Earth was wet in its youth

Earth seen from space

Extreme greenhouse concentrations weren't needed to keep Earth's oceans from freezing billions of years ago.

Four billion years ago, our then stripling Sun radiated only 70 to 75 percent as much energy as it does today. Other things on Earth being equal, with so little energy reaching the planet’s surface, all water on the planet should been have frozen.

But ancient rocks hold ample evidence that the early Earth was awash in liquid water – a planetary ocean of it. So something must have compensated for the reduced solar output and kept Earth’s water wet.

To explain this apparent paradox, a popular theory holds there must have been higher concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, most likely carbon dioxide, which would have helped retain a greater proportion of the solar energy that arrived.

But a team of scientists including researchers from Stanford have analysed the mineral content of 3.8-billion-year-old marine rocks from Greenland and concluded otherwise.

Swirls of cloud over the ocean

Swirls of cloud over the ocean

“There is no geologic evidence in these rocks for really high concentrations of a greenhouse gas like carbon dioxide,” said Dennis Bird, professor of geological and environmental sciences.

Instead, the team proposes that the vast global ocean of early Earth absorbed a greater percentage of the incoming solar energy than today’s oceans, enough to ward off a frozen planet.

Earth was a water world

Because the first landmasses that formed on Earth were small – mere islands in the planetary sea – a far greater proportion of the surface was covered with water than today.

The crux of the theory is that because oceans are darker than continents, particularly before plants and soils covered landmasses, seas absorb more sunlight.

“It’s the same phenomenon you will experience if you drive to Wal-Mart on a hot day and step out of your car onto the asphalt,” Bird said. “It’s really hot walking across the blacktop until you get onto the white concrete sidewalk.”

Another key component of the theory is in the clouds. “Not all clouds are the same,” Bird said.

Clouds reflect sunlight back into space to a degree, cooling Earth, but how effective they are depends on the number of tiny particles available to serve as nuclei around which the water droplets can condense. An abundance of nuclei means more droplets of a smaller size, which makes for a denser cloud and a greater reflectivity, or albedo, on the part of the cloud.

The edge of Earth's atmosphere

The edge of Earth's atmosphere

Most nuclei today are generated by plants or algae and promote the formation of numerous small droplets. But plants and algae didn’t flourish until much later in Earth’s history, so their contribution of potential nuclei to the early atmosphere circa 4 billion years ago would have been minimal. The few nuclei that might have been available would likely have come from erosion of rock on the small, rare landmasses of the day and would have caused larger droplets that were essentially transparent to the solar energy that came in to Earth, according to Bird.

“We put together some models that demonstrate, with the slow continental growth and with a limited amount of clouds, you could keep water above freezing throughout geologic history,” Bird said.

Adapted from information issued by Stanford University.

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