Billions Of Lightning Bolts May Have Jump-started Life On Earth
According to a new study published in the journal Nature Communications, trillions of lightning strikes over a billion of years of Earth’s early history may have helped unlock crucial phosphorus compounds that paved the way for life on Earth.
“In our study, we show for the first time that lightning strikes were likely a significant source of reactive phosphorus on Earth around the time that life formed [3.5 billion to 4.5 billion years ago],” lead study author Benjamin Hess from Yale University’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, told Live Science.
It’s all about the phosphorus — or rather, the organic materials that phosphorus atoms can make when combined with other bio-essential elements.
Lightning strikes can heat up surfaces to nearly 2,760 degrees Celsius, forging new minerals that weren’t there before. In the new study, Hess and his colleagues examined a lightning-blasted clump of rock, called fulgurite, which was previously excavated from a site in Illinois. The team found that little balls of schreibersite had formed within the rock, along with a host of other glassy minerals.
With tentative proof in hand that lightning strikes can create phosphorus-rich schreibersite, the team next had to calculate whether enough lightning could have struck early Earth to release a significant amount of the element into the environment. Using models of Earth’s early atmosphere, the researchers estimated how many lightning strikes may have fallen over the planet each year.