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Geosciences LibreTexts

8.3: Hadean Eon

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    6890
  • Geoscientists use the geological time scale to assign relative age names to events and rocks, separating major events in Earth’s history based on significant changes as recorded in rocks and fossils. This section summarizes the most notable events of each major time interval. For a breakdown of how these time intervals are chosen and organized, see chapter 7.

    17.18_Geologic_Time_Scale_with_years-1.jpg
    Figure: Geologic Time Scale with ages shown

    The Hadean Eon, named after the Greek god and ruler of the underworld Hades, is the oldest eon and dates from 4.5–4.0 billion years ago.

    This time represents Earth’s earliest history, during which the planet was characterized by a partially molten surface, volcanism, and asteroid impacts. Several mechanisms made the newly forming Earth incredibly hot: gravitational compression, radioactive decay, and asteroid impacts. Most of this initial heat still exists inside the Earth. The Hadean was originally defined as the birth of the planet occurring 4.0 billion years ago and preceding the existence of many rocks and life forms. However, geologists have dated minerals at 4.4 billion years, with evidence that liquid water was present [18]. There is possibly even evidence of life existing over 4.0 billion years ago. However, the most reliable record for early life, the microfossil record, starts at 3.5 billion years ago.

    The surface of Earth is full of volcanoes.
    Figure: Artist’s impression of the Earth in the Hadean.

    8.3.1: Origin of Earth’s Crust

    As Earth cooled from its molten state, minerals started to crystallize and settle resulting in a separation of minerals based on density and the creation of the crust, mantle, and core. The earliest Earth was chiefly molten material and would have been rounded by gravitational forces so it resembled a ball of lava floating in space. As the outer part of the Earth slowly cooled, the high melting-point minerals (see Bowen’s Reaction Series in Chapter 4) formed solid slabs of early crust. These slabs were probably unstable and easily reabsorbed into the liquid magma until the Earth cooled enough to allow numerous larger fragments to form a thin primitive crust. Scientists generally assume this crust was oceanic and mafic in composition and littered with impacts, much like the Moon’s current crust. There is still some debate over when plate tectonics started, which would have led to the formation of the continental and the felsic crust [23]. Regardless of this, as Earth cooled and solidified, less dense felsic minerals floated to the surface of the Earth to form the crust, while the denser mafic and ultramafic materials sank to form the mantle and the highest-density iron and nickel sank into the core. This differentiated the Earth from a homogenous planet into a heterogeneous one with layers of felsic crust, mafic crust, ultramafic mantle, and iron and nickel core.

    MohoDepth.png
    Figure: The global map of the depth of the moho, or thickness of the crust.

    8.3.2: Origin of the Moon

    It looks different then the side we don't normally see.
    Figure: Dark side of the Moon

    Several unique features of Earth’s Moon have prompted scientists to develop the current hypothesis about its formation. The Earth and Moon are tidally locked, meaning that as the Moon orbits, one side always faces the Earth and the opposite side is not visible to us. Also and most importantly, the chemical compositions of the Earth and Moon show nearly identical isotope ratios [24] and volatile content. Apollo missions returned from the Moon with rocks that allowed scientists to conduct very precise comparisons between Moon and Earth rocks. Other bodies in the solar system and meteorites do not share the same degree of similarity and show much higher variability. If the Moon and Earth formed together, this would explain why they are so chemically similar.

    The Earth and this object are colliding in a giant explosion.
    Figure: Artist’s concept of the giant impact from a Mars-sized object that could have formed the moon.

    Many ideas have been proposed for the origin of the Moon: The Moon could have been captured from another part of the solar system and formed in place together with the Earth, or the Moon could have been ripped out of the early Earth. None of the proposed explanations can account for all the evidence. The currently prevailing hypothesis is the giant-impact hypothesis. It proposes a body about half of Earth’s size must have shared at least parts of Earth’s orbit and collided with it, resulting in a violent mixing and scattering of material from both objects. Both bodies would be composed of a combination of materials, with more of the lower density splatter coalescing into the Moon. This may explain why the Earth has a higher density and thicker core than the Moon.

    Computer simulation of the evolution of the Moon (2 minutes).

    8.3.3: Origin of Earth’s Water

    Explanations for the origin of Earth’s water include volcanic outgassing, comets, and meteorites. The volcanic outgassing hypothesis for the origin of Earth’s water is that it originated from inside the planet, and emerged via tectonic processes as vapor associated with volcanic eruptions [27]. Since all volcanic eruptions contain some water vapor, at times more than 1% of the volume, these alone could have created Earth’s surface water. Another likely source of water was from space. Comets are a mixture of dust and ice, with some or most of that ice being frozen water. Seemingly dry meteors can contain small but measurable amounts of water, usually trapped in their mineral structures [28; 29]. During heavy bombardment periods later in Earth’s history, its cooled surface was pummeled by comets and meteorites, which could be why so much water exists above ground. There isn’t a definitive answer to what process is the source of ocean water. Earth’s water isotopically matches water found in meteorites much better than that of comets [30]. However, it is hard to know if Earth processes could have changed the water’s isotopic signature over the last 4-plus billion years. It is possible that all three sources contributed to the origin of Earth’s water.

    Jets are seen coming off of the comet.
    Figure: Water vapor leaves comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.