SUERC - From outer space to outer Hebrides
Researchers at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) are asked to investigate all sorts of mysteries, from billions of years ago to two years ago, and rocks that came from outer space as well as rocks from deep inside the Earth... …
Researchers at the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre (SUERC) are asked to investigate all sorts of mysteries, from billions of years ago to two years ago, and rocks that came from outer space as well as rocks from deep inside the Earth...
Date with death
Identifying long-dead kings may not be one of its primary functions, but SUERC made the headlines last year when the University of Leicester asked the centre to date bones dug up in a car park in Leicester, believed to be the skeletal remains of Richard III, the last English king to die in battle, at Bosworth in 1485.
Two samples of rib bone were sent to SUERC in October 2012 and prepared for high-precision AMS (accelerator mass spectrometer) radiocarbon dating. Samples were also sent to the radiocarbon dating laboratory at the University of Oxford, and the two research facilities then compared results.
The stable isotope measurements for SUERC's two samples indicated that the individual had a highly varied, protein-rich diet, with seafood (oysters and marine fish) providing approximately 25 per cent of his protein. Organisms that derive their carbon from the sea appear older than they really are when radiocarbon dated, so scientists have to make allowances for this when dating humans or other creatures who consumed a lot of seafood.
The final result indicated that the individual died between 1475 and 1530 – in close agreement with Oxford's results. Subsequent DNA analysis confirmed that the remains are indeed those of Richard III.
What killed the dinosaurs?
What caused the extinction of the dinosaurs is one of the most controversial mysteries in science, with comets, asteroids, volcanic eruptions and climate change all blamed at one time by various theories.
To solve the mystery once and for all, SUERC was part of an international team which confirmed that the extinction – which according to the fossil record, happened overnight – can be dated back to precisely 66,038,000 years ago, the same time as an asteroid or comet struck the Earth. The impact of the six-mile-wide object, which created a 110-mile-wide crater in the Caribbean off the coast of Mexico, may not have been solely responsible for the death of the dinosaurs, but could have “kicked them over the edge,” following a period of dramatic climate variation caused by a series of volcanic eruptions.
A SUERC team led by Dr Darren Mark conducted independent argon–argon analyses which confirmed results from the US. Argon–argon dating uses a mass spectrometer to measure the ratio of radioactive potassium in a sample of rock to its decay product, argon. The amount of argon in a sample allows researchers to use rocks as incredibly slow clocks.
Dr Mark said: “This study shows the power of high-precision geochronology. Many people think precision is just about adding another decimal place to a number, but it’s far more exciting than that. It’s more like getting a sharper lens on a camera. It allows us to dissect the geological record at greater resolution and piece together the sequence of Earth history.
The dinosaur project followed another success for SUERC when it re-dated super-eruption deposits from Yellowstone, showing that it was a product of multiple eruptions, rather than a single event.
A team of SUERC researchers led by Dr Fin Stuart are to analyse a 0.2g fragment of a Martian meteorite which fell in Morocco in 2011. Only 61 of the 41,000 meteorites discovered on Earth are thought to have originated on Mars. The SUERC team will measure the abundance of cosmogenic isotopes of helium, neon and argon. This will establish how long the meteorite was exposed to cosmic radiation in space and thus how long ago the meteorite was ejected from Mars.
Heavy metal, sex and rock
Scientists from the University of Aberdeen and SUERC recently discovered that 1.5 billion years ago, granite played a key role in creating life as we know it today, prompting the shift from simple to more complex organisms.
This transition took place thanks to the vast amount of granite in the Earth’s crust at this point, when the Earth’s crust was particularly thick and very hot, producing lots of granite on the surface. These rocks contained zinc, copper and molybdenum, which changed the chemistry of the single-celled organisms which existed at that time, allowing them to evolve into the multi-celled organisms which were the first step towards more diverse life on Earth. This also made it possible for sexual reproduction and the mixing of genes which drive evolution.
The scientists got their evidence from metal ore in rocks 1.5 to 1.8 billion years old, found in many parts of the world including Australia, northwest Scotland and the Hebrides.