BANDED IRON FORMATIONS (BIFs)
Banded iron formations, or BIFs, are unusual, dense sedimentary rocks consisting of alternating layers of iron-rich oxides and iron-rich silicates. Most BIFs are Proterozoic in age (although some are Late Archean), and do not form today - they're “extinct”! Many specific varieties of iron formation are known, and some are given special rock names. For example, jaspilite is an attractive reddish & silvery gray banded rock consisting of hematite, red chert (“jasper”), and specular hematite or magnetite.
Because of their age, most BIFs have been around long enough to have been subjected to one or more orogenic (mountain-building) events. As such, most BIFs are folded and/or metamorphosed to varying degrees.
BIFs are known from around the world, but some of the most famous & extensive BIF deposits are found in the vicinity of North America’s Lake Superior Basin. Many BIFs have economic concentrations of iron and are mined. BIFs are the most important variety of iron ore on Earth. Representative specimens from various iron-formations in America & abroad are shown below and on the next page.
Jaspilite (field of view 9 cm across) from the Ironwood Iron-Formation at Wakefield, western Gogebic County, far-western Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA. BIFs are relatively widespread in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). The Ironwood Fe-Fm. (upper Paleoproterozoic, ~1.874-1.878 billion years) outcrops in the western UP’s Gogebic Iron Range. Its layers have been steeply tilted by the Penokean Orogeny (~1.85 billion years) and by mid-continent rifting (~1.10 billion years). The rock shown here is a classic example of jaspilite. It consists of interbedded magnetite-rich layers (gray) (Fe3O4) and hematite-rich layers (dark red) and hematitic red metachert (“jasper”) layers (bright red).
Jaspilite (field of view ~5.5 cm from top to bottom) from the Temagami Iron-Formation at the Sherman Iron Mine, Temagami, northeast of Sudbury, north of North Bay, southeastern Ontario, southeastern Canada. The Temagami Fe-Fm. of Ontario is late Neoarchean in age (~2.7 billion years). It consists of alternating bands of dark gray granular magnetite and red jasper/metachert.
Jaspilite (above & below) - polished sides of a large block of Temagami BIF on public display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.
Folded jaspilite (“tiger iron”) (field of view ~11 cm from top to bottom) from Western Australia's Hamersley Range, an area famous for its “tiger iron” BIFs. Several stratigraphic units in the Hamersley Group contain banded iron formation (e.g., the Marra Mamba Fe-Fm. & the Brockman Fe-Fm.). The samples here are folded jaspilites with bands of yellowish-brown “tiger-eye” (= asbestiform quartz having chatoyancy). The Hamersley Group is an upper Neoarchean to lower Paleoproterozoic unit (~2.47 to 2.55 billion years) that outcrops in parts of the Hamersley Range (Pilbara Craton) of Western Australia.
Jaspilite (“tiger iron”) (field of view ~4 cm from top to bottom) from Western Australia’s Hamersley Range.
Folded & faulted jaspilite from Western Australia’s Hamersley Range.
LOWER MIDDLEBACK IRON-FORMATION
Here are some BIF samples from South Australia’s Lower Middleback Fe-Fm. (a.k.a. Lower Middleback Jaspilite). They are dominantly composed of silvery-gray hematite & quartz. The second sample is quite limonitic (FeO(OH)·nH2O). Portions of the Lower Middleback Fe-Fm. have economic concentrations of iron & are actively mined.
Stratigraphy & age: Lower Middleback Iron-Formation, Middleback Subgroup, Hutchinson Group, upper Paleoproterozoic, ~1.859-1.945 billion years or 1.81 billion years.
Locality: hillslope ~3 km west of the Iron Duke Mine, southern South Middleback Range, WSW of Whyalla, northeastern Eyre Peninsula, Cleve Subdomain of the Gawler Craton, South Australia.
Banded iron formation (8.4 cm across at its widest) from South Australia’s Lower Middleback Fe-Fm.
Light gray = quartz
Dark gray = hematite
Banded iron formation (11.5 cm across at its widest) from South Australia’s Lower Middleback Fe-Fm.
Orangish-brown = quartz mixed with limonite
Silvery-gray = hematite
One of the most famous BIF units in the world is the 2.11 billion year old Negaunee Fe-Fm., which outcrops in the Marquette Iron Range of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP), USA. The Negaunee Fe-Fm. has been metamorphosed to varying degrees and contains many specific lithologies, including jaspilites, taconites, specularites, ferruginous quartzites, ferruginous cherts, and ferruginous slates. Much of the Negaunee Fe-Fm. has economic concentrations of iron & much of the unit in the Marquette Iron Range has been mined away. The best remaining, easily-accessible outcrop is Jasper Knob in the town of Ishpeming, Michigan. Earth’s oldest known macrofossils, Grypania spiralis, occur in this unit.
Jaspilite (6.1 cm tall) from the Negaunee Fe-Fm. at Jasper Knob, Ishpeming, central Marquette County, UP of Michigan, USA.
Interbedded specularite-quartzite (7.6 cm across at its widest) from the Negaunee Fe-Fm. at the Republic Mine, western Marquette County, UP of Michigan, USA.
Silvery-gray = specularite, composed of specular hematite (micaceous hematite) (Fe2O3)
Dark purplish = quartzite (SiO2)
This BIF has been significantly metamorphosed (quartzite and specular hematite are metamorphic materials).
GOLDMAN MEADOWS FORMATION
Magnetite banded iron formation (10.0 cm tall) from the Goldman Meadows Formation at the Atlantic City Iron Mine, north of Atlantic City, southwestern Fremont County, west-central Wyoming, USA. Some iron mines in west-central Wyoming exploit BIFs in the Goldman Meadows Formation, a lower Neoarchean unit (2.87 billion years) exposed in the Wind River Range. These rocks have been multiply metamorphosed, principally at ~2.8 b.y. and at ~1.4 b.y. The result of this metamorphism is highly contorted folding & fracturing. The rock shown here is a magnetite-rich banded iron formation with some quartz and serpentine.
Jaspilite (banded magnetite-jasper) from the Vulcan Iron-Formation (Paleoproterozoic, ~2.1 billion years) in the Menominee Iron Range, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA. Vulcan Fe-Fm. BIFs are mined in the vicinity of the towns of Vulcan, West Vulcan, and Iron Mountain. The rock shown above is from the banded magnetite-jasper facies. CMNH 12715, Cleveland Museum of Natural History (Cleveland, Ohio, USA).
Northern Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range has numerous iron mines that exploit the Biwabik Fe-Fm. (upper Paleoproterozoic, >1.85 billion years). The Biwabik contains numerous iron-rich lithologies. The most visually intriguing lithology is stromatolitic ferruginous chert (stromatolitic jasper) (a.k.a. “Mary Ellen Jasper”). The convex-upward, layered, columnal structures in the rock shown below are the stromatolites. Stromatolites are built up by mats of cyanobacteria living in (typically) very shallow marine settings. The layering of stromatolites is principally the result of tidally rhythmic deposition of sediments atop the cyanobacterial mats.
The stromatolites in the four photos below have been assigned to Collenia undosa.
Stromatolitic ferruginous chert (above & below) - cut & polished surface of stromatolitic jasper from the Biwabik Fe-Fm. (upper Paleoproterozoic) of Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range.
CMNH P-26290 (Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, Ohio, USA)
What’s especially intriguing about these pieces of “Mary Ellen Jasper” (above & below) is the sinuosity of the stromatolite columns (see especially the middle stromatolite indicated above by white arrows in above photo & the right stromatolite column in the photo below). This has been considered to represent tracking of the sun over many seasons. Cyanobacteria are photosynthetic and, like sunflowers, they “want to face the Sun”, wherever it is. Summer-winter seasonal changes in the sun's position in the sky will be expected to result in stromatolite sinuosity.
Precambrian sinuous stromatolites from elsewhere have been used to show that the number of days per year has changed through time. Earth used to be rotating much more quickly than at present. The duration of the year hasn’t changed through time, but the rotation rate has. The early Earth had more than 1000 days per year!
“Mary Ellen Jasper” (field of view ~5.5 cm from top to bottom) having slightly sinuous stromatolites from near Mary Ellen Mine, near Biwabik, central St. Louis County, northeastern Minnesota, USA.
“Mary Ellen Jasper” (field of view ~4.9 cm across) with stromatolites from near Mary Ellen Mine, near Biwabik, central St. Louis County, northeastern Minnesota, USA.
“Starry Jasper” (field of view 9.0 cm across) - ferruginous banded chert that's been metamorphosed, folded, faulted, and veined. This rock is from (apparently) the Prohibition Iron-Formation (Neoarchean, ~2.7 billion years) near Meekatharra, western Western Australia.