Gas bubble dimensions in Archean lava flows indicate low air pressure at 2.7 Ga

Friday, 19 December 2014
Sanjoy M Som, Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, Seattle, WA, United States, Roger Buick, University of Washington, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, Seattle, WA, United States, James Hagadorn, Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver, CO, United States, Tim Blake, University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA, Australia, John Perreault, University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK, United States, Jelte Harnmeijer, Edinburgh Centre for Carbon Innovation, Edinburgh, United Kingdom and David C Catling, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States
Air pressure constrains atmospheric composition, which, in turn, is linked to the Earth system through biogeochemical cycles and fluxes of volatiles from and to the Earth’s interior. Previous studies have only placed maximum levels on surface air pressure for the early Earth [1]. Here, we calculate an absolute value for Archean barometric pressure using gas bubble size (vesicle) distributions in uninflated basaltic lava flows that solidified at sea level 2.7 billion years ago in the Pilbara Craton, Western Australia. These vesicles have been filled in by secondary minerals deposited during metasomatism and so are now amydules, but thin sections show that infilling did not change vesicle dimensions. Amygdule dimensions are measured using high-resolution X-ray tomography from core samples obtained from the top and bottom of the lava flows. The modal size expressed at the top and at the bottom of an uninflated flow can be linked to atmospheric pressure using the ideal gas law. Such a technique has been verified as a paleoaltimeter using Hawaiian Quaternary lava flows [2]. We use statistical methods to estimate the mean and standard deviation of the volumetric size of the amygdules by applying ‘bootstrap’resampling and the Central Limit Theorem. Our data indicate a surprisingly low atmospheric pressure. Greater nitrogen burial under anaerobic conditions likely explains lower pressure. Refs: [1] Som et al. (2012) Nature 484, 359-262. D. L. Sahagian et al. (2002) J. Geol., 110, 671-685.