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Geological and geochemical characteristics of banded iron formations (BIFs) suggest that they formed by mixing locally (or regionally) discharged submarine hydrothermal fluids with local seawater, rather than by upwelling deep ocean water. Submarine hydrothermal fluids typically evolved from local seawater by acquiring heat, metals, and sulfur during deep circulation through a variety of rocks (e.g., volcanics, evaporites) in greenstone terranes that developed under a variety of tectonic settings. In general, when the fluids were heated above ∼350 °C, they may have produced Cu- and Zn-rich volcanogenic massive sulfide deposits (VMSDs), whereas those heated less than ∼200 °C were generally poor in H2S and heavy metals, except Fe, and may have subsequently produced BIFs.

Depending on the salinity contrast between discharging hydrothermal fluids (evolved seawater) and local seawater, hydrothermal fluids may (1) mix rapidly with local seawater to form smoker-type BIFs or (2) create a metal- and silica-rich brine pool, mix slowly with the overlying water body, and form brine pool-type BIFs. BIFs associated with VMSDs and volcanic rocks generally belong to smoker-type BIFs; many formed at seawater depths >2.5 km. Large BIFs, including the 2.6–2.4 Ga BIFs in the Hamersley Basin, Australia, the 2.5 Ga Kuruman IF in South Africa, and the 1.87 Ga BIFs in the Lake Superior region, United States-Canada, belong to brine pool-type BIFs. The Hamersley Basin and possibly other large BIF-hosting basins were probably land-locked seas (like the Black Sea) where river waters diluted the surface water zone and the underlying water bodies were anoxic.

During the accumulation of a BIF sequence, the dominant Fe mineralogy frequently changed from ferric (hydr)oxides (oxide BIFs) to siderite (carbonate BIFs) and to pyrite (sulfide BIFs). Such changes were probably caused by changes in the relative amounts of dissolved O2 (DO), ΣCO3 2−, and ΣS2− in local seawater. From the Fe2+-O2 mass balance calculations for the formation of iron oxides in smoker-type BIFs, and the relationship between the atmospheric pO2 and oceanic O2 depth profile, we conclude that the atmosphere and oceans have been fully oxygenated since ca. 3.8 Ga, except in local anoxic basins. Thermodynamic analyses of the formational conditions of siderite and analyses of the carbon isotopic composition of siderite associated with major BIFs suggest that the pre–1.8 Ga atmosphere was CO2-rich (pCO2 >100 PAL) and CH4-poor (pCH4 ≈ 10 ppm); therefore, CO2, rather than CH4, was the major greenhouse gas throughout geologic history.

After a decline of hydrothermal fluid flux, BIF-hosting basins generally became euxinic (H2S-rich) because of the increased activity of sulfate-reducing bacteria (SRB) and SO4 2−-rich seawater, and thereby accumulated organic carbon-rich and pyrite-rich black shales (sulfide-type BIFs). The SO4 2− contents and SRB activity in the oceans have been essentially the same since ca. 3.8 Ga. The Archean oceans were most likely poor in both Fe2+ and silica, much like modern oceans. Our study also suggests that diverse communities of organisms, including cyanobacteria, SRB, methanogens, methanotrophs, and eukaryotes, evolved very early in Earth's history, probably by the time the oldest BIFs (ca. 3.8 Ga) formed.

BIFs have been found in rocks of all geologic age. Therefore, they cannot be indicators of an anoxic atmosphere and/or anoxic oceans as suggested by many previous researchers. Instead, BIFs indicate that the atmosphere and ocean chemistry have been regulated at present compositions (except pCO2) through geologic history by interactions with the biosphere. The general trend of declining size and abundance of BIFs with geologic time reflects the cooling history of Earth's interior.

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