MEET Project Looks Back in Time at Earth’s Evolution

A new project funded by a $14.2 million European Research Council Synergy grant, entitled Monitoring Earth Evolution Through Time, will explore the chemical and physical processes that shaped Earth’s composition throughout history.

Scientists know little about the Hadean eon, the tumultuous first 600 million years of Earth’s history, when its molten surface was bombarded with chunks of planetary debris. Now, the materials at the surface have long been recycled into new rocks through the actions of plate tectonics. But tiny capsules from that time period remain today in the form of hardy crystals of zircon and olivine, which can reveal details of the early years of Earth’s evolution.

In a new project called Monitoring Earth Evolution Through Time (MEET), DCO members will use bits of once-melted rocks trapped inside those ancient crystals, called melt inclusions, to reconstruct Earth’s history all the way back to the Hadean. Reservoirs and Fluxes Community members Alexander Sobolev (University Grenoble-Alpes, France), Stephan Sobolev (German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ), Germany), and John Valley (University of Wisconsin, Madison, USA) have teamed up to explore the processes that shaped Earth’s chemical composition from 4.4 billion years ago until the present. The team received a European Research Council Synergy grant of about $14.2 million over the next six years to support the research.

MEET Graphic
The MEET project will use data from melt inclusions trapped in crystals and geodynamic modeling to reconstruct how Earth evolved from its early days. Image courtesy of Alexander Sobolev

“The most sensitive tracers of evolution – volatiles and mobile elements - are not accessible in old rocks,” said Alexander Sobolev, because these elements, like carbon, don’t stay put in the minerals. To compensate for loss of these tracers in rocks, the researchers will look specifically at the compositions of melt inclusions from the crust and the mantle. These tiny pockets of material are just 15 microns across – much smaller than the thickness of a human hair – but contain small amounts of water and other compounds that offer a window into Earth’s surface environment millions of years ago.

Using the secondary ion mass spectrometer located at the University of Wisconsin and complementary instruments at the Université Grenoble-Alpes, the researchers will analyze the composition of the melt inclusions, measure their isotopic signatures, and see how they have changed over time. Then, they will put all the data together, and with the help of GFZ geodynamic modelers, develop a geophysical framework that explains how plate tectonics and other geological processes have altered Earth’s composition. 

“All together, this approach will give us full coverage of the Earth’s history from the very beginning to now,” said Sobolev. 

The project builds on two recent pilot studies. One used similar approaches to those proposed in MEET to find evidence that subduction or an earlier system for recycling ocean crust was already in place by 3.3 billion years ago, while the second found that surface processes, like erosion, helped kickstart plate tectonics.  

Besides offering insights into how the global carbon and water cycles evolved, the new research will address the question of when plate tectonics began. “Some people think that it started very early, from the beginning of the Hadean. Some think it started only 1 billion years ago. Many people think it started somewhere around 3 billion years,” said Sobolev, “but nobody knows for sure.”

Main image: An artist's rendition of young Earth being bombarded by asteroids. Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

Further Reading

DCO Research The Early Magma Ocean Turned Earth into a ‘Diamond Factory’

In conditions simulating early Earth’s magma ocean, iron performs an unusual chemical trick that…

Symphony in C Cover
DCO Highlights New Book Sings Carbon’s Praises

Just in time for the “Year of Carbon,” DCO Executive Director Robert Hazen has published a sweeping…

arly Extinctions Set the Stage for Life as We Know It
DCO Research Early Extinctions Set the Stage for Life as We Know It

By applying data science techniques to the fossil record, researchers have found evidence for two…

carbonate platforms and subduction zones
DCO Research Global Temperatures Rise When Ancient Reefs Encounter Subduction Zones

When the movement of tectonic plates pushes buried ancient reefs into contact with subduction zones…

Back to top