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Proceedings Paper

How desert varnish forms?
Author(s): Randall S. Perry; Vera M. Kolb; Bridget Y. Lynne; Mark A. Sephton; Nicola Mcloughlin; Michael H. Engel; Lorraine Olendzenski; Martin Brasier; James T. Staley
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Paper Abstract

Desert varnish is a black, manganese-rich rock coating that is widespread on Earth. The mechanism underlying its formation, however, has remained unresolved. We present here new data and an associated model for how desert varnish forms, which substantively challenges previously accepted models. We tested both inorganic processes (e.g. clays and oxides cementing coatings) and microbial methods of formation. Techniques used in this preliminary study include SEM-EDAX with backscatter, HRTEM of focused ion beam prepared (FIB) wafers and several other methods including XRPD, Raman spectroscopy, XPS and Tof-SIMS. The only hypothesis capable of explaining a high water content, the presence of organic compounds, an amorphous silica phase (opal-A) and lesser quantities of clays than previously reported, is a mechanism involving the mobilization and redistribution of silica. The discovery of silica in desert varnish suggests labile organics are preserved by interaction with condensing silicic acid. Organisms are not needed for desert varnish formation but Bacteria, Archaea, Eukarya, and other organic compounds are passively incorporated and preserved as organominerals. The rock coatings thus provide useful records of past environments on Earth and possibly other planets. Additionally this model also helps to explain the origin of key varnish and rock glaze features, including their hardness, the nature of the "glue" that binds heterogeneous components together, its layered botryoidal morphology, and its slow rate of formation.

Paper Details

Date Published: 22 September 2005
PDF: 12 pages
Proc. SPIE 5906, Astrobiology and Planetary Missions, 59060V (22 September 2005); doi: 10.1117/12.626547
Show Author Affiliations
Randall S. Perry, Univ. of Oxford (United Kingdom)
Planetary Science Institute (United States)
Vera M. Kolb, Univ. of Wisconsin-Parkside (United States)
Bridget Y. Lynne, Univ. of Auckland (New Zealand)
Mark A. Sephton, Imperial College (United Kingdom)
Nicola Mcloughlin, Univ. of Oxford (United Kingdom)
Michael H. Engel, Univ. of Oklahoma (United States)
Lorraine Olendzenski, St Lawrence Univ. (United States)
Martin Brasier, Univ. of Oxford (United Kingdom)
James T. Staley, Univ. of Washington (United States)

Published in SPIE Proceedings Vol. 5906:
Astrobiology and Planetary Missions
Richard B. Hoover; G. Randall Gladstone; Gilbert V. Levin; Alexei Yu. Rozanov, Editor(s)

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