When Earth was young, it exhaled the atmosphere. During a period of intense volcanic activity, lava carried light elements from the planet's molten interior and released them into the sky.
However, some light elements got trapped inside the planet. In this week's issue of Nature, a Rice University-based team of scientists is offering a new answer to a longstanding mystery: What caused Earth to hold its last breath?
For some time, scientists have known that a large cache of light elements like helium and argon still reside inside the planet. This has perplexed scientists because such elements tend to escape into the atmosphere during volcanism. However, because these elements are depleted in the Earth's upper mantle, Earth scientists are fairly certain the retained elements lie in a deeper portion of the mantle.
Researchers have struggled to explain why some gases would be retained while others would rise and escape into the air. The dominant view has been that the lowermost mantle has been largely isolated from the upper mantle and therefore retains its primordial composition.
In the new study, a team of researchers from Rice, the University of Michigan and the University of California-Berkeley suggests that a particular set of geophysical conditions that existed about 3.5 billion years ago -- when Earth's interior was much warmer -- led to the formation of a "density trap" about 400 kilometers below the planet's surface. In the trap, a precise combination of heat and pressure led to a geophysical rarity, an area where liquids were denser than solids.
Today, liquids generated in the mantle are less dense than solids and therefore rise to the surface to form volcanoes. However, several billion years ago, a hotter mantle permitted deeper melting and generated dense liquids that stalled, crystallized and eventually sank to the bottom of the mantle.
"When something melts, we expect the gas to get out, and for that reason people have suggested that the trapped elements must be in a primordial reservoir that has never melted," said lead author Cin-Ty Lee, associate professor of Earth science at Rice. "That idea's become problematic in recent decades, because there's evidence that suggests all the mantle should have melted at least once. What we are suggesting is a mechanism where things could have melted but where the gas does not escape because the melted material never rises to the surface."
Lee said the rise of less dense, melted material from Earth's interior is the process that created Earth's crust. Suggesting that melted material might sink instead literally turns conventional wisdom on its head. But the "upside-down" model can explain several geochemical and geophysical oddities in addition to the trapped gases, which suggests that it is a plausible hypothesis.
"I hope this generates a lot of interest," Lee said. "There are seismic methods that can be used to test our idea. Even if we turn out to be wrong, the tests that would be needed to falsify our hypothesis would generate a lot of new information."
Research co-authors include Peter Luffi, Tobias Höink and Rajdeep Dasgupta, all of Rice, Michigan's Jie Li and UC-Berkeley's John Hernlund. The research was supported by the Packard Foundation and the National Science Foundation.
Jade Boyd | EurekAlert!
Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology
22.06.2017 | Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft
How reliable are shells as climate archives?
21.06.2017 | Leibniz-Zentrum für Marine Tropenforschung (ZMT)
An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...
Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.
Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...
Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.
As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...
Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.
With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...
Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine
Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...
19.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
13.06.2017 | Event News
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy
23.06.2017 | Information Technology