Banded iron formations (also known as banded ironstone formations or BIFs) are a distinctive type of rock often found in primordial (Precambrian) sedimentary rocks. The structures consist of repeated thin layers of iron oxides, either magnetite (Fe3O4) or hematite (Fe2O3), alternating with bands of iron-poor shale and chert. Some of the oldest known rock formations, formed over 3,700 million years ago, include banded iron layers, and the banded layers are a common feature in sediments for much of the Earth's early history. The formations are abundant around the time of the Great oxygenation event,, 2400 million years ago (mya), and become less common after 1800 mya The reappearance of BIF conditions at 1,900 million years ago, and in association with Snowball Earth 750 million years ago, is problematic to explain (see below).
The total amount of oxygen locked up in the banded iron beds is estimated to be perhaps twenty times the volume of oxygen present in the modern atmosphere. Banded iron beds are an important commercial source of iron ore, such as the Pilbara region of Western Australia and the Animikie Group in Minnesota.
The conventional concept is that the banded iron layers were formed in sea water as the result of oxygen released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria (bluegreen algae), combining with dissolved iron in Earth's oceans to form insoluble iron oxides, which precipitated out, forming a thin layer on the substrate, which may have been anoxic mud (forming shale and chert). Each band is similar to a varve, to the extent that the banding is assumed to result from cyclic variations in available oxygen. It is unclear whether these banded ironstone formations were seasonal, followed some feedback oscillation in the ocean's complex system or followed some other cycle. It is assumed that initially the Earth started out with vast amounts of iron dissolved in the world's acidic seas. Eventually, as photosynthetic organisms generated oxygen, the available iron in the Earth's oceans was precipitated out as iron oxides. At the tipping point where the oceans became permanently oxygenated, small variations in oxygen production produced pulses of free oxygen in the surface waters, alternating with pulses of iron oxide deposition.
Full article ▸