Volcanoes deliver two flavors of water

Feb 26, 2012
Volcanoes deliver two flavors of water

Seawater circulation pumps hydrogen and boron into the oceanic plates that make up the seafloor, and some of this seawater remains trapped as the plates descend into the mantle at areas called subduction zones. By analyzing samples of submarine volcanic glass near one of these areas, scientists found unexpected changes in isotopes of hydrogen and boron from the deep mantle. They expected to see the isotope "fingerprint" of seawater. But in volcanoes from the Manus Basin they also discovered evidence of seawater distilled long ago from a more ancient plate descent event, preserved for as long as 1 billion years. The data indicate that these ancient oceanic "slabs" can return to the upper mantle in some areas, and that rates of hydrogen exchange in the deep Earth may not conform to experiments. The research is published in the February 26, 2012, advanced on line publication of Nature Geoscience.

As Carnegie coauthor Erik Hauri explained, " and boron have both light and heavy isotopes. Isotopes are atoms of the same element with different numbers of neutrons. The volcanoes in the Manus Basin are delivering a mixture of heavy and light isotopes that have been observed nowhere else. The mantle under the Manus Basin appears to contain a highly distilled ancient water that is mixing with modern seawater."

When seawater-soaked oceanic plates descend into the mantle, heavy isotopes of hydrogen and boron are preferentially distilled away from the slab, leaving behind the light isotopes, but also leaving it dry and depleted of these elements, making the "isotope fingerprint" of the distillation process difficult to identify. But this process appears to have been preserved in at least one area: submarine volcanoes in the Manus Basin of , which erupted under more than a mile of (2,000 meters). Those pressures trap water from the deep mantle within the .

Lead author Alison Shaw and coauthor Mark Behn, both former Carnegie postdoctoral researchers, recognized another unique feature of the data. Lab experiments have shown very high diffusion rates for hydrogen , which move through the mantle as tiny protons. This diffusion should have long-ago erased the hydrogen isotope differences observed in the Manus Basin volcanoes.

"That is what we typically see at mid-ocean ridges," remarked Hauri. "But that is not what we found at Manus Basin. Instead we found a huge range in isotope abundances that indicates hydrogen diffusion in the deep Earth may not be analogous to what is observed in the lab."

The team's * finding means is that surface water can be carried into the deep Earth by oceanic plates and be preserved for as long as 1 billion years. They also indicate that the hydrogen diffusion rates in the deep Earth appear to be much slower than experiments show. It further suggests that these ancient slabs may not only return to the in areas like the Manus Basin, they may also come back up in hotspot volcanoes like Hawaii that are produced by mantle plumes.

The results are important to understanding how water is transferred and preserved in the and how it and other chemicals are recycled to the surface.

Explore further: How productive are the ore factories in the deep sea?

Provided by Carnegie Institution

4.2 /5 (5 votes)

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1.7 / 5 (6) Feb 26, 2012
Still waiting for the physics that allows lighter rock to penetrate more dense rock.
not rated yet Feb 26, 2012
Manus Basin is east of the north east coast of Papua New Guinea and north of new Brittain. It is a back arc basin between the Manus trench to the north and the New Brittain trench to the south. Such old constituents are surprising as the surface geology is much newer, Tertiary or newer.
2 / 5 (4) Feb 26, 2012
Still waiting for the physics that allows lighter rock to penetrate more dense rock.

1.4 / 5 (5) Feb 27, 2012
I was interested in this when I saw this article yesterday.

It seems hurricanes do something similar, apparently sorting water molecules by the Oxygen isotope, therefore changing the ratios of water made with Oxygen 18 vs water made with Oxygen 16. We can distinguish between weaker events vs hurricanes in the historical record by studying the ratios of Oxygen 18 vs Oxygen 16 in the plants and soil.

So then by the time it reaches land, there is less Oxygen 18 to 16 ratio than would be in ordinary storms.

Now why would a hurricane distill water by the mass of the Oxygen atom, while a volcano distills it be the mass of the hydrogen?

Seems strange, since H2O made from 2H1 plus O18 would have the same mass as H2O made from 2H2 plus O16, while 2H1 plus O17 equals the same mass as 1H1 plus 1H2 plus O16.

Maybe the effect isn't big enough to detect? Why?

Changes in radiation in the magma could alter hydrogen isotopes, but why wouldn't the water also be sorted by Oxygen content?
3 / 5 (1) Feb 27, 2012
Lurker2358- hydrogen comes from water, but oxygen is already a major part of rock, so it will be harder to tell which oxygen came from water and what was in the magma pre mixing.

StillWind - think about cracks, magma under pressure will push into them. Or consider a large magama chamber with a rock roof. Pieces fall off the roof and sink into the magma, and the magma then penetrates higher. It is rare to get a completely solid rock, and often you will see it is full of joints and cracks.

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