Old Earth Ministries Online Earth History Curriculum

Presented by Old Earth Ministries (We Believe in an Old Earth...and God!)

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Chapter 2 - The Precambrian

Lesson 8: Proto-Earth and Hadeon Eon



     The Precambrian is an informal name for the span of time before the current Phanerozoic Eon, and is divided into several eons of the geologic time scale. It spans from the formation of Earth around 4500 Ma (million years ago) to the beginning of the Cambrian Period, when macroscopic hard-shelled animals first appeared in abundance about 542 Ma. The Precambrian is so named because it precedes the Cambrian, the first period of the Phanerozoic Eon, which is named after the Roman name for Wales, Cambria, where rocks from this age were first studied. The Precambrian period accounts for 87% of geologic time.

Chapter 2 - The Precambrian


Lesson 8: Proto-Earth and Hadeon Eon

Lesson 9: Archaen/Proterozoic Eon

Lesson 10: The Earth's Atmosphere

Lesson 11: Stromatolites

Lesson 12: Supercontinents

Lesson 13: Snowball Earth




Fast Facts
Hadeon Eon Started:  4570 Ma
Ended:  3800 Ma
Duration:  770 Million Years
Followed By: Archean Eon



     Very little is known about the Precambrian, despite it making up roughly seven-eighths of the Earth's history, and what little is known has largely been discovered in the past fifty years. The Precambrian fossil record is poor, and those fossils present (e.g. stromatolites) are of limited biostratigraphic use.  Many Precambrian rocks are heavily metamorphosed, obscuring their origins, while others have either been destroyed by erosion, or remain deeply buried beneath Phanerozoic strata.
     It is thought that the Earth itself coalesced from material in orbit around the Sun roughly 4500 Ma and may have been struck by a very large (Mars-sized) planetesimal shortly after it formed, splitting off material that came together to form the Moon (see
Giant impact theory). A stable crust was apparently in place by 4400 Ma, since zircon crystals from Western Australia have been dated at 4404 Ma.
     The term Precambrian is somewhat out-moded, but is still in common use among geologists and paleontologists.  In order to study the Precambrian, we will break it into its currently recognized divisions.

Hadeon Eon

     The Hadean is the earth's first geologic eon. It started at Earth's formation about 4.6 billion years ago (4,600 Ma), and ended roughly 3.8 billion years ago, though the latter date varies according to different sources. The name "Hadean" derives from Hades, Greek for "Underworld", referring to the conditions on Earth at the time.  Since few geological traces of this period remain on Earth there are no official subdivisions.


     The Proto-Earth grew by accretion, until the inner part of the protoplanet was hot enough to melt the heavy, siderophile metals. Due to their larger densities such (now liquid) metals began to sink to the Earth's center of mass. This so called iron catastrophe resulted in the separation of a primitive mantle and a (metallic) core only 10 million years after the Earth began to form, producing the layered structure of Earth and setting up the formation of Earth's magnetic field.

     During the accretion of material to the protoplanet, a cloud of gaseous silica must have surrounded the Earth, to condense afterwards as solid rocks on the surface. What was left surrounding the planet was an early atmosphere of light (atmophile) elements from the solar nebula, mainly hydrogen and helium, but the solar wind and Earth's heat would have driven off this atmosphere.

     This changed when Earth was about 40% its present radius, and gravitational attraction retained an atmosphere which included water.      

     A rare characteristic of our planet is its large natural satellite, the Moon.  During the Apollo program, rocks from the Moon's surface were brought to Earth. Radiometric dating of these rocks has shown the Moon to be 4527 ± 10 million years old, about 30 to 55 million years younger than other bodies in the solar system. Another special feature is the relatively low density of the Moon, which must mean it does not have a large metallic core, like all other terrestrial bodies in the solar system. The Moon has a bulk composition closely resembling the Earth's mantle and crust together, without the Earth's core. This has led to the giant impact hypothesis, the idea that the Moon was formed during a giant impact of the proto-Earth with another protoplanet, by accretion of the material blown off the mantles of the proto-Earth and impactor.

Moon Impact
Animation of the capture of Theia by Earth.  Click to view larger.  (Picture Source)
   The impactor, sometimes named
Theia, is thought to have been a little smaller than the current planet Mars. It could have formed by accretion of matter about 150 million kilometres from both the Sun and Earth, at their fourth or fifth Lagrangian point. Its orbit may have been stable at first, but destabilized as Theia's mass increased due to the accretion of matter. Theia oscillated in larger and larger orbits around the Lagrangian point until it finally collided with Earth about 4.533 Ga.

     Models show that when an impactor this size struck the proto-Earth at a low angle and relatively low speed (8–20 km/sec), much material from the mantles (and proto-crusts) of the proto-Earth and the impactor was ejected into space, where much of it stayed in orbit around the Earth. This material would eventually form the Moon. However, the metallic cores of the impactor would have sunk through the Earth's mantle to fuse with the Earth's core, depleting the Moon of metallic material. The giant impact hypothesis thus explains the Moon's abnormal composition. The ejecta in orbit around the Earth could have condensed into a single body within a couple of weeks. Under the influence of its own gravity, the ejected material became a more spherical body: the Moon.

     The radiometric ages show the Earth existed already for at least 10 million years before the impact, enough time to allow for differentiation of the Earth's primitive mantle and core. Then, when the impact occurred, only material from the mantle was ejected, leaving the Earth's core of heavy siderophile elements untouched.

     The impact had some important consequences for the young Earth. It released a gigantic amount of energy, causing both the Earth and Moon to be completely molten. Immediately after the impact, the Earth's mantle was vigorously convecting, the surface was a large magma ocean. Due to the enormous amount of energy released, the planet's first atmosphere must have been completely blown off. The impact is also thought to have changed Earth’s axis to produce the large 23.5° axial tilt that is responsible for Earth’s seasons (a simple, ideal model of the planets’ origins would have axial tilts of 0° with no recognizable seasons). It may also have sped up Earth’s rotation.

Origin of the Oceans and Atmosphere

     Because the Earth lacked an atmosphere immediately after the giant impact, cooling must have been fast. Within 150 million years a solid crust with a basaltic composition must have formed. The felsic continental crust of today did not yet exist. Within the Earth, further differentiation could only begin when the mantle had at least partly solidified again. Nevertheless, during the early Archaean (about 3.0 Ga) the mantle was still much hotter than today, probably around 1600°C. This means the fraction of partially molten material was still much larger than today.

     Steam escaped from the crust, and more gases were released by volcanoes, completing the second atmosphere. Additional water was imported by bolide collisions, probably from asteroids ejected from the outer asteroid belt under the influence of Jupiter's gravity.

     The large amount of water on Earth can never have been produced by volcanism and degassing alone. It is assumed the water was derived from impacting comets that contained ice. Though most comets are today in orbits farther away from the Sun than Neptune, computer simulations show they were originally far more common in the inner parts of the solar system. However, most of the water on Earth was probably derived from small impacting protoplanets, objects comparable with today's small icy moons of the outer planets. Impacts of these objects can have enriched the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars) with water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, nitrogen and other volatiles. If all water in the Earth's oceans was derived from comets alone, a million impacting comets are required to explain the oceans. Computer simulations show this is not an unreasonable number.

     As the planet cooled, clouds formed. Rain created the oceans. Recent evidence suggests the oceans may have begun forming by 4.2 Ga, or as early as 4.4 Ga. In any event, by the start of the Archaean eon the Earth was already covered with oceans. The new atmosphere probably contained water vapor, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen, as well as smaller amounts of other gases. As the output of the Sun was only 70% of the current amount, the presence of significant amounts of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere most likely prevented the surface water from freezing. Any free oxygen would have been bound by hydrogen or minerals on the surface. Volcanic activity was intense and, without an ozone layer to hinder its entry, ultraviolet radiation flooded the surface.

The First Continents

      Mantle convection, the process that drives plate tectonics today, is a result of heat flow from the core to the Earth's surface. It involves the creation of rigid tectonic plates at mid-oceanic ridges. These plates are destroyed by subduction into the mantle at subduction zones. The inner Earth was warmer during the Hadean and Archaean eons, so convection in the mantle must have been faster. When a process similar to present day plate tectonics did occur, this will have gone faster too. Most geologists think that in the Hadean and Archaean subduction zones were more common, and therefore tectonic plates were smaller.

     The initial crust, formed when the Earth's surface first solidified, totally disappeared from a combination of this fast Hadean plate tectonics and the intense impacts of the Late Heavy Bombardment. It is however assumed that this crust must have been basaltic in composition like today's oceanic crust, because little crustal differentiation had yet taken place. The first larger pieces of continental crust, which is a product of differentiation of lighter elements during partial melting in the lower crust, appeared at the start of the Archaean, about 4.0 Ga. What is left of these first small continents are called cratons. These pieces of Archaean crust form the cores around which today's continents grew.

     The oldest rocks on Earth are found in the North American craton of Canada. They are tonalites and about 4.0 Ga. They show traces of metamorphism by high temperature, but also sedimentary grains that have been rounded by erosion during transport by water, showing rivers and seas existed at the time.

     Cratons consist mostly of two alternating types of terranes. The first are so called greenstone belts, consisting of low grade metamorphosed sedimentary rocks. These "greenstones" are similar to the sediments today found in oceanic trenches, above subduction zones. For this reason, greenstones are sometimes seen as evidence for subduction during the Archaean. The second type are complexes of felsic magmatic rocks. These rocks are mostly tonalite, trondhjemite or granodiorite, types of rock similar in composition to granite (hence such terranes are called TTG-terranes). TTG-complexes are seen as the relicts of the first continental crust, formed by partial melting in basalt. The alternation between greenstone belts and TTG-complexes is interpreted as a tectonic situation in which small proto-continents were separated by a thorough network of subduction zones.

     In the last decades of the 20th century geologists identified a few Hadean rocks from Western Greenland, Northwestern Canada and Western Australia. The oldest known rock formations (the Isua greenstone belt) comprise sediments from Greenland dated around 3.8 billion years ago somewhat altered by a volcanic dike that penetrated the rocks after they were deposited. Individual zircon crystals redeposited in sediments in Western Canada and the Jack Hills region of Western Australia are much older. The oldest dated zircons date from about 4,400 Ma – very close to the hypothesized time of the Earth's formation.

     The Greenland sediments include banded iron beds. They contain possibly organic carbon and imply some possibility that photosynthetic life had already emerged at that time. The oldest known fossils (from Australia) date from a few hundred million years later.

     A sizeable quantity of water would have been in the material which formed the Earth.  Water molecules would have escaped Earth's gravity more easily when it was less massive during its formation. Hydrogen and helium are expected to continually leak from the atmosphere, but the lack of denser noble gases in the modern atmosphere suggests that something disastrous happened to the early atmosphere.

     Part of the young planet is theorized to have been disrupted by the impact which created the Moon, which should have caused melting of one or two large areas. Present composition does not match complete melting and it is hard to completely melt and mix huge rock masses.  However, a fair fraction of material should have been vaporized by this impact, creating a rock vapor atmosphere around the young planet. The rock vapor would have condensed within two thousand years, leaving behind hot volatiles which probably resulted in a heavy carbon dioxide atmosphere with hydrogen and water vapor. Liquid water oceans existed despite the surface temperature of 230 °C because of the atmospheric pressure of the heavy CO2 atmosphere. As cooling continued, subduction and dissolving in ocean water removed most CO2 from the atmosphere but levels oscillated wildly as new surface and mantle cycles appeared.

     Study of zircons has found that liquid water must have existed as long ago as 4400 Ma, very soon after the formation of the Earth.  This requires the presence of an atmosphere. The Cool Early Earth theory covers a range from about 4400 Ma to 4000 Ma.

     Recent (September 2008) studies of zircons found in Australian Hadean rock hold minerals that point to the existence of plate tectonics as early as 4 billion years ago.  If this holds true, the previous beliefs about the Hadean period are far from correct. That is, rather than a hot, molten surface and atmosphere full of carbon dioxide, the earth's surface would be very much like it is today. The action of plate tectonics traps vast amounts of carbon dioxide, thereby eliminating the greenhouse effects and leading to a much cooler surface temperature and the formation of solid rock, and possibly even life.

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Source: Precambrian, History of the Earth