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 (www.ucr.edu) 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!
558 million-year-old fat reveals earliest known animal
21.09.2018 | Max-Planck-Institut für Biogeochemie
Glacial engineering could limit sea-level rise, if we get our emissions under control
20.09.2018 | European Geosciences Union
The building blocks of matter in our universe were formed in the first 10 microseconds of its existence, according to the currently accepted scientific picture. After the Big Bang about 13.7 billion years ago, matter consisted mainly of quarks and gluons, two types of elementary particles whose interactions are governed by quantum chromodynamics (QCD), the theory of strong interaction. In the early universe, these particles moved (nearly) freely in a quark-gluon plasma.
This is a joint press release of University Muenster and Heidelberg as well as the GSI Helmholtzzentrum für Schwerionenforschung in Darmstadt.
Then, in a phase transition, they combined and formed hadrons, among them the building blocks of atomic nuclei, protons and neutrons. In the current issue of...
Thin-film solar cells made of crystalline silicon are inexpensive and achieve efficiencies of a good 14 percent. However, they could do even better if their shiny surfaces reflected less light. A team led by Prof. Christiane Becker from the Helmholtz-Zentrum Berlin (HZB) has now patented a sophisticated new solution to this problem.
"It is not enough simply to bring more light into the cell," says Christiane Becker. Such surface structures can even ultimately reduce the efficiency by...
A study in the journal Bulletin of Marine Science describes a new, blood-red species of octocoral found in Panama. The species in the genus Thesea was discovered in the threatened low-light reef environment on Hannibal Bank, 60 kilometers off mainland Pacific Panama, by researchers at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama (STRI) and the Centro de Investigación en Ciencias del Mar y Limnología (CIMAR) at the University of Costa Rica.
Scientists established the new species, Thesea dalioi, by comparing its physical traits, such as branch thickness and the bright red colony color, with the...
Scientists have succeeded in observing the first long-distance transfer of information in a magnetic group of materials known as antiferromagnets.
An international team of researchers has mapped Nemo's genome, providing the research community with an invaluable resource to decode the response of fish to...
21.09.2018 | Event News
03.09.2018 | Event News
27.08.2018 | Event News
21.09.2018 | Physics and Astronomy
21.09.2018 | Life Sciences
21.09.2018 | Event News