from the world's big
'Waterworld' was a documentary? Geologists think Earth could have once been 100% ocean
The Hollywood blockbuster may have been right, if only 3.2 billion years off the mark.
- Researchers find evidence that Earth may have been submerged in a global ocean during the Archaean eon.
- The research could change our understanding of how life emerged.
- It's one of many recent studies changing how we view our planet's infancy.
In the 1995 film "Waterworld" climate change melts the polar ice caps, raising Earth's oceans 25,000 feet and submerging its continents beneath a globe-spanning ocean. It's a fun and unique premise as far as apocalypses go. It's also utter bunkum.
Of course, even modest sea level rises are projected to displace hundreds of millions of coastal people, increase the risk of devastating storm surges, and destroy ecosystems and agriculture hubs through saltwater intrusion. Not to mention other climate change concerns like ocean acidification and deoxygenation. Maybe a life of trimarans and pyrotechnic water battles won't be so bad.
But if Hollywood wants to make good on its post-apocalyptic title, it can. It just needs to set the inevitable remake 3.2 billion years in the past.
A pre-apocalyptic water world
Benjamin Johnson inspects an ancient hydrothermal vent in the Panorama district.
(Photo: Jana Meixnerova/University of Colorado at Boulder)
According to research published this month in Nature Geoscience, Earth may have once been engulfed by a global ocean. With few to no landmasses present, this period in our planet's history may have serious implications for how life emerged.
Coauthors Boswell Wing, associate professor in the Department of Geological Science at the University of Colorado Boulder, and Benjamin Johnson, assistant professor of geology and atmospheric sciences at Iowa State University, began their research wanting to take the Earth's ancient temperature.
To do so, they traveled to the Panorama district in Northwestern Australia. This geological site houses an Archaean-eon chunk of ocean crust where chemical sediments are preserved in ancient hydrothermal vents that once filtered a young ocean's water.
"There are no samples of really ancient ocean water lying around, but we do have rocks that interacted with that seawater and remembered that interaction," Johnson said in a release. The researchers took more than 100 rock samples to examine — a process Johnson likens to "analyzing coffee grounds to gather information about the water that poured through it."
Using their samples and a library of existing data, Wing and Johnson created a cross-section grid of oxygen isotopes and temperature values.
Isotopes are variants of a chemical element. They sport the same number of protons as the vanilla form of their element, but a different number of neutrons. They can also be preserved in ancient rock where geologists can measure them. By comparing occurrences of "heavy" and "light" isotopes, geologists can reveal the general environmental conditions that led to such a ratio.
A pale bluer dot
Theres...not much to see on water world.
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Johnson and Wing's data showed that the Oxygen-18 isotope was more abundant in the Archaean ocean than in today's relatively ice-free oceans (roughly 4 percent more).
While a small difference, the larger presence of these "heavy" isotopes has important implications due to their sensitivity to landmasses. Continents slurp up Oxygen-18 as water filters through their clay-rich soils, thus removing these isotopes from the oceans.
The researchers theorized that Oxygen-18's larger presence may have resulted from a simple lack of continents. While Earth may have sported a few landmasses, they would have been small, few, and far between. As larger landmasses emerged, weather and other water-rock interactions would have drawn down Oxygen-18 levels to present conditions.
"There's nothing in what we've done that says you can't have teeny, micro-continents sticking out of the oceans," Wing said. "We just don't think that there was global-scale formation of continental soils like we have today."
If corroborated by future research, this understanding of the Earth's past could change our understanding of how life emerged on our beloved pale blue dot.
It has long been debated whether life began in the ocean or freshwater ecosystems on land. The earliest known life forms were microbes, and clues in the fossil evidence date their arrival to at least 3.7 billion years ago. But since life can only evolve in the presence of its particular environment, a lack of land would render the debate over.
"Without continents and land above sea level, the only place for the very first ecosystems to evolve would have been in the ocean," Johnson said.
Land ho! But when?
But Wing and Johnson's theory is just that: a theory. They admit another possibility is that warmer waters interacted in such a way to enrich the oceans with Oxygen-18 isotopes.
To test their hypothesis further, the two researchers plan to collect samples from younger rock formations at other sites. Their goal is to try to determine when large landmasses first breached the ocean blue.
Elsewhere, others are also trying to fill in Earth's baby book. After measuring iron isotopes, researchers from the University of Copenhagen recently proposed that proto-Earth may have formed in as few as five million years. Another study, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, theorizes that the hydrogen needed to create Earth's damp dunnage may have originated in our cradle nebula.
"Trying to fill that gap is really important," Johnson said.
- Understanding the (Really Ridiculous) Core Tenets of the Flat Earth ... ›
- How Earth sheds heat into space | MIT News ›
- Could Earth have a 'shadow' biosphere? - Big Think ›
Innovation in manufacturing has crawled since the 1950s. That's about to speed up.
Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Seriously sustainable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDIzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjM4NTMzMX0.BCEfYnn6C3z1zUHIS38xOWjXktgamNBi5iyqklSMYK8/img.png?width=980" id="ea524" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="50533380eeb18eb5833b6b6aa3abec38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from air using <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90356326/we-have-the-tech-to-suck-co2-from-the-air-but-can-it-suck-enough-to-make-a-difference" target="_blank">carbon-capture technology</a>, and then combines it with water, nutrients and vitamins, using 100 percent renewable solar energy from partner <a href="https://www.fortum.com" target="_blank">Fortum</a> to promote a natural fermentation process similar to the one that produces yeast and lactic acid bacteria.</p><p>When the company claims its single-celled protein is "free from agricultural limitations," they're not kidding. Being produced indoors means Solar Foods is not dependent on arable land, water (i.e., rain), or favorable weather.</p><p>The company is already working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption. (The idea for Solein actually began at NASA.) They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible.</p><p>And let's not forget all those <a href="https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper" target="_blank">beef-free burgers</a> based on pea and soy proteins currently gaining popularity. The environmental challenge of scaling up the supply of those plants to meet their high demand may provide an opening for the completely renewable Solein — the company could provide companies that produce animal-free "meats," such as <a href="https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/" target="_blank">Beyond Meat</a> and <a href="https://impossiblefoods.com" target="_blank">Impossible Foods</a>, a way to further reduce their environmental impact.</p>
The larger promise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDI0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjU4MTg2OX0.7dZZYT5WEV_EupBuLVFwHynarTiz8RYR9aJtC6Ts2C4/img.jpg?width=980" id="3415d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e6eebe06d795f844752f9e9d30040d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>The impact of the beef — and for that matter, poultry, pork, and fish — industries on our planet is widely recognized as one of the main drivers behind climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and antibiotic-resistant illness. From the cutting down of rainforests for cattle-grazing land, to runoff from factory farming of livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, it's been disastrous.</p><p>The advent of a promising source of protein derived from two of the most renewable things we have, CO₂ and sunlight, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/environmental-impact/" target="_blank">gets us out of the planet-destruction business</a> at the same time as it offers the promise of a stable, long-term solution to one of the world's most fundamental nutritional needs.</p>
Solar Foods' timetable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MTEzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTU1OTMwMn0.wnXh56iO_77x2XKV2uIPf78BKw4AJLUpmiyq_JBVGvo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=172%2C146%2C62%2C135&height=700" id="0297c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="125c9a98ec818f5c241fa28ef1423e67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Lubsan / Shutterstock / Big Think<p>While company plans are always moderated by unforeseen events — including the availability of sufficient funding — Solar Foods plans a global commercial rollout for Solein in 2021 and to be producing two million meals annually, with a revenue of $800 million to $1.2 billion by 2023. By 2050, they hope to be providing sustenance to 9 billion people as part of a $500 billion protein market.</p><p>The project began in 2018, and this year, they anticipate achieving three things: Launching Solein (check), beginning the approval process certifying its safety as a Novel Food in the EU, and publishing plans for a 1,000-metric ton-per-year factory capable of producing 500 million meals annually.</p>
The protein powder Solein. Image source: SOLAR FOODS
Pandemic-inspired housing innovation will collide with techno-acceleration.
Is CRISPR the solution?
Even as the COVID-19 pandemic cripples the economy and kills hundreds of people each day, there is another epidemic that continues to kill tens of thousands of people each year through opioid drug overdose.