First identified in 1969, komatiites are Earth’s oldest known volcanic rocks and contain three times as much magnesium as do most volcanic rocks. This chemical composition suggests that komatiites formed from the hottest lava known ever to have erupted: a high concentration of magnesium changes the physical properties of lava so that unusually high temperatures would be required for the lava to exist as a liquid.
Komatiites’ discovery was surprising in light of then-current geological theories about magmas, molten rock that forms in the Earth’s mantle (the layer beneath the crust) and composes volcanic lava eruptions. Prior to 1960, geologists Bowen and Hess disagreed over whether or not the very high temperatures needed to produce magmas rich in magnesium could have existed on Earth. Hess suggested that the presence of water, probably released from minerals decomposing in the Earth’s mantle, might have meant that a high-magnesium magma could have existed at a lower temperature. But Bowen showed experimentally that the high temperatures were indeed necessary. By 1960, it was generally accepted that volcanic rocks with such high levels of magnesium could not exist, and thus the discovery of komatiites changed geologists’ assumptions about the characteristics of the Earth’s mantle around the time of the formation of komatiites, between 2.5 and 4 billion years ago.
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