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The creation of Karijini & why we are all potentially from Mars.

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

Banded Ironstone of Karijini National Park
Banded Ironstone of Karijini National Park (photo credit Tristan McKenzie)

Karijini National Park is located in the Hamersley Range area of the Hamersley Basin, which lies south of and covers part of the granite and greenstone-based Pilbara Craton. The range extends 300 kilometres east-west.

The Karijini landscape that we see today was created over 2,500 million years ago when fine sediments accumulated on an ancient shallow seafloor. These sediments were pushed up from deep within the earth via volcanic eruptions back when the earth was forming. Once they settled in the shallow ocean, oxygen combined with dissolved iron to form insoluble iron oxides, which precipitated out, forming a thin layer on the ocean floor.

Over a period of millions of years more sediments were overlaid which created immense pressure on these layers and transformed them into the tough banded ironstone we see today. Some of these layers are over 900 meters thick, some of the thickest layers in the world.

Horizontal compression with tectonic plate movement, caused these rocks to buckle and crack before rising up out of the prehistoric oceans to form dryland. These cracks overtime, with water falling on the land, became rivers and creeks with some of these eroding deeper and deeper to become the gorges of Karijini that we see today.

Karijini contains the world's best-preserved sequence of volcanic and sedimentary deposits of the Archean to Proterozoic age. The iron-rich rocks would not exist were it not for the Great Oxidation Event, arguably the greatest environmental change the Earth has ever experienced, when organisms started to enrich the atmosphere with oxygen. Humans would not exist either, were it not for this momentous event.

Today we take oxygen very much for granted and it is one of the essential ingredients that makes life on earth in its current form possible. Oxygen was however absent in our atmosphere for nearly half of earth's lifespan. 4.5 billion years ago when the earth was formed things looked very different. At that time the earth actually had a reducing atmosphere which consisted of carbon dioxide, methane and water vapour. Today's atmosphere consist primarily of nitrogen and oxygen with some other elements in much smaller amounts. Even when the sunlight split the water vapour in the atmosphere into oxygen and hydrogen, the oxygen quickly reacted with methane and got locked into the earth's crust. This barely left any traces in the atmosphere. Then some magic happened ... a small microbe changed the destiny of our planet. It is responsible for humans and all life on earth today. From little things, big things do indeed grow. This microbe is cyanobacteria (also called blue-green algae), which are a type of single-celled organism called phytoplankton ... the spark that created all life as we see it on earth today.

picture of Cyanobacteria
The humble, but so crucial cyanobacteria

The earliest forms of life in our planet's evolution are said to have occurred around 3.8 billion years ago. Since oxygen was absent in the atmosphere at this time the metabolism of these living organisms would've been anaerobic, using the minerals present in the ocean at the time to generate the energy needed to stay alive. Around 2.7 billion years ago cyanobacteria evolved. Exactly how this process occurred is somewhat of a mystery ... but there are theories. More on this later ... where we will get to the Martian part :)

Cyanobacteria were the first lifeforms to absorb sunlight and water to create energy and oxygen gas through the process of photosynthesis.

These bacteria are a family of single celled microbes of which there are over 6000 species. Cyanobacteria are found all over the world, even in extreme environments like deserts and hot springs. Fun fact; the now considered superfood, spirulina is also one of these. They can either exist individually and be free-floating, or can form complex structures.

Ancient cyanobacteria formed mineralized structures known as Stromatolites (Greek for layered rock) through building up layers over eons. They also later formed Thrombolites (Greek for clotting).

Strombolites, Lake Clifton, Western Australia (photo credit Anton Wilk)
Strombolites, Lake Clifton, Western Australia (photo credit Anton Wilk)

The other great contribution of cyanobacteria is the origin of plants. The chloroplast with which plants make food for themselves is actually an evolution of an ancient cyanobacterium living within the plant's cells (endosymbiosis).

Cyanobacteria get their name from the bluish pigment phycocyanin, which they use to capture light for photosynthesis. They also contain chlorophyll, the same photosynthetic pigment that plants use. The chloroplast in plants is a symbiotic cyanobacterium, taken up by a green algal ancestor of the plants sometime in the Precambrian.

There is some more in depth reading here for those interested:

Our feature on the ABC's amazing documentary series Australia's Wild Odyssey where took Dr Tim Flannery and small film crew from Wild pacific Media in to the depth of Karijini to discuss the Great Oxygenation Event:

Stromatolites and Karijini

Cyanobacteria matting to Stromatolites, is an interesting journey and is said to potentially have its origins in viruses. Viruses may be the missing piece of the puzzle that could help explain how a soft microbial mat transitions – or lithifies – into the hard stromatolite features by viruses infiltrating the cyanobacterial genes and rewriting them. This would then potentially allow for the lithification process to occur and form stromatolites.

Without this process, the great oxidation event may never have occured. Stromatolite formations allowed cyanobacteria to build lager groups and also raise themselves out of the rising oceans. As the oceans rose due to geological activity of tectonic plate movement, creating more variance on the earth's surface, stromatolites slowly sunk deeper and deeper where access to sunlight was no longer possible and died. The ocean floors are littered with their remains.

Stromatolites that are still alive today, are now only found in high saline waters. These high saline waters minimise predations and allow these ancient life forms to continue their existence, although in only very few places on the planet. Hamelin Pool in Shark Bay, Western Australia being one of these.

Mars courtesy of NASA
Mars courtesy of NASA

Our connection to Mars

So ... I know this is the only reason you have made it this far and may be the only reason you even started reading this blog post ;) How does this all tie into Mars? Well this leads me the the theory of Panspermia (Ancient Greek, Pan = All and Sperma = Seed). This theory states that life bunny hops through the universe on and/or in ejected materials that have escaped from a planet and end up on another planet.

It is has been hypothesized that at some point Mars lost its magnetic field, oceans and atmosphere after being bombarded excessively by interstellar objects which negatively affected Mars' geodynamo. Continued bombardment would then have allowed objects from Mars to escape the planet more easily and be ejected into space. From there they are said to potentially have travelled to earth. It is hypothesised that Mars was once covered by oceans and that these contained sedimentary structures that resemble microbial mats and stromatolites, which may have lived billions of years ago in ancient lake shores and receding bodies of water. If these formations were abiotic or biotic is unknown. These findings parallel the construction of the first stromatolites on earth though, so solidly support a hypothesis.

None of the above course proves without a shadow of a doubt that ancient Mars had oceans and lakes, or that is was inhabited by life which may have been transferred between Earth and Mars billions of years ago. But the possibility that ejecta from Mars was propled to through space by powerful solar winds and ended up on Earth, holds some merit when you look at some of the evidence more closely.

Findings from the Mariner, Viking, and Mars Global Surveyor missions, suggest that water-dwelling algae (cyanobacteria) may have constructed stromatolites on the Red Planet and that a search for stromatolites on Mars should be undertaken. Photographic evidence from these missions show similarities between structures that resemble stromatolites to those which are found at Lake Thetis in Cervantes in Western Australia. Karijini is only around 1300 km from there ... a very short distance really when comparing to traveling to Mars. Karijini is littered with the fossilised stromatolites ... as much of Earth's surface.

Stromatolites, Lake Thetis, Cervantes Western Australia
Stromatolites, Lake Thetis, Cervantes Western Australia (photo credit Dept. Mines & Petroleum)

Cyanobacteria, lichen and fungi spores can also survive the depths of space and therefore I certainly can travel between Mars and Earth, and of course much further afield. It is most likely that life on both of these planets occurred simultaneously when these materials, including water contained in ice comets, arrived on on both planets from other parts of a solar system or even further afield in the universe.

As bombardment continued on both planets, ejected material would have been transferred between both of them. Geologist have found rocks which are not from Earth originally and some of these have been identified as having come from Mars.

Now I could nerd out with much more detail, but more than likely it would bore most of you, so I will stop here :) For those of you that would like to read a little bit more, the below two articles maybe of interest to you ... they certainly were to me.

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