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The record of impact processes on the early Earth: A review of the first 2.5 billion years

Christian Koeberl
Christian Koeberl
Department of Geological Sciences, University of Vienna, Althanstrasse 14, A-1090 Vienna, Austria
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January 01, 2006

Collisions and impact processes have been important throughout the history of the solar system, including that of the Earth. Small bodies in the early solar system, the planetesimals, grew through collisions, ultimately forming the planets. The Earth started growing ca. 4.56 Ga in this way. Its early history was dominated by violent impacts and collisions, of which we only have circumstantial evidence. The Earth was still growing and had reached ∼70%–80% of its present mass when at ca. 4.5 Ga a Mars-sized protoplanet collided with Earth, leading to the formation of the moon—at least according to the currently most popular hypothesis of lunar origin. After its formation, the moon was subjected to intense post-accretionary bombardment between ca. 4.5 and 3.9 Ga. In addition, there is convincing evidence that the Moon experienced an interval of intense bombardment with a maximum at ca. 3.85 ± 0.05 Ga; subsequent mare plains as old as 3.7 or 3.8 Ga are preserved. It is evident that if a late heavy bombardment occurred on the Moon, the Earth must have been subjected to an impact flux at least as intense as that recorded on the Moon. The consequences for the Earth must have been devastating, although the exact consequences are the subject of debate (total remelting of the crust versus minimal effects on possibly emerging life forms). So far, no unequivocal record of a late heavy bombardment on the early Earth has been found. The earliest rocks on Earth date back to slightly after the end of the heavy bombardment, although there are relict zircons that have ages of up to 4.4 Ga (in which, however, no impact-characteristic shock features were found so far). In terms of evidence for impact on Earth, the first solid evidence exists in the form of various spherule layers found in South Africa and Australia with ages between ca. 3.4 and 2.5 Ga; these layers represent several (the exact number is still unknown) large-scale impact events. The oldest documented (and preserved) impact craters on Earth have ages of 2.02 and 1.86 Ga. Thus, the impact record for more than half of the geological history of the Earth is incomplete and not well preserved, and we mostly have only indirect evidence regarding the impact record and its effects during the first 2.5 b.y. of Earth history.

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GSA Special Papers

Processes on the Early Earth

Wolf Uwe Reimold
Wolf Uwe Reimold
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Roger L. Gibson
Roger L. Gibson
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Geological Society of America
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Publication date:
January 01, 2006


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