The total amount of carbon in the atmosphere, oceans and other near-surface reservoirs is thought to be negligible compared to that stored in the Earth's mantle1,2,3. Although the mode of carbon storage in the mantle is largely unknown, observations of microbubbles on dislocations in minerals from mantle xenoliths has led to the suggestion that carbon may be soluble in silicates at high pressure4,5. Here we report measurements of carbon solubility in olivine, the major constituent of the upper mantle, at pressures up to 3.5 GPa. We have found that, contrary to previous expectations, carbon solubility in olivine is exceedingly low—of the order of 0.1 to 1 parts per million by weight. Together with similar data for pyroxenes, garnet and spinel, we interpret this to imply that most carbon must be present as a separate phase in the deeper parts of the upper mantle, probably as a carbonate phase6,7. Large-scale volcanic eruptions tapping such a carbonate-bearing mantle reservoir might therefore rapidly transfer large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, consistent with models that link global mass extinctions to flood basalt eruptions via a sudden increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide levels8,9,10,11.
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We thank D. Frost for technical assistance with one multi-anvil experiment at Bayerisches Geoinstitut, Bayreuth; we also thank R. Brooker for comments and suggestions. This study was supported by the German Science Foundation (DFG, Leibniz award to H.K.).
The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.
Supplementary Figure 1: This figure shows infrared spectra (KBr-pellets) of isotopically normal Na2CO3, of Na2CO3 certified to contain 99 % of the isotope 13C and of the carbonate from a piston cylinder experiment. The samples rich in 13C probably exchanged some carbon dioxide with the air during preparation of the KBr-pellet. (PDF 465 kb)
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Keppler, H., Wiedenbeck, M. & Shcheka, S. Carbon solubility in olivine and the mode of carbon storage in the Earth's mantle. Nature 424, 414–416 (2003). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature01828
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