Red jasper cored from layers 3.46 billion years old suggests that not only did the oceans contain abundant oxygen then, but that the atmosphere was as oxygen-rich as it is today, according to geologists. This jasper or hematite-rich chert formed in ways similar to the way this rock forms around hydrothermal vents in the deep oceans today.

"Many people have assumed that the hematite in ancient rocks formed by the oxidation of siderite in the modern atmosphere," says Hiroshi Ohmoto, professor of geochemistry, Penn State. "That is why we wanted to drill deeper, below the water table and recover unweathered rocks."

The researchers drilled diagonally into the base of a hill in the Pilbara Craton in northwest Western Australia to obtain samples of jasper that could not have been exposed to the atmosphere or water. These jaspers could be dated to 3.46 billion years ago.

"Everyone agrees that this jasper is 3.46 billion years old," says Ohmoto. "If hematite were formed by the oxidation of siderite at any time, the hematite would be found on the outside of the siderite, but it is found inside," he reports in a recent issue of Nature Geoscience.

The next step was to determine if the hematite formed near the water's surface or in the depths. Iron compounds exposed to ultraviolet light can form ferric hydroxide, which can sink to the bottom as tiny particles and then convert to hematite at temperatures of at least 140 degrees Fahrenheit.

The key to determining if ultraviolet light or oxygen formed the hematite is the crystalline structure of the hematite itself. If the precursors of hematite were formed at the surface, the crystalline structure of the rock would have formed from small particles, aggregating, producing large crystals with lots of empty spaces between. Using transmission electron microscopy, the researchers did not find that crystalline structure.

"We found that the hematite from this core was made of a single crystal and therefore was not hematite made by ultraviolet radiation," reveals Ohmoto.

This could only happen if the deep ocean contained oxygen and the iron rich fluids came into contact at high temperatures. Ohmoto and his team believe that this specific layer of hematite formed when a plume of heated water, like those found today at hydrothermal vents, converted the iron compounds into hematite, using oxygen dissolved in the deep ocean water.

"This explains why this hematite is only found in areas with active submarine volcanism," says Ohmoto. "It also means that there was oxygen in the atmosphere 3.46 billion years ago, because the only mechanism for oxygen to exist in the deep oceans is for there to be oxygen in the atmosphere."