Publication Type:

Journal Article


Earth-Science Reviews, Elsevier, Amsterdam, Netherlands, Volume 172, p.140-177 (2017)




Iron formations (IF) represent an iron-rich rock type that typifies many Archaean and Proterozoic supracrustal successions and are chemical archives of Precambrian seawater chemistry and post-depositional iron cycling. Given that IF accumulated on the seafloor for over two billion years of Earth's early history, changes in their chemical, mineralogical, and isotopic compositions offer a unique glimpse into environmental changes that took place on the evolving Earth. Perhaps one of the most significant events was the transition from an anoxic planet to one where oxygen was persistently present within the marine water column and atmosphere. Linked to this progressive global oxygenation was the evolution of aerobic microbial metabolisms that fundamentally influenced continental weathering processes, the supply of nutrients to the oceans, and, ultimately, diversification of the biosphere and complex life forms. Many of the key recent innovations in understanding IF genesis are linked to geobiology, since biologically assisted Fe(II) oxidation, either directly through photoferrotrophy, or indirectly through oxygenic photosynthesis, provides a process for IF deposition from mineral precursors. The abundance and isotope composition of Fe(II)-bearing minerals in IF additionally suggests microbial Fe(III) reduction, a metabolism that is deeply rooted in the Archaea and Bacteria. Linkages among geobiology, hydrothermal systems, and deposition of IF have been traditionally overlooked, but now form a coherent model for this unique rock type. This paper reviews the defining features of IF and their distribution through the Neoarchaean and Palaeoproterozoic. This paper is an update of previous reviews by Bekker et al. (2010, 2014) that will improve the quantitative framework we use to interpret IF deposition. In this work, we also discuss how recent discoveries have provided new insights into the processes underpinning the global rise in atmospheric oxygen and the geochemical evolution of the oceans.


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