Study hints that ancient Earth made its own water — geologically

A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University– and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

“When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water–in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell–a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser–to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface–a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found–a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”–as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier–a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said–an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

“One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

“If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

Earth’s most abundant mineral finally has a name

An ancient meteorite and high-energy X-rays have helped scientists conclude a half century of effort to find, identify and characterize a mineral that makes up 38 percent of the Earth.

And in doing so, a team of scientists led by Oliver Tschauner, a mineralogist at the University of Las Vegas, clarified the definition of the Earth’s most abundant mineral – a high-density form of magnesium iron silicate, now called Bridgmanite – and defined estimated constraint ranges for its formation. Their research was performed at the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The mineral was named after 1964 Nobel laureate and pioneer of high-pressure research Percy Bridgman. The naming does more than fix a vexing gap in scientific lingo; it also will aid our understanding of the deep Earth.

To determine the makeup of the inner layers of the Earth, scientists need to test materials under extreme pressure and temperatures. For decades, scientists have believed a dense perovskite structure makes up 38 percent of the Earth’s volume, and that the chemical and physical properties of Bridgmanite have a large influence on how elements and heat flow through the Earth’s mantle. But since the mineral failed to survive the trip to the surface, no one has been able to test and prove its existence – a requirement for getting a name by the International Mineralogical Association.

Shock-compression that occurs in collisions of asteroid bodies in the solar system create the same hostile conditions of the deep Earth – roughly 2,100 degrees Celsius (3,800 degrees Farenheit) and pressures of about 240,000 times greater than sea-level air pressure. The shock occurs fast enough to inhibit the Bridgmanite breakdown that takes place when it comes under lower pressure, such as the Earth’s surface. Part of the debris from these collisions falls on Earth as meteorites, with the Bridgmanite “frozen” within a shock-melt vein. Previous tests on meteorites using transmission electron microscopy caused radiation damage to the samples and incomplete results.

So the team decided to try a new tactic: non-destructive micro-focused X-rays for diffraction analysis and novel fast-readout area-detector techniques. Tschauner and his colleagues from Caltech and the GeoSoilEnviroCARS, a University of Chicago-operated X-ray beamline at the APS at Argonne National Laboratory, took advantage of the X-rays’ high energy, which gives them the ability to penetrate the meteorite, and their intense brilliance, which leaves little of the radiation behind to cause damage.

The team examined a section of the highly shocked L-chondrite meteorite Tenham, which crashed in Australia in 1879. The GSECARS beamline was optimal for the study because it is one of the nation’s leading locations for conducting high-pressure research.

Bridgmanite grains are rare in the Tenhma meteorite, and they are smaller than 1 micrometer in diameter. Thus the team had to use a strongly focused beam and conduct highly spatially resolved diffraction mapping until an aggregate of Bridgmanite was identified and characterized by structural and compositional analysis.

This first natural specimen of Bridgmanite came with some surprises: It contains an unexpectedly high amount of ferric iron, beyond that of synthetic samples. Natural Bridgmanite also contains much more sodium than most synthetic samples. Thus the crystal chemistry of natural Bridgmanite provides novel crystal chemical insights. This natural sample of Bridgmanite may serve as a complement to experimental studies of deep mantle rocks in the future.

Prior to this study, knowledge about Bridgmanite’s properties has only been based on synthetic samples because it only remains stable below 660 kilometers (410 miles) depth at pressures of above 230 kbar (23 GPa). When it is brought out of the inner Earth, the lower pressures transform it back into less dense minerals. Some scientists believe that some inclusions on diamonds are the marks left by Bridgmanite that changed as the diamonds were unearthed.

The team’s results were published in the November 28 issue of the journal Science as “Discovery of bridgmanite, the most abundant mineral in Earth, in a shocked meteorite,” by O. Tschauner at University of Nevada in Las Vegas, N.V.; C. Ma; J.R. Beckett; G.R. Rossman at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif.; C. Prescher; V.B. Prakapenka at University of Chicago in Chicago, IL.

This research was funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, NASA, and NSF.

Asteroid impacts on Earth make structurally bizarre diamonds

Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. -  Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie
Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. – Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie

Scientists have argued for half a century about the existence of a form of diamond called lonsdaleite, which is associated with impacts by meteorites and asteroids. A group of scientists based mostly at Arizona State University now show that what has been called lonsdaleite is in fact a structurally disordered form of ordinary diamond.

The scientists’ report is published in Nature Communications, Nov. 20, by Péter Németh, a former ASU visiting researcher (now with the Research Centre of Natural Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), together with ASU’s Laurence Garvie, Toshihiro Aoki and Peter Buseck, plus Natalia Dubrovinskaia and Leonid Dubrovinsky from the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Buseck and Garvie are with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, while Aoki is with ASU’s LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science.

“So-called lonsdaleite is actually the long-familiar cubic form of diamond, but it’s full of defects,” says Péter Németh. These can occur, he explains, due to shock metamorphism, plastic deformation or unequilibrated crystal growth.

The lonsdaleite story began almost 50 years ago. Scientists reported that a large meteorite, called Canyon Diablo after the crater it formed on impact in northern Arizona, contained a new form of diamond with a hexagonal structure. They described it as an impact-related mineral and called it lonsdaleite, after Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, a famous crystallographer.

Since then, “lonsdaleite” has been widely used by scientists as an indicator of ancient asteroidal impacts on Earth, including those linked to mass extinctions. In addition, it has been thought to have mechanical properties superior to ordinary diamond, giving it high potential industrial significance. All this focused much interest on the mineral, although pure crystals of it, even tiny ones, have never been found or synthesized. That posed a long-standing puzzle.

The ASU scientists approached the question by re-examining Canyon Diablo diamonds and investigating laboratory samples prepared under conditions in which lonsdaleite has been reported.

Using the advanced electron microscopes in ASU’s Center for Solid State Science, the team discovered, both in the Canyon Diablo and the synthetic samples, new types of diamond twins and nanometer-scale structural complexity. These give rise to features attributed to lonsdaleite.

“Most crystals have regular repeating structures, much like the bricks in a well-built wall,” says Peter Buseck. However, interruptions can occur in the regularity, and these are called defects. “Defects are intermixed with the normal diamond structure, just as if the wall had an occasional half-brick or longer brick or row of bricks that’s slightly displaced to one side or another.”

The outcome of the new work is that so-called lonsdaleite is the same as the regular cubic form of diamond, but it has been subjected to shock or pressure that caused defects within the crystal structure.

One consequence of the new work is that many scientific studies based on the presumption that lonsdaleite is a separate type of diamond need to be re-examined. The study implies that both shock and static compression can produce an intensely defective diamond structure.

The new discovery also suggests that the observed structural complexity of the Canyon Diablo diamond results in interesting mechanical properties. It could be a candidate for a product with exceptional hardness.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

New evidence for oceans of water deep in the Earth

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico report evidence for potentially oceans worth of water deep beneath the United States. Though not in the familiar liquid form — the ingredients for water are bound up in rock deep in the Earth’s mantle — the discovery may represent the planet’s largest water reservoir.

The presence of liquid water on the surface is what makes our “blue planet” habitable, and scientists have long been trying to figure out just how much water may be cycling between Earth’s surface and interior reservoirs through plate tectonics.

Northwestern geophysicist Steve Jacobsen and University of New Mexico seismologist Brandon Schmandt have found deep pockets of magma located about 400 miles beneath North America, a likely signature of the presence of water at these depths. The discovery suggests water from the Earth’s surface can be driven to such great depths by plate tectonics, eventually causing partial melting of the rocks found deep in the mantle.

The findings, to be published June 13 in the journal Science, will aid scientists in understanding how the Earth formed, what its current composition and inner workings are and how much water is trapped in mantle rock.

“Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” said Jacobsen, a co-author of the paper. “I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”

Scientists have long speculated that water is trapped in a rocky layer of the Earth’s mantle located between the lower mantle and upper mantle, at depths between 250 miles and 410 miles. Jacobsen and Schmandt are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in this area of the mantle, known as the “transition zone,” on a regional scale. The region extends across most of the interior of the United States.

Schmandt, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of New Mexico, uses seismic waves from earthquakes to investigate the structure of the deep crust and mantle. Jacobsen, an associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, uses observations in the laboratory to make predictions about geophysical processes occurring far beyond our direct observation.

The study combined Jacobsen’s lab experiments in which he studies mantle rock under the simulated high pressures of 400 miles below the Earth’s surface with Schmandt’s observations using vast amounts of seismic data from the USArray, a dense network of more than 2,000 seismometers across the United States.

Jacobsen’s and Schmandt’s findings converged to produce evidence that melting may occur about 400 miles deep in the Earth. H2O stored in mantle rocks, such as those containing the mineral ringwoodite, likely is the key to the process, the researchers said.

“Melting of rock at this depth is remarkable because most melting in the mantle occurs much shallower, in the upper 50 miles,” said Schmandt, a co-author of the paper. “If there is a substantial amount of H2O in the transition zone, then some melting should take place in areas where there is flow into the lower mantle, and that is consistent with what we found.”

If just one percent of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone is H2O, that would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, the researchers said.

This water is not in a form familiar to us — it is not liquid, ice or vapor. This fourth form is water trapped inside the molecular structure of the minerals in the mantle rock. The weight of 250 miles of solid rock creates such high pressure, along with temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that a water molecule splits to form a hydroxyl radical (OH), which can be bound into a mineral’s crystal structure.

Schmandt and Jacobsen’s findings build on a discovery reported in March in the journal Nature in which scientists discovered a piece of the mineral ringwoodite inside a diamond brought up from a depth of 400 miles by a volcano in Brazil. That tiny piece of ringwoodite — the only sample in existence from within the Earth — contained a surprising amount of water bound in solid form in the mineral.

“Whether or not this unique sample is representative of the Earth’s interior composition is not known, however,” Jacobsen said. “Now we have found evidence for extensive melting beneath North America at the same depths corresponding to the dehydration of ringwoodite, which is exactly what has been happening in my experiments.”

For years, Jacobsen has been synthesizing ringwoodite, colored sapphire-like blue, in his Northwestern lab by reacting the green mineral olivine with water at high-pressure conditions. (The Earth’s upper mantle is rich in olivine.) He found that more than one percent of the weight of the ringwoodite’s crystal structure can consist of water — roughly the same amount of water as was found in the sample reported in the Nature paper.

“The ringwoodite is like a sponge, soaking up water,” Jacobsen said. “There is something very special about the crystal structure of ringwoodite that allows it to attract hydrogen and trap water. This mineral can contain a lot of water under conditions of the deep mantle.”

For the study reported in Science, Jacobsen subjected his synthesized ringwoodite to conditions around 400 miles below the Earth’s surface and found it forms small amounts of partial melt when pushed to these conditions. He detected the melt in experiments conducted at the Advanced Photon Source of Argonne National Laboratory and at the National Synchrotron Light Source of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Jacobsen uses small gem diamonds as hard anvils to compress minerals to deep-Earth conditions. “Because the diamond windows are transparent, we can look into the high-pressure device and watch reactions occurring at conditions of the deep mantle,” he said. “We used intense beams of X-rays, electrons and infrared light to study the chemical reactions taking place in the diamond cell.”

Jacobsen’s findings produced the same evidence of partial melt, or magma, that Schmandt detected beneath North America using seismic waves. Because the deep mantle is beyond the direct observation of scientists, they use seismic waves — sound waves at different speeds — to image the interior of the Earth.

“Seismic data from the USArray are giving us a clearer picture than ever before of the Earth’s internal structure beneath North America,” Schmandt said. “The melting we see appears to be driven by subduction — the downwelling of mantle material from the surface.”

The melting the researchers have detected is called dehydration melting. Rocks in the transition zone can hold a lot of H2O, but rocks in the top of the lower mantle can hold almost none. The water contained within ringwoodite in the transition zone is forced out when it goes deeper (into the lower mantle) and forms a higher-pressure mineral called silicate perovskite, which cannot absorb the water. This causes the rock at the boundary between the transition zone and lower mantle to partially melt.

“When a rock with a lot of H2O moves from the transition zone to the lower mantle it needs to get rid of the H2O somehow, so it melts a little bit,” Schmandt said. “This is called dehydration melting.”

“Once the water is released, much of it may become trapped there in the transition zone,” Jacobsen added.

Just a little bit of melt, about one percent, is detectible with the new array of seismometers aimed at this region of the mantle because the melt slows the speed of seismic waves, Schmandt said.

Diamonds in Earth’s oldest zircons are nothing but laboratory contamination

This image explains how synthetic diamond can be distinguished from natural diamond. -  Dobrzhinetskaya Lab, UC Riverside.
This image explains how synthetic diamond can be distinguished from natural diamond. – Dobrzhinetskaya Lab, UC Riverside.

As is well known, the Earth is about 4.6 billion years old. No rocks exist, however, that are older than about 3.8 billion years. A sedimentary rock section in the Jack Hills of western Australia, more than 3 billion years old, contains within it zircons that were eroded from rocks as old as about 4.3 billion years, making these zircons, called Jack Hills zircons, the oldest recorded geological material on the planet.

In 2007 and 2008, two research papers reported in the journal Nature that a suite of zircons from the Jack Hills included diamonds, requiring a radical revision of early Earth history. The papers posited that the diamonds formed, somehow, before the oldest zircons – that is, before 4.3 billion years ago – and then were recycled repeatedly over a period of 1.2 billion years during which they were periodically incorporated into the zircons by an unidentified process.

Now a team of three researchers, two of whom are at the University of California, Riverside, has discovered using electron microscopy that the diamonds in question are not diamonds at all but broken fragments of a diamond-polishing compound that got embedded when the zircon specimen was prepared for analysis by the authors of the Nature papers.

“The diamonds are not indigenous to the zircons,” said Harry Green, a research geophysicist and a distinguished professor of the Graduate Division at UC Riverside, who was involved in the research. “They are contamination. This, combined with the lack of diamonds in any other samples of Jack Hills zircons, strongly suggests that there are no indigenous diamonds in the Jack Hills zircons.”

Study results appear online this week in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

“It occurred to us that a long-term history of diamond recycling with intermittent trapping into zircons would likely leave some sort of microstructural record at the interface between the diamonds and zircon,” said Larissa Dobrzhinetskaya, a professional researcher in the Department of Earth Sciences at UCR and the first author of the research paper. “We reasoned that high-resolution electron microscopy of the material should be able to distinguish whether the diamonds are indeed what they have been believed to be.”

Using an intensive search with high-resolution secondary-electron imaging and transmission electron microscopy, the research team confirmed the presence of diamonds in the Jack Hills zircon samples they examined but could readily identify them as broken fragments of diamond paste that the original authors had used to polish the zircons for examination. They also observed quartz, graphite, apatite, rutile, iron oxides, feldspars and other low-pressure minerals commonly included into zircon in granitic rocks.

“In other words, they are contamination from polishing with diamond paste that was mechanically injected into silicate inclusions during polishing” Green said.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Green and Dobrzhinetskaya were joined in the research by Richard Wirth at the Helmholtz Centre Potsdam, Germany.

Dobrzhinetskaya and Green planned the research project; Dobrzhinetskaya led the project; she and Wirth did the electron microscopy.

Birth of Earth’s continents

New research led by a University of Calgary geophysicist provides strong evidence against continent formation above a hot mantle plume, similar to an environment that presently exists beneath the Hawaiian Islands.

The analysis, published this month in Nature Geoscience, indicates that the nuclei of Earth’s continents formed as a byproduct of mountain-building processes, by stacking up slabs of relatively cold oceanic crust. This process created thick, strong ‘keels’ in the Earth’s mantle that supported the overlying crust and enabled continents to form.

The scientific clues leading to this conclusion derived from computer simulations of the slow cooling process of continents, combined with analysis of the distribution of diamonds in the deep Earth.

The Department of Geoscience’s Professor David Eaton developed computer software to enable numerical simulation of the slow diffusive cooling of Earth’s mantle over a time span of billions of years.

Working in collaboration with former graduate student, Assistant Professor Claire Perry from the Universite du Quebec a Montreal, Eaton relied on the geological record of diamonds found in Africa to validate his innovative computer simulations.

“For the first time, we are able to quantify the thermal evolution of a realistic 3D Earth model spanning billions of years from the time continents were formed,” states Perry.

Mantle plumes consist of an upwelling of hot material within Earth’s mantle. Plumes are thought to be the cause of some volcanic centres, especially those that form a linear volcanic chain like Hawaii. Diamonds, which are generally limited to the deepest and oldest parts of the continental mantle, provide a wealth of information on how the host mantle region may have formed.

“Ancient mantle keels are relatively strong, cold and sometimes diamond-bearing material. They are known to extend to depths of 200 kilometres or more beneath the ancient core regions of continents,” explains Professor David Eaton. “These mantle keels resisted tectonic recycling into the deep mantle, allowing the preservation of continents over geological time and providing suitable environments for the development of the terrestrial biosphere.”

His method takes into account important factors such as dwindling contribution of natural radioactivity to the heat budget, and allows for the calculation of other properties that strongly influence mantle evolution, such as bulk density and rheology (mechanical strength).

“Our computer model emerged from a multi-disciplinary approach combining classical physics, mathematics and computer science,” explains Eaton. “By combining those disciplines, we were able to tackle a fundamental geoscientific problem, which may open new doors for future research.”

This work provides significant new scientific insights into the formation and evolution of continents on Earth.

Click on this image to view the .mp4 video
This computer simulation spanning 2.5 billion years of Earth history is showing density difference of the mantle, compared to an oceanic reference, starting from a cooler initial state. Density is controlled by mantle composition as well as slowly cooling temperature; a keel of low-density material extending to about 260 km depth on the left side (x < 600 km) provides buoyancy that prevents continents from being subducted ('recycled' into the deep Earth). Graph on the top shows a computed elevation model. – David Eaton, University of Calgary.

Probing methane’s secrets: From diamonds to Neptune

New research from Carnegie on methane under pressure will help scientists understand the chemistry of planetary interiors, including Neptune and and Uranus, as well as hydrocarbon energy resources and diamond formation here on Earth. -  Courtesy of Alexander Goncharov, Carnegie Institution for Science.
New research from Carnegie on methane under pressure will help scientists understand the chemistry of planetary interiors, including Neptune and and Uranus, as well as hydrocarbon energy resources and diamond formation here on Earth. – Courtesy of Alexander Goncharov, Carnegie Institution for Science.

Hydrocarbons from the Earth make up the oil and gas that heat our homes and fuel our cars. The study of the various phases of molecules formed from carbon and hydrogen under high pressures and temperatures, like those found in the Earth’s interior, helps scientists understand the chemical processes occurring deep within planets, including Earth.

New research from a team led by Carnegie’s Alexander Goncharov hones in on the hydrocarbon methane (CH4), which is one of the most abundant molecules in the universe. Despite its ubiquity, methane’s behavior under the conditions found in planetary interiors is poorly understood due to contradictory information from various modeling studies. The work is published by Nature Communications.

Lead author Sergey Lobanov explains: “Our knowledge of physics and chemistry of volatiles inside planets is based mainly on observations of the fluxes at their surfaces. High-pressure, high-temperature experiments, which simulate conditions deep inside planets and provide detailed information about the physical state, chemical reactivity, and properties of the planetary materials, remain a big challenge for us.”

For example, methane’s melting behavior is known only below 70,000 times normal atmospheric pressure (7 GPa). The ability to observe it under much more extreme conditions is fundamental information for planetary models.

Moreover, its reactivity under extreme conditions also needs to be understood. Previous studies indicated little information about methane’s chemical reactivity under pressure and temperature conditions similar to those found in the deep Earth. This led to the assumption that methane is the main hydrocarbon phase of carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen-containing fluid in some parts of the Earth’s mantle. But the team’s work shows that it is necessary to question this assumption.

Using high-pressure experimental techniques, the team–including Carnegie’s Lobanov, Xiao-Jia Chen, Chang-Sheng Zha, and Ho-Kwang “Dave” Mao–was able to examine methane’s phases and reactivity under a range of temperatures and pressures mimicking environments found beneath Earth’s surface.

At pressures reaching 790,000 times normal atmospheric pressure (80 GPa), methane’s melting temperature is still below 1,900 degrees Fahrenheit. This suggests that methane is not a solid under any conditions met deep within most planets. What’s more, its melting point is even lower than melting temperatures of water (H2O) and ammonia (NH3), other very important components in the interiors of giant planets.

As the temperature increases above about 1,700 degrees Fahrenheit, methane becomes more chemically reactive. First, it partly disassociates into elemental carbon and hydrogen. Then, with further temperature increases, light hydrocarbon molecules start to form. Pressure also affects the composition of the carbon-hydrogen system, with heavy hydrocarbons becoming apparent at pressures above 250,000 times atmospheric pressure (25 GPa), indicating that under deep mantle conditions the environment is likely methane poor.

These findings have implications both for Earth’s deep chemistry and for the geochemistry of icy gas giant planets such as Uranus and Neptune. The team argues that this reactivity may play a role in the formation of ultradeep diamonds deep within the mantle. They assert that their findings should be taken into account in future models of the interiors of Neptune and Uranus, which are believed to have mantles consisting of a mixture of methane, water, and ammonia components.

Comprehensive analysis of impact spherules supports theory of cosmic impact 12,800 years ago

This is UCSB Earth Sciences professor emeritus James Kennett. -  Courtesy photo
This is UCSB Earth Sciences professor emeritus James Kennett. – Courtesy photo

About 12,800 years ago when the Earth was warming and emerging from the last ice age, a dramatic and anomalous event occurred that abruptly reversed climatic conditions back to near-glacial state. According to James Kennett, UC Santa Barbara emeritus professor in earth sciences, this climate switch fundamentally — and remarkably — occurred in only one year, heralding the onset of the Younger Dryas cool episode.

The cause of this cooling has been much debated, especially because it closely coincided with the abrupt extinction of the majority of the large animals then inhabiting the Americas, as well as the disappearance of the prehistoric Clovis culture, known for its big game hunting.

“What then did cause the extinction of most of these big animals, including mammoths, mastodons, giant ground sloths, American camel and horse, and saber- toothed cats?” asked Kennett, pointing to Charles Darwin’s 1845 assessment of the significance of climate change. “Did these extinctions result from human overkill, climatic change or some catastrophic event?” The long debate that has followed, Kennett noted, has recently been stimulated by a growing body of evidence in support of a theory that a major cosmic impact event was involved, a theory proposed by the scientific team that includes Kennett himself.

Now, in one of the most comprehensive related investigations ever, the group has documented a wide distribution of microspherules widely distributed in a layer over 50 million square kilometers on four continents, including North America, including Arlington Canyon on Santa Rosa Island in the Channel Islands. This layer — the Younger Dryas Boundary (YDB) layer — also contains peak abundances of other exotic materials, including nanodiamonds and other unusual forms of carbon such as fullerenes, as well as melt-glass and iridium. This new evidence in support of the cosmic impact theory appeared recently in a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences.

This cosmic impact, said Kennett, caused major environmental degradation over wide areas through numerous processes that include continent-wide wildfires and a major increase in atmospheric dust load that blocked the sun long enough to cause starvation of larger animals.

Investigating 18 sites across North America, Europe and the Middle East, Kennett and 28 colleagues from 24 institutions analyzed the spherules, tiny spheres formed by the high temperature melting of rocks and soils that then cooled or quenched rapidly in the atmosphere. The process results from enormous heat and pressures in blasts generated by the cosmic impact, somewhat similar to those produced during atomic explosions, Kennett explained.

But spherules do not form from cosmic collisions alone. Volcanic activity, lightning strikes, and coal seam fires all can create the tiny spheres. So to differentiate between impact spherules and those formed by other processes, the research team utilized scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive spectrometry on nearly 700 spherule samples collected from the YDB layer. The YDB layer also corresponds with the end of the Clovis age, and is commonly associated with other features such as an overlying “black mat” — a thin, dark carbon-rich sedimentary layer — as well as the youngest known Clovis archeological material and megafaunal remains, and abundant charcoal that indicates massive biomass burning resulting from impact.

The results, according to Kennett, are compelling. Examinations of the YDB spherules revealed that while they are consistent with the type of sediment found on the surface of the earth in their areas at the time of impact, they are geochemically dissimilar from volcanic materials. Tests on their remanent magnetism — the remaining magnetism after the removal of an electric or magnetic influence — also demonstrated that the spherules could not have formed naturally during lightning strikes.

“Because requisite formation temperatures for the impact spherules are greater than 2,200 degrees Celsius, this finding precludes all but a high temperature cosmic impact event as a natural formation mechanism for melted silica and other minerals,” Kennett explained. Experiments by the group have for the first time demonstrated that silica-rich spherules can also form through high temperature incineration of plants, such as oaks, pines, and reeds, because these are known to contain biologically formed silica.

Additionally, according to the study, the surface textures of these spherules are consistent with high temperatures and high-velocity impacts, and they are often fused to other spherules. An estimated 10 million metric tons of impact spherules were deposited across nine countries in the four continents studied. However, the true breadth of the YDB strewnfield is unknown, indicating an impact of major proportions.

“Based on geochemical measurements and morphological observations, this paper offers compelling evidence to reject alternate hypotheses that YDB spherules formed by volcanic or human activity; from the ongoing natural accumulation of space dust; lightning strikes; or by slow geochemical accumulation in sediments,” said Kennett.

“This evidence continues to point to a major cosmic impact as the primary cause for the tragic loss of nearly all of the remarkable American large animals that had survived the stresses of many ice age periods only to be knocked out quite recently by this catastrophic event.”

Earth’s iron core is surprisingly weak, Stanford researchers say

The massive ball of iron sitting at the center of Earth is not quite as “rock-solid” as has been thought, say two Stanford mineral physicists. By conducting experiments that simulate the immense pressures deep in the planet’s interior, the researchers determined that iron in Earth’s inner core is only about 40 percent as strong as previous studies estimated.

This is the first time scientists have been able to experimentally measure the effect of such intense pressure – as high as 3 million times the pressure Earth’s atmosphere exerts at sea level – in a laboratory. A paper presenting the results of their study is available online in Nature Geoscience.

“The strength of iron under these extreme pressures is startlingly weak,” said Arianna Gleason, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, and lead author of the paper. Wendy Mao, an assistant professor in the department, is the co-author.

“This strength measurement can help us understand how the core deforms over long time scales, which influences how we think about Earth’s evolution and planetary evolution in general,” Gleason said.

Until now, almost all of what is known about Earth’s inner core came from studies tracking seismic waves as they travel from the surface of the planet through the interior. Those studies have shown that the travel time through the inner core isn’t the same in every direction, indicating that the inner core itself is not uniform. Over time and subjected to great pressure, the core has developed a sort of fabric as grains of iron elongate and align lengthwise in parallel formations.

The ease and speed with which iron grains in the inner core can deform and align would have influenced the evolution of the early Earth and development of the geomagnetic field. The field is generated by the circulation of liquid iron in the outer core around the solid inner core and shields Earth from the full intensity of solar radiation. Without the geomagnetic field, life – at least as we know it – would not be possible on Earth.

“The development of the inner core would certainly have some effect on the geomagnetic field, but just what effect and the magnitude of the effect, we can’t say,” said Mao. “That is very speculative.”

Gleason and Mao conducted their experiments using a diamond anvil cell – a device that can exert immense pressure on tiny samples clenched between two diamonds. They subjected minute amounts of pure iron to pressures between 200 and 300 gigapascals (equivalent to the pressure of 2 million to 3 million Earth atmospheres). Previous experimental studies were conducted in the range of only 10 gigapascals.

“We really pushed the limit here in terms of experimental conditions,” Gleason said. “Pioneering advancements in pressure-generation techniques and improvements in detector sensitivity, for example, used at large X-ray synchrotron facilities, such as Argonne National Lab, have allowed us to make these new measurements.”

In addition to intense pressures, the inner core also has extreme temperatures. The boundary between the inner and outer core has temperatures comparable to the surface of the sun. Simultaneously simulating both the pressure and temperature at the inner core isn’t yet possible in the laboratory, though Gleason and Mao are working on that for future studies. (For this study, Gleason mathematically extrapolated from their pressure data to factor in the effect of temperature.)

Gleason and Mao expect their findings will help other researchers set more realistic variables for conducting their own experiments.

“People modeling the inner core haven’t had many experimental constraints, because it’s so difficult to make measurements under those conditions,” Mao said. “There really weren’t constraints on how strong the core was, so this is really a fundamental new constraint.”

Beyond ‘blood diamonds:’ Fingerprinting other conflict minerals

Blood diamonds may get the most attention. But they are not the only minerals sold on the world market to finance wars and other conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa, according to an article in the current issue of Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society.

The story, by C&EN Senior Editor Celia Henry Arnaud, focuses on minerals being mined in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and sold to underwrite political militias there that ruthlessly injure and kill civilians. Metals made from these mineral ores are used in aerospace, electronics, light bulbs and other technologies. A federal law passed in 2010 forbids companies from buying the minerals cassiterite, columbite-tantalite, wolframite and gold from sources in the DRC and nine neighboring countries. The article focuses on the development of “fingerprinting” technology these companies badly need to ensure that they are using conflict-free minerals.

Arnaud highlights one approach that uses a laser to blast trace elements off these ores for analysis. She explains that as molten rock moves through the Earth’s crust, it picks up small amounts of elements that can later be used to identify the origin of mineral ores. This laser induced breakdown spectroscopy (LIBS) analysis, developed by Richard R. Hark, Ph.D., of Juniata College in Huntingdon, Pa., uses so-called “rare-earth” elements as identifying markers to locate precisely the source of ores immediately after they are mined. Arnaud notes that further work is needed to make rugged instruments that can be carried to the mines themselves and to build a database of mineral fingerprints to check suspect ores.