Banded iron formation
A typical BIF consists of repeated, thin layers (a few millimeters to a few centimeters in thickness) of silver to black iron oxides, either magnetite (Fe3O4) or hematite (Fe2O3), alternating with bands of iron-poor shales and cherts, often red in color, of similar thickness, and containing microbands (sub-millimeter) of iron oxides.
Some of the oldest known rock formations, formed over  Banded layers rich in iron were a common feature in sediments for much of the Earth's early history but are now rare. Phanerozoic ironstones generally have a different genesis., include banded iron layers.
Relation to atmospheric oxygenation
The formations are abundant around the time of the great oxygenation event, 2,400 million years ago (mya or Ma), and become less common after 1,800 mya. Conditions of a reappearance of a sea with dissolved iron at , and later in association with Snowball Earth BIF reappeared , and that is problematic to explain (see below).
The conventional concept is that the banded iron layers were formed in sea water as the result of oxygen being released by photosynthetic cyanobacteria, 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 assumed that initially the Earth started out with vast amounts of iron and nickel 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 a suspected 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.
Snowball Earth scenario
Until 1992, it was assumed that the rare, later (younger) banded iron deposits represented unusual conditions where oxygen was depleted locally, and iron-rich waters could form and then come into contact with oxygenated water.
An alternate explanation of these later deposits was undergoing much discussion as part of the Snowball Earth hypothesis. Several hypotheses exist for the initiation of the Snowball Earths. The initiation mechanisms which include the breakup of the early equatorial supercontinent (Rodinia), the first colonization of the land by early lichens and fungi and variations in the Earth's axial tilt are yet to be convincingly identified. In a Snowball Earth state the earth's continents, and possibly seas at low latitudes, were totally covered in an ice age.
If this was the case, Earth's free oxygen may have been nearly or totally depleted during a severe ice age circa 750 to 580 million years ago (mya). Dissolved iron then accumulated in the oxygen-poor oceans (possibly from seafloor hydrothermal vents). Following the thawing of the Earth, the seas became oxygenated once more causing the precipitation of the iron.
Another mechanism for BIF's, also proposed in the context of the Snowball Earth discussion, is by deposition from metal-rich brines in the vicinity of hydrothermally active rift zones. Alternatively, some geochemists suggest that BIFs could form by direct oxidation of iron by microbial anoxygenic phototrophs.
Effect of asteroid impact
Northern Minnesota's banded iron formations lie directly underneath a thick layer of material only recently recognized as ejecta from the Sudbury Basin impact. At the time of formation the earth had a single supercontinent with substantial continental shelves.
An asteroid (estimated at 10 km across) slammed into waters about 1,000 m deep some 1.85 billion years ago. Computer models suggest that the tsunami would have been at least 1,000 m at the epicentre, and 100 m high about 3,000 km away. Those immense waves and large underwater landslides triggered by the impact stirred the ocean, bringing oxygenated waters from the surface down to the ocean floor.
Sediments deposited on the seafloor before the impact, including BIFs contained little if any oxidized iron (Fe(III)), but were high in reduced iron (Fe(II)). This Fe(III) to Fe(II) ratio suggests that most parts of the ocean were relatively devoid of oxygen.
Marine sediments deposited after the impact included substantial amounts of Fe(III) but very little Fe(II). This suggests that sizeable amounts of dissolved oxygen were available to form sediments rich in Fe(III). Following the impact dissolved iron was mixed into the deepest parts of the ocean. This would have choked off most of the supply of Fe(II) to shallower waters where BIFs typically accumulated.
The geological record suggests that environmental changes were happening in oceans worldwide even before the Sudbury impact. The role the Sudbury Basin impact played in temporarily shutting down BIF accumulation is not fully understood.
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- Jelte P. Harnmeijer, 2003, Banded Iron-Formation: A Continuing Enigma of Geology, University of Washington Doc format
- Klein, Cornelis, 2005, Some Precambrian banded iron-formations (BIFs) from around the world: Their age, geologic setting, mineralogy, metamorphism, geochemistry, and origins, American Mineralogist; October 2005; v. 90; no. 10; p. 1473–1499; doi:10.2138/am.2005.1871 http://ammin.geoscienceworld.org/cgi/content/short/90/10/1473 abstract.
- Andreas Kappler, et al., 2005, Deposition of banded iron formations by anoxygenic phototrophic Fe(II)-oxidizing bacteria, Geology; November 2005; v. 33; no. 11; p. 865–868; doi:10.1130/G21658.1 http://www.gps.caltech.edu/~claudia/papers/kappleretal_GEO2005.pdf
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