Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:


Geophysicists claim conventional understanding of Earth's deep water cycle needs revision

Commonly held view in geophysical community that water is carried deep into Earth's mantle is false, says UC Riverside's Harry Green

A popular view among geophysicists is that large amounts of water are carried from the oceans to the deep mantle in "subduction zones," which are boundaries where the Earth's crustal plates converge, with one plate riding over the other.

But now geophysicists led by the University of California, Riverside's Harry Green, a distinguished professor of geology and geophysics, present results that contradict this view. They compare seismic and experimental evidence to argue that subducting slabs do not carry water deeper than about 400 kilometers.

"The importance of this work is two-fold," Green said. "Firstly, if deep slabs are dry, it implies that they are strong, a major current question in geophysics that has implications for plate tectonic models. Secondly, even small amounts of water greatly reduce the viscosity of rocks; if water is not cycled deep into Earth, it means that mantle convection has not been as vigorous over time as it would have been with significant water."

Study results appear in the current issue of Nature.

The Earth's lithosphere is formed at mid-ocean ridges where magma upwells and freezes to form new oceanic crust. Interaction between cold water of the deep ocean and the extreme heat of magma results in widespread cracking of rocks and a hydrothermal circulation that drives sea water several kilometers below the surface.

Away from the mid-ocean ridges, the lithosphere moves along under the ocean until it reaches an oceanic trench, long topographic depressions of the sea floor. Here, the lithosphere bends sharply and descends back into the mantle. Near the trench, numerous faults are created that provide a pathway for additional water to enter the down-going lithosphere. Subsequent dehydration results in large amounts of this water leaving the subducting slab and migrating upwards. The ensuing instability leads to seismic activity.

Geophysicists have long suspected but only recently established that at depths less than about 250 kilometers earthquakes occur through dehydration of minerals like serpentine. But when Green and his colleagues studied the data for deeper earthquakes, they found that the subducting slabs are essentially dry, providing no pathway for significant amounts of water to enter the Earth's lower mantle.

Further, the researchers cite evidence for olivine in the slabs at these depths, despite the fact that it is not stable below about 350 km.

"At these depths, olivine should transform to the stable phase, spinel," Green said. "The very cold temperatures deep in the downgoing slabs inhibit this transformation. Experiments show that even extremely small amounts of water, if present, would cause the olivine-to-spinel transformation to run. But we see no spinel here, just olivine, which confirms that the slabs are dry."

Green explained that the olivine found below 400 kilometers is "metastable," meaning it is physically present as a mineral phase even though this is not its "right phase" at such depths – akin to a diamond, which forms only at the kind of high temperatures and pressures found very deep in the Earth's crust, being brought to the Earth's surface.

"At such depths, the olivine should undergo a phase transformation," he said. "A different crystal structure should nucleate, grow and eat up the olivine. If it is very cold in the center of subducting slabs, the reaction won't run. This is exactly what is happening here."

According to Green, the presence of the metastable olivine provides an alternative mechanism to initiate deep earthquakes – a mechanism he discovered 20 years ago – and also to cause them to stop at around 680 kilometers, where they are seen to stop.

"Does this mean that Earth's deep interior must be dry? Not necessarily," he said. "It is possible there are other ways – let's call them back roads – for water to penetrate the lower mantle, but our work shows that the 'super highway,' the subducting slabs, as a means for water to enter the lower mantle can now be ruled out."

Green and his colleagues cite the evidence for the existence of metastable olivine west of and within the subducting Tonga slab in the South Pacific and also in three other subduction zones – the Mariannas, Izu-Bonin and Japan.

Green was joined in the study by seismologists Wang-Ping Chen of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and Michael R. Brudzinski of Miami University, Ohio.

Grants from the National Science Foundation to the researchers supported the study.

The University of California, Riverside ( is a doctoral research university, a living laboratory for groundbreaking exploration of issues critical to Inland Southern California, the state and communities around the world. Reflecting California's diverse culture, UCR's enrollment of about 18,000 is expected to grow to 21,000 students by 2020. The campus is planning a medical school and has reached the heart of the Coachella Valley by way of the UCR Palm Desert Graduate Center. The campus has an annual statewide economic impact of more than $1 billion.

A broadcast studio with fiber cable to the AT&T Hollywood hub is available for live or taped interviews. To learn more, call (951) UCR-NEWS.

Iqbal Pittalwala | EurekAlert!
Further information:

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Jacobs University supports new mapping of Mars, Mercury and the Moon
21.03.2018 | Jacobs University Bremen gGmbH

nachricht Thawing permafrost produces more methane than expected
20.03.2018 | GFZ GeoForschungsZentrum Potsdam, Helmholtz Centre

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Researchers at Fraunhofer monitor re-entry of Chinese space station Tiangong-1

In just a few weeks from now, the Chinese space station Tiangong-1 will re-enter the Earth's atmosphere where it will to a large extent burn up. It is possible that some debris will reach the Earth's surface. Tiangong-1 is orbiting the Earth uncontrolled at a speed of approx. 29,000 km/h.Currently the prognosis relating to the time of impact currently lies within a window of several days. The scientists at Fraunhofer FHR have already been monitoring Tiangong-1 for a number of weeks with their TIRA system, one of the most powerful space observation radars in the world, with a view to supporting the German Space Situational Awareness Center and the ESA with their re-entry forecasts.

Following the loss of radio contact with Tiangong-1 in 2016 and due to the low orbital height, it is now inevitable that the Chinese space station will...

Im Focus: Alliance „OLED Licht Forum“ – Key partner for OLED lighting solutions

Fraunhofer Institute for Organic Electronics, Electron Beam and Plasma Technology FEP, provider of research and development services for OLED lighting solutions, announces the founding of the “OLED Licht Forum” and presents latest OLED design and lighting solutions during light+building, from March 18th – 23rd, 2018 in Frankfurt a.M./Germany, at booth no. F91 in Hall 4.0.

They are united in their passion for OLED (organic light emitting diodes) lighting with all of its unique facets and application possibilities. Thus experts in...

Im Focus: Mars' oceans formed early, possibly aided by massive volcanic eruptions

Oceans formed before Tharsis and evolved together, shaping climate history of Mars

A new scenario seeking to explain how Mars' putative oceans came and went over the last 4 billion years implies that the oceans formed several hundred million...

Im Focus: Tiny implants for cells are functional in vivo

For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Basel has succeeded in integrating artificial organelles into the cells of live zebrafish embryos. This innovative approach using artificial organelles as cellular implants offers new potential in treating a range of diseases, as the authors report in an article published in Nature Communications.

In the cells of higher organisms, organelles such as the nucleus or mitochondria perform a range of complex functions necessary for life. In the networks of...

Im Focus: Locomotion control with photopigments

Researchers from Göttingen University discover additional function of opsins

Animal photoreceptors capture light with photopigments. Researchers from the University of Göttingen have now discovered that these photopigments fulfill an...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>



Industry & Economy
Event News

Virtual reality conference comes to Reutlingen

19.03.2018 | Event News

Ultrafast Wireless and Chip Design at the DATE Conference in Dresden

16.03.2018 | Event News

International Tinnitus Conference of the Tinnitus Research Initiative in Regensburg

13.03.2018 | Event News

Latest News

TRAPPIST-1 planets provide clues to the nature of habitable worlds

21.03.2018 | Physics and Astronomy

The search for dark matter widens

21.03.2018 | Materials Sciences

Natural enemies reduce pesticide use

21.03.2018 | Life Sciences

Science & Research
Overview of more VideoLinks >>>