose deposition requires anoxic and iron-rich (ferruginous) sea water. Their demise after the rise in atmospheric oxygen by 2.32 billion years (Gyr) ago has been attributed to the removal of dissolved iron through progressive oxidation or sulphidation of the deep ocean. Therefore, a sudden return of voluminous iron formations nearly 500 million years later poses an apparent conundrum. Most late Palaeoproterozoic iron formations are about 1.88 Gyr old and occur in the Superior region of North America. Major iron formations are also preserved in Australia, but these were apparently deposited after the transition to a sulphidic ocean at 1.84 Gyr ago that should have terminated iron formation deposition, implying that they reflect local marine conditions. Here we date zircons in tuff layers to show that iron formations in the Frere Formation of Western Australia are about 1.88 Gyr old, indicating that the deposition of iron formations from two disparate cratons was coeval and probably reflects global ocean chemistry. The sudden reappearance of major iron formations at 1.88 Gyr ago--contemporaneous with peaks in global mafic-ultramafic magmatism, juvenile continental and oceanic crust formation, mantle depletion and volcanogenic massive sulphide formation--suggests deposition of iron formations as a consequence of major mantle activity and rapid crustal growth. Our findings support the idea that enhanced submarine volcanism and hydrothermal activity linked to a peak in mantle melting released large volumes of ferrous iron and other reductants that overwhelmed the sulphate and oxygen reservoirs of the ocean, decoupling atmospheric and seawater redox states, and causing the return of widespread ferruginous conditions. Iron formations formed on clastic-starved coastal shelves where dissolved iron upwelled and mixed with oxygenated surface water. The disappearance of iron formations after this event may reflect waning mafic-ultramafic magmatism and a diminished flux of hydrothermal iron relative to seawater oxidants.


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