The smallest creatures in the oceans form the tallest mountains on earth

When small organisms such as plankton die in the shallow waters of the seas and fall to the seabed, they can increase the organic carbon in the Earth’s crust and make it softer and looser.

A case study of 20 mountain ranges from around the earth, including the Rocky Mountains, the Andes, Norway, Central Europe, Indonesia, and Japan, links the timing of increased carbon burial in the oceans to the formation of mountains on the planet’s surface.

The timeline of the formation of the first mountains

Researchers in this study have stated:

Excess carbon helps to deform the crust more easily, forming mountain ranges and thus creating the present-day features of tectonic plate margins.

These changes began about 2 billion years ago, in the middle of the Paleoproterozoic. During this time, biocarbons from plankton and bacteria dramatically increased the accumulation of graphite in the ocean floor shale. This process caused these rocks to become brittle and layered.

Diagram of the role of organic carbon in the formation of mountainsRising of boulders with the help of carbon lubricant, which creates mountains when tectonic plates collide. The exact geometry of this phenomenon is much more complex than this image, and the slabs may be stacked in opposite directions.

Over 100 million years, most mountain ranges began to form in these weakened parts of the crust. Newer mountain ranges follow the same pattern. In the Himalayas, for example, about 50 million years ago, tectonic forces focused on the Paleoproterozoic sediments containing the richest organic matter.

The timing and location of these events point to the role of organic carbon in graphite in shaping our planet’s geology. John Parnell“The geologist at Aberdeen University in Scotland says:

Finally, what our research has shown is that the key to the formation of mountains has been the existence of life. This suggests a close connection between the Earth and its biosphere beyond our imagination.

In this study, data from an previously published article on the formation of mountains and buried marine biomass have been used. Numerous previous studies have shown that tectonic plates need to be loosened by graphite to form mountains; But how to make this graphite was not clear.

New research suggests marine life as an important part of this process. All 20 mountain ranges surveyed had graphite-rich black shale rocks that appear to be of biological origin. Professor Pernell says:

We can see it in places like Harris, Tire and Gerlock in north-west Scotland; That is, where the roots of the ancient mountains and the slippery graphite that helped form them still exist.

An outbreak of marine life 2 billion years ago may have occurred in response to a major oxygen event; When photosynthetic bacteria began to produce large amounts of oxygen, new conditions for supporting single cell life, such as marine plankton, were created.

Tire Island in ScotlandTire Island in Scotland, now fully flattened, and its 2 billion-year-old mountains have disappeared due to erosion

The formation of mountains did not require such amounts of biocarbon. Only a small percentage of biomass at the edge of tectonic plates is enough to slide them up or down when they collide. However, in the mountain ranges composed of Paleoproterozoic sediments, the carbon content is always more than 10% and sometimes reaches more than 20%.

In short, an extraordinary eruption of marine life billions of years ago seems to have set the stage for the many mountain ranges we see today. The authors of the research describe this issue as follows:

Because the carbon content of sediments in the Paleoproterozoic was unusually high, carbon injection into the subduction zones was greater and crustal deformation was easier than before.

Related articles:

If this group is correct, microscopic single-celled organisms floating in the seas may have played an important role in creating some of the largest geological structures on our planet. The greatest things on earth can come from the smallest things!

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment in the journal Nature.

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