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A photo of the oldest bit of earth crust.

Zircon crystals from the Jack Hills of Australia, like the one above, reveal that continents arose just 160 million years after our solar system formed, much earlier than previously thought.

PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN VALLEY, UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN-MADISON

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published February 24, 2014

Australia holds the oldest continental crust on Earth, researchers have confirmed, hills some 4.4 billion years old.

For more than a decade, geoscientists have debated whether the iron-rich Jack Hills of western Australia represent the oldest rocks on Earth. The new findings rely on atom-scale analyses of tiny crystals in rocks that solidified from lava there eons ago. (See also: "Oldest Rocks on Earth Discovered?")

"This confirms our view of how the Earth cooled and became habitable," said study leader John Valley of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, in a statement. "This may also help us understand how other habitable planets would form."

Earth itself is a bit more than 4.5 billion years old, and the researchers hope the new finding offers insights into the formation of the moon and the first continents. The Jack Hills rocks formed only about 160 million years after the formation of the solar system—which is surprisingly early.

The zircon crystals analysed by the researchers in the Nature Geoscience journal study point to Earth's earliest crust cooling from a planet-wide lava ocean. The lava ocean was likely born in the astronomical collision that created the moon.

Ancient Radiation

In the study, the researchers sought to confirm, or disprove, earlier findings that had made the Jack Hills look like the oldest place on Earth. (A belt of greenstone blocks in Canada's Hudson Bay region is thought to be a similar age.) Radioactive dating done in a 2001 study had first suggested the hills are about 4.4 billion years old.

In the new study, the researchers shaved away facets of tiny zircons from Jack Hills rocks to expose the actual atoms of radioactive lead trapped inside the crystals. The clusters they examined contained about 50 atoms each.

Those atoms were trapped inside the study crystals when they solidified from lava. They started out as radioactive uranium but decayed into lead in the atomic process that allows for their dating.

The researchers next examined the lead atoms for signs of altered radioactivity that would have thrown off the earlier radioactive dating attempts. They found none.

Dating the lead atoms directly, they found the age of the zircons was likely 4.374 billion years, give or take 6 million years.

A Trip to the Moon

"The results show that single grains of ancient zircon can yield a rich history, the implications of which date back to the very earliest history of our planet," says MIT's Samuel Bowring, in a commentary accompanying the study.

The zircon results, for example, show that it took only about 100 million years for the granite that built the earliest crusts on Earth to form, Bowring says. Researchers didn't know that before.

Most intriguing, the rocks formed very close to the time of geologic mixing that took place when a Mars-size body is thought to have smacked into the early Earth. The impact is thought to have created the moon.

"Although incredibly laborious," Bowring adds, the study team's technique might next tell us more when it's used to examine zircons inside lunar samples and meteorites. "Every scrap of material older than four billion years is therefore of great interest."

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the error range for the zircons' age as 6,000 years.

10 comments
Wayne Biro
Wayne Biro

They say zircons can outlast geological formations, as the formations form then turn to dust. So this doesn't necessarily mean the surrounding rocks are 4.4 billion years old, only the zircon.

Michael Whelton
Michael Whelton

I like your spaceship zircon.   I have just boned up on its properties.  I am wondering about the ancient granites of Swaziland and how they compare in age with the Jack Hills rocks. 

Bern Changco
Bern Changco

funny how many people still thinks the universe was 6,000 years old

Dorothy Bermudez
Dorothy Bermudez

Please make shows about prehistoric geology, plants, and animals for DVDs.  There are too many "reality" shows on all the channels or the interesting shows are all reruns from 10-15 years ago and there has been new discoveries since then. From precambrian times through the dinosaurs and beyond have many more interesting geological events and living creatures and we're stuck with competition shows instead of educational shows.  I don't care if they're on TV;  I'm mainly interested in DVDs so that I can watch them when I want to.  Thank you very much, Dorothy.  P.S.  I know you have some videos available in my areas of interest, but I have them all and enjoy them very much each time I watch them.  Help stop the dumbing down of America.

Liviu Micu
Liviu Micu

These early cooled rocks are cool! :)

And those scientists are even cooler.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

Full credit to the researchers who are now able to obtain results like this.

Nikolaos George Pargas
Nikolaos George Pargas

Perhaps,

They should not be called quite the 'oldest',

But the least, if not at all, disturbed rocks?

Russell Bliss
Russell Bliss

Please confirm the "startlingly exact" +/- 6,000 year accuracy. The linked story uses +/- 6 Myr, which stands for 6 million years.

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