View of the basalts along the northeastern coast of Baffin Island.
Click on image for full size
Image Courtesy of Don Francis, McGill University

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

Researchers have found a primitive Earth mantle reservoir on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Geologist Matthew Jackson and his colleagues from a multi-institution collaboration report the finding--the first discovery of what may be a primitive Earth mantle--this week in the journal Nature.

The Earth's mantle is a rocky, solid shell that is between the Earth's crust and the outer core, and makes up about 84 percent of the Earth's volume. The mantle is made up of many distinct portions or reservoirs that have different chemical compositions.

Scientists had previously concluded that the Earth was slightly older than 4.5 billion years old, but had not found a piece of the Earth's primitive mantle.

Until recently, researchers generally thought that the Earth and the other planets of the solar system were chondritic, meaning that the mantle's chemistry was thought to be similar to that of chondrites--some of the oldest, most primitive objects in the solar system. Assuming a chondritic model of the Earth, a piece of the primitive mantle would have certain isotope ratios of the chemical elements of helium, lead and neodymium.

The model that the Earth was chondritic was called into question with a discovery five years ago by a team at the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which suggested the ratio of neodymium on Earth was higher than what would be expected if the Earth were indeed chondritic.

That finding changed the neodymium ratio expected in the primitive mantle and in turn, changed where researchers should be looking to find evidence of a primitive mantle. According to the lead author, Matthew Jackson, "We had been looking under the wrong rock."

Since many of the ancient rocks have melted over time,finding a piece of the primitive mantle means studying lavas. Lavas retain the same isotopic composition of the rocks that have melted into the lava. Therefore, testing the lava's composition is identical to testing the original rock's composition.

When the assumption about the neodymium ratio was altered, Jackson and his colleagues knew they should take a look at lava samples from Baffin Island, since those samples contained the correct ratios of helium and neodymium. They discovered that the lavas also had the correct ratio for lead. The lead isotopes suggest that the samples from Baffin Island date the lava's mantle source reservoir to between 4.55 and 4.45 billion years old, only a little younger than the age of the Earth. The lava sample comes from an ancient rock that melted 62 million years ago.

When the researchers studied the composition of the lava found at Baffin Island, they discovered that the sample had the correct ratios of all three chemical elements--helium, lead, and the new non-chronditic neodymium ratio. This discovery suggests that the sample from Baffin Island is the first evidence for the oldest mantle reservoir.

This study challenges the idea that the Earth has a chondritic primitive mantle and according to Matthew Jackson is, "suggesting an alternative." One possibility, according to Jackson, is that "the early Earth went through a differentiation event and the Earth's crust was extracted from the early mantle and is now hidden in the deep earth; the hidden crust and the mantle found on Baffin Island would sum to chondritic."

This discovery will help researchers understand the composition of the original, early Earth. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Text above is courtesy of the National Science Foundation

Last modified September 1, 2010 by Becca Hatheway.

Shop Windows to the Universe Science Store!

Our online store includes books on science education, ranging from evolution, classroom research, and the need for science and math literacy!

Windows to the Universe Community

News

Opportunities

You might also be interested in:

Traveling Nitrogen Classroom Activity Kit

Check out our online store - minerals, fossils, books, activities, jewelry, and household items!...more

Triggers of Volcanic Eruptions in Oregon's Mount Hood Investigated

A new study has found that a mixing of two different types of magma is the key to the historic eruptions of Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain, and that eruptions often happen in a relatively short...more

Oldest Earth Mantle Reservoir Discovered

Researchers have found a primitive Earth mantle reservoir on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Geologist Matthew Jackson and his colleagues from a multi-institution collaboration report the finding--the...more

Its Not Your Fault A Typical Fault, Geologically Speaking, That Is

Some geologic faults that appear strong and stable, slip and slide like weak faults. Now an international team of researchers has laboratory evidence showing why some faults that 'should not' slip are...more

Extended Period of Lower Solar Activity Linked to Changes in Sun's Conveyor Belt

A new analysis of the unusually long solar cycle that ended in 2008 suggests that one reason for the long cycle could be a stretching of the sun's conveyor belt, a current of plasma that circulates between...more

Growth Spurt in Tree Rings Prompts Questions About Climate Change

Anyone who has ever cut down a tree is familiar with the rings radiating out from the center of a tree trunk marking the tree's age. Careful study of tree rings can offer much more: a rich record of history...more

Did Life First Develop in a Mica Sandwich at the Bottom of a Primordial Sea?

Earth's first life form may have developed between the layers of a chunk of mica sitting like a multilayered sandwich in primordial waters, according to a new hypothesis. The mica hypothesis, which was...more

Acid Rain Has Disproportionate Impact on Near-Shore Ocean Waters

The release of sulfur and nitrogen into the atmosphere by power plants and agricultural activities--commonly referred to as acid rain--plays a minor role in making the ocean more acidic on a global scale,...more

Windows to the Universe, a project of the National Earth Science Teachers Association, is sponsored in part is sponsored in part through grants from federal agencies (NASA and NOAA), and partnerships with affiliated organizations, including the American Geophysical Union, the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Earth System Information Partnership, the American Meteorological Society, the National Center for Science Education, and TERC. The American Geophysical Union and the American Geosciences Institute are Windows to the Universe Founding Partners. NESTA welcomes new Institutional Affiliates in support of our ongoing programs, as well as collaborations on new projects. Contact NESTA for more information. NASA ESIP NCSE HHMI AGU AGI AMS NOAA