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Lightning Strikes More Than A Billion Years Ago May Have Sparked Life On Earth

by : Julia Banim on : 17 Mar 2021 12:03
Lightning Strikes More Than A Billion Years Ago May Have Sparked Life On EarthPA Images/NASA

Lightning strikes that took place more than one billion years ago could well have sparked life on Earth, according to a new study.

This study, from researchers at Yale University and the University of Leeds, suggests that lightning strikes were every bit as important as meteorites in creating the ideal conditions for life on our planet to begin.

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It’s believed these lightning bolts unlocked the necessary phosphorus to create biomolecules that would provide the basis for life on Earth.

LighteningPexels

As per a press release from the University of Leeds, this research was led by Benjamin Hess during his undergraduate studies at the university’s School of Earth and Environment.

Hess and his mentors had been studying ‘an exceptionally large and pristine sample of fulgurite’, a type of rock that is formed when the ground is struck by lightning.

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This particular sample was created when a property in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, was struck by lightning in 2016. It was then given as a donation to the geology department at the nearby Wheaton College.

Researchers at the University of Leeds were examining the sample to find out more about the formation of fulgurite, and were interested to learn that it contained a substantial amount of an unusual phosphorous mineral known as schreibersite.

FulguriteBenjamin Hess/Yale

According to the meteorite theory, meteorites containing schreibersite – understood to be soluble in water – crashed to Earth with enough frequency to provide the necessary conditions for life.

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However, one issue with this is frequency, as per a press release from Yale University, as during the period when it’s believed biological life began, between 3.5 to 4.5 billion years ago, ‘the frequency of meteorite collisions on Earth plummeted’.

Interestingly, schreibersite is also found in fulgurites, which contain some of the phosphorus from surface rock in a soluble form.

Hess, who is now studying for his PhD at Yale University, said:

Many have suggested that life on Earth originated in shallow surface waters, following Darwin’s famous ‘warm little pond’ concept.

Most models for how life may have formed on Earth’s surface invoke meteorites which carry small amounts of schreibersite. Our work finds a relatively large amount of schreibersite in the studied fulgurite.

Lightning strikes Earth frequently, implying that the phosphorus needed for the origin of life on Earth’s surface does not rely solely on meteorite hits.

Perhaps more importantly, this also means that the formation of life on other Earth-like planets remains possible long after meteorite impacts have become rare.

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EarthLucy Entwisle/Yale University

Drawing from computer modelling results, Hess and his team estimated that early Earth saw between one and five billion lightning flashes each year, comparable to around 560 million annual flashes today.

Out of those early flashes, anywhere between 100 million to one billion would have struck the ground every year, adding up to around 0.1 to one quintillion strikes after one billion years.

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Julia Banim

Jules studied English Literature with Creative Writing at Lancaster University before earning her masters in International Relations at Leiden University in The Netherlands (Hoi!). She then trained as a journalist through News Associates in Manchester. Jules has previously worked as a mental health blogger, copywriter and freelancer for various publications.

Topics: Science, Earth, Leeds, Life, Now

Credits

Yale News and 1 other
  1. Yale News

    What sparked life on Earth? Perhaps bolts from the blue

  2. University of Leeds

    Lightning strikes played vital role in origins of life on Earth