Deciphering an Enigma

The banded iron ores of the Hamersley Gorge in Karijini National Park of northwestern Australia date back to the archaic epoch of our planet. About 2500 million years ago, these layered banded iron sediments were deposited at the bottom of a shallow sea. Bacteria played a decisive role in this process. They had the ability to oxidize the iron dissolved in seawater, causing it to sink to the sea floor as rusty mud. The distinctive feature of these bacteria was that they managed to do so in the absence of free oxygen in the deeper ocean by anoxygenic photosynthesis. At this time, the shallow marine environment contained only small amounts of free oxygen. This free oxygen was produced by cyanobacteria, the blue-green algae that for the first time utilized an oxygenic photosynthesis metabolism. In doing so, they additionally helped oxidizing the iron in the seawater.

The colorful rock layers are preserved horizontally just as they were deposited billions of years ago. This is strikingly remarkable, because it implies that these banded iron ores have hardly changed at all since their formation 2500 million years ago. The relentless tectonic forces that have continuously been reshaping the Earth ever since left this part of the planet pristine. Only a few undulating wave-like folds can be seen in the rock, but the strata never fractured.

The individual rock layers vary in thickness between millimeters and decimeters and vary in color from layer to layer, depending on their iron content and the mineral assemblages they contain. Dark layers ranging from intense red to bluish grey tones contain high iron contents and alternate with lighter-colored layers consisting mainly of microcrystalline quartz, known as chert or hornstone.

In phases of increased submarine volcanic activity, large amounts of iron were pulsed out from the mid-ocean ridge and transported by upwelling ocean currents onto the shallow shelf seas of the Pilbara Continent. During these periods the iron-oxidizing bacteria were thriving and thus created the dark rust-colored layers. During quiescent periods of volcanic activity or when the ocean currents were unfavorable to transport dissolved iron, the lighter chert layers were sedimented because the seawater was saturated with silica. Both processes no longer occur today. Today the biologically produced oxygen released into the atmosphere and the ocean prevents the presence of dissolved iron in seawater. Moreover, numerous marine microorganisms consume vast amounts of silica to produce their skeletons. After their death, these tiny skeletons sink to the bottom of the ocean. This process is a very effective biological removal of silica.

The thin-banded iron ore layers can be horizontally tracked over hundreds of kilometers. Therefore, the deposition must have taken place under calm and stable conditions over a very long period. This also requires a water depth in the warm shallow seas of the continental shelf of at least 200 m (650 ft), as otherwise storm wave events such as typhoons would have dispersed and mixed the sediments. Bioturbation by animals did not yet exist.

The deposition processes could have taken up to 350 million years, with a sedimentation rate of about one millimeter per year. Due to the load of the sediments and the resulting high pressure and temperature, the muddy layers slowly solidified and turned into rock. In the meantime, mineral assemblages and natrium-containing solutions penetrated into the rock layers along microscopic veins and relocated the minerals. This resulted in the rich coloring of the banded iron ores, which reach a thickness of up to 500 m (1640 ft) in the Karijini National Park.

The gorges of Karijini cut into these extremely old strata only a few million years ago. The reason was a mild collision between the Australian and the Pacific plate, which caused the entire Pilbara Block to uplift slightly. This uplift caused vertical cracks in the strata that weakened the rocks and allowed streams and creeks to slowly incise into this archaic landscape. Seasonal thunderstorms produce torrential rainfall with flash floods that effectively erode this landscape. Over a period of about 20 million years, this created the mesmerizing gorges of Karijini with the spectacular Hamersley Gorge and its beautiful Spa Pool.

January 2017
Canon 5DSR, Rokinon 14 mm, f/22, 1/8 to 5 seconds, 50 megapixel, ISO 100, tripod
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