Iron formations are economically important sedimentary rocks that are most common in Precambrian sedimentary successions. Although many aspects of their origin remain unresolved, it is widely accepted that secular changes in the style of their deposition are linked to environmental and geochemical evolution of Earth. Two types of Precambrian iron formations have been recognized with respect to their depositional setting. Algoma-type iron formations are interlayered with or stratigraphically linked to submarine-emplaced volcanic rocks in greenstone belts and, in some cases, with volcanogenic massive sulfide (VMS) deposits. In contrast, larger Superior-type iron formations are developed in passive-margin sedimentary rock successions and generally lack direct relationships with volcanic rocks. The early distinction made between these two iron-formation types, although mimimized by later studies, remains a valid first approximation. Texturally, iron formations were also divided into two groups. Banded iron formation (BIF) is dominant in Archean to earliest Paleoproterozoic successions, whereas granular iron formation (GIF) is much more common in Paleoproterozoic successions. Secular changes in the style of iron-formation deposition, identified more than 20 years ago, have been linked to diverse environmental changes. Geochronologic studies emphasize the episodic nature of the deposition of giant iron formations, as they are coeval with, and genetically linked to, time periods when large igneous provinces (LIPs) were emplaced. Superior-type iron formation first appeared at ca. 2.6 Ga, when construction of large continents changed the heat flux at the core-mantle boundary. From ca. 2.6 to ca. 2.4 Ga, global mafic magmatism culminated in the deposition of giant Superior-type BIF in South Africa, Australia, Brazil, Russia, and Ukraine. The younger BIFs in this age range were deposited during the early stage of a shift from reducing to oxidizing conditions in the ocean-atmosphere system. Counterintuitively, enhanced magmatism at 2.50 to 2.45 Ga may have triggered atmospheric oxidation. After the rise of atmospheric oxygen during the GOE at ca. 2.4 Ga, GIF became abundant in the rock record, compared to the predominance of BIF prior to the Great Oxidation Event (GOE). Iron formations generally disappeared at ca. 1.85 Ga, reappearing at the end of the Neoproterozoic, again tied to periods of intense magmatic activity and also, in this case, to global glaciations, the so-called Snowball Earth events. By the Phanerozoic, marine iron deposition was restricted to local areas of closed to semiclosed basins, where volcanic and hydrothermal activity was extensive (e.g., back-arc basins), with ironstones additionally being linked to periods of intense magmatic activity and ocean anoxia.

Late Paleoproterozoic iron formations and Paleozoic ironstones were deposited at the redoxcline where biological and nonbiological oxidation occurred. In contrast, older iron formations were deposited in anoxic oceans, where ferrous iron oxidation by anoxygenic photosynthetic bacteria was likely an important process. Endogenic and exogenic factors contributed to produce the conditions necessary for deposition of iron formation. Mantle plume events that led to the formation of LIPs also enhanced spreading rates of midocean ridges and produced higher growth rates of oceanic plateaus, both processes thus having contributed to a higher hydrothermal flux to the ocean. Oceanic and atmospheric redox states determined the fate of this flux. When the hydrothermal flux overwhelmed the oceanic oxidation state, iron was transported and deposited distally from hydrothermal vents. Where the hydrothermal flux was insufficient to overwhelm the oceanic redox state, iron was deposited only proximally, generally as oxides or sulfides. Manganese, in contrast, was more mobile. We conclude that occurrences of BIF, GIF, Phanerozoic ironstones, and exhalites surrounding VMS systems record a complex interplay involving mantle heat, tectonics, and surface redox conditions throughout Earth history, in which mantle heat unidirectionally declined and the surface oxidation state mainly unidirectionally increased, accompanied by superimposed shorter term fluctuations.

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