acquired March 10, 2021
The Ancient Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains
- Landsat 8 - OLI
- Data Date: March 10, 2021
- Visualization Date: June 24, 2021
With heights ranging from 600 to 1800 meters (2,000 to 5,900 feet), the Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains in South Africa and Eswatini are not particularly tall. What distinguishes the belt of greenstone rock formations found here is their age.
Beneath the rolling, grassy uplands and forested valleys of the mountain range, lie some of the oldest, best-preserved, and diverse sequences of volcanic and sedimentary rock layers found anywhere on the planet. They hold evidence of some of Earth’s earliest forms of life, including microfossils, stromatolites, and other biologically derived material. Geological sampling indicates that some rock formations in these mountains are 3.2 to 3.6 billion years old.
One type of rock in this area that especially intrigues geologists is komatiite. The rare igneous rock formed from magmas that were hotter, more liquid, and denser than any lavas found on Earth today. Geologists still debate what conditions allowed komatiite to form, but many think Earth’s mantle was likely hotter or wetter 3 billion years ago than today, and that likely played an important role.
The natural-color image above shows part of the Komati River Valley in South Africa. Lava flows made of komatiites were first identified within this valley in 1969. The image was acquired by the Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 on March 10, 2021. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared the mountains a World Heritage Site in 2018.
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- Georneys (2011) Geology Word of the Week: K is for Komatiite. Accessed June 24, 2021.
- Historical Geology (2021) Greenstone belts: primordial tectonics. Accessed June 24, 2021.
- Homann, M. (2019) Earliest life on Earth: Evidence from the Barberton Greenstone Belt, South Africa. Earth-Science Reviews, 196.
- Newsweek (2018, July 30) Scientists Found Some Of The Oldest Evidence Of Life On Earth In South Africa. Accessed June 24, 2021.
- Times Live (2018) Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains recognised as World Heritage Site by Unesco. Accessed June 24, 2021.
- UNESCO (2018) Barberton Makhonjwa Mountains. Accessed June 24, 2021.
- Wired (2016, October 24) The Lava That Doesn’t Erupt Anymore. Accessed June 24, 2021.
Wit, M. (2010) The deep-time treasure chest of the Makhonjwa Mountains. South African Journal of Science. Accessed June 24, 2021.
- World Atlas Which Is The Oldest Mountain Range In The World? Accessed June 24, 2021.
NASA Earth Observatory image by Lauren Dauphin, using Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Adam Voiland.
This image record originally appeared on the Earth Observatory. Click here to view the full, original record.