A reservoir of water three times the volume of all the oceans has been discovered deep beneath the Earth’s surface. The finding could help explain where Earth’s seas came from.
The water is hidden inside a blue rock called ringwoodite that lies 700 kilometres underground in the mantle, the layer of hot rock between Earth’s surface and its core.
The huge size of the reservoir throws new light on the origin of Earth’s water. Some geologists think water arrived in comets as they struck the planet, but the new discovery supports an alternative idea that the oceans gradually oozed out of the interior of the early Earth.
“It’s good evidence the Earth’s water came from within,” says Steven Jacobsen of Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. The hidden water could also act as a buffer for the oceans on the surface, explaining why they have stayed the same size for millions of years.
They found signs of wet ringwoodite in the transition zone 700 kilometres down, which divides the upper and lower regions of the mantle. At that depth, the pressures and temperatures are just right to squeeze the water out of the ringwoodite. “It’s rock with water along the boundaries between the grains, almost as if they’re sweating,” says Jacobsen.
The high water storage capacity of minerals in Earth’s mantle transition zone (410- to 660-kilometer depth) implies the possibility of a deep H2O reservoir, which could cause dehydration melting of vertically flowing mantle. We examined the effects of downwelling from the transition zone into the lower mantle with high-pressure laboratory experiments, numerical modeling, and seismic P-to-S conversions recorded by a dense seismic array in North America. In experiments, the transition of hydrous ringwoodite to perovskite and (Mg,Fe)O produces intergranular melt. Detections of abrupt decreases in seismic velocity where downwelling mantle is inferred are consistent with partial melt below 660 kilometers. These results suggest hydration of a large region of the transition zone and that dehydration melting may act to trap H2O in the transition zone.
2.5% water found in diamond from a volcano
Jacobsen’s finding supports a recent study by Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Pearson studied a diamond from the transition zone that had been carried to the surface in a volcano, and found that it contained water-bearing ringwoodite, the first strong evidence that there was lots of water in the transition zone.
The ultimate origin of water in the Earth’s hydrosphere is in the deep Earth—the mantle. Theory1 and experiments have shown that although the water storage capacity of olivine-dominated shallow mantle is limited, the Earth’s transition zone, at depths between 410 and 660 kilometres, could be a major repository for water, owing to the ability of the higher-pressure polymorphs of olivine—wadsleyite and ringwoodite—to host enough water to comprise up to around 2.5 per cent of their weight. A hydrous transition zone may have a key role in terrestrial magmatism and plate tectonics yet despite experimental demonstration of the water-bearing capacity of these phases, geophysical probes such as electrical conductivity have provided conflicting results and the issue of whether the transition zone contains abundant water remains highly controversial11. Here we report X-ray diffraction, Raman and infrared spectroscopic data that provide, to our knowledge, the first evidence for the terrestrial occurrence of any higher-pressure polymorph of olivine: we find ringwoodite included in a diamond from Juína, Brazil. The water-rich nature of this inclusion, indicated by infrared absorption, along with the preservation of the ringwoodite, is direct evidence that, at least locally, the transition zone is hydrous, to about 1 weight per cent. The finding also indicates that some kimberlites must have their primary sources in this deep mantle region.