Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

The Earth’s missing lead may not be in the core


Relative to the CI chondrite class of meteorites (widely thought to be the ‘building blocks’ of the terrestrial planets), the Earth is depleted in volatile elements. For most elements this depletion is thought to be a solar nebular signature, as chondrites show depletions qualitatively similar to that of the Earth1. On the other hand, as lead is a volatile element, some Pb may also have been lost after accretion. The unique 206Pb/204Pb and 207Pb/204Pb ratios of the Earth’s mantle suggest that some lead was lost about 50 to 130 Myr after Solar System formation2,3,4. This has commonly been explained by lead lost via the segregation of a sulphide melt to the Earth’s core5,6,7, which assumes that lead has an affinity towards sulphide. Some models, however, have reconciled the Earth’s lead deficit with volatilization8. Whichever model is preferred, the broad coincidence of U–Pb model ages with the age of the Moon9,10,11 suggests that lead loss may be related to the Moon-forming impact. Here we report partitioning experiments in metal–sulphide–silicate systems. We show that lead is neither siderophile nor chalcophile enough to explain the high U/Pb ratio of the Earth’s mantle as being a result of lead pumping to the core. The Earth may have accreted from initially volatile-depleted material, some lead may have been lost to degassing following the Moon-forming giant impact, or a hidden reservoir exists in the deep mantle with lead isotope compositions complementary to upper-mantle values; it is unlikely though that the missing lead resides in the core.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Metal–silicate (black) and sulphide–silicate (grey) partition coefficients for lead.
Figure 2: Summary of the metal–silicate (black) and sulphide–silicate (grey) partition coefficients (1,400 °C, 2 GPa).
Figure 3: Calculation of lead, cadmium, zinc, selenium and tellurium abundances in the Earth’s mantle with partition coefficients summarized in Fig. 2, normalized to Cl and Mg# = 1.
Figure 4: Modelled evolution of the silicate Earth’s 238U/204Pb ratio in time elapsed after Solar System formation, using the partition coefficients summarized in Fig. 2 .
Figure 5: Modelled lead isotope compositions of the present-day upper mantle.


  1. Palme, H. & O’Neill, H. S. in The Mantle and Core (ed. Carlson, R. W.) 1–38 (Treatise on Geochemistry 2, Elsevier, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  2. Galer, S. J. G. & Goldstein, S. L. in Earth Processes: Reading the Isotope Code (eds Basu, A. & Hart, S.) 75–98 (American Geophysical Union, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Hofmann, A. W. in The Mantle and Core (ed. Carlson, R. W.) 61–101 (Treatise on Geochemistry 2, Elsevier, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Allègre, C. J., Manhès, G. & Göpel, C. The major differentiation of the Earth at 4.45 Ga. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 267, 386–398 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Oversby, V. M. & Ringwood, A. E. Time of formation of the Earth’s core. Nature 234, 463–465 (1971)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Wood, B. J. & Halliday, A. N. Cooling of the Earth and core formation after the giant impact. Nature 437, 1345–1348 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Wood, B. J., Walter, M. J. & Wade, J. Accretion of the Earth and segregation of its core. Nature 441, 825–833 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Jacobsen, S. B. The Hf-W isotopic system and the origin of the earth and moon. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 33, 531–570 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Kleine, T., Münker, C., Mezger, K. & Palme, H. Rapid accretion and early core formation on asteroids and the terrestrial planets from Hf–W chronometry. Nature 418, 952–955 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Kleine, T. et al. Hf-W chronometry of lunar metals and the age and early differentiation of the Moon. Science 310, 1671–1674 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Touboul, M. et al. Late formation and prolonged differentiation of the Moon inferred from W isotopes in lunar metals. Nature 450, 1206–1209 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. O’Neill, H. & St. C The origin of the Moon and the early history of the Earth - A chemical model. Part 2: The Earth. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 55, 1159–1172 (1991)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Hart, S. R. & Gaetani, R. A. Mantle Pb paradoxes: the sulfide solution. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 152, 295–308 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Malavergne, V. et al. New high-pressure and high-temperature metal/silicate partitioning of U and Pb: Implications for the cores of the Earth and Mars. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 71, 2637–2655 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Petitet, J. P., Petot, C. & Petot-Ervas, G. Influence of pressure on the activity of PbO in an equimolar molten PbO-SiO2 mixture. Chem. Geol. 62, 31–34 (1987)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Ohtani, E., Yurimoto, H. & Seto, S. Element partitioning between metallic liquid, silicate liquid, and lower-mantle minerals: implications for core formation of the Earth. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 100, 97–114 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. McDonough, W. F. in The Mantle and Core (ed. Carlson, R. W.) 547–568 (Treatise on Geochemistry 2, Elsevier, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  18. Allegre, C. J., Manhes, G. & Göpel, C. The age of the Earth. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 59, 1445–1456 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Palme, H. & Jones, A. in Meteorites, Comets and Planets (ed. Davis A. M.) 41–61 (Treatise on Geochemistry 1, Elsevier, 2003)

    Google Scholar 

  20. Yin, Q.-Z. & Jacobsen, S. B. Does U–Pb date Earth’s core formation? Nature 444 E1 doi: 10.1038/nature05358 (2006)

    CAS  Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Solomatov, V. S. in Origin of the Earth and Moon (eds Canup, R. & Righter, K.) 323–338 (Univ. Arizona Press, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  22. Porcelli, D., Woolum, D. & Cassen, P. Deep Earth rare gases: initial inventories, capture from the solar nebula, and losses during Moon formation. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 193, 237–251 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Ozima, H. & Podosek, F. A. Formation age of the earth from 129I/127I and 244Pu/238U systematics and the missing Xe. J. Geophys. Res. 104, 25493–25499 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Tolstikhin, I. & Hofmann, A. W. Early crust on top of the Earth’s core. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 148, 109–130 (2005)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Rohrbach, A. et al. Metal saturation in the upper mantle. Nature 449, 456–458 (2007)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. O’Neill, H. & St. C. et al. Mössbauer spectroscopy of mantle transition zone phases and determination of minimum Fe3+ content. Am. Mineral. 78, 456–460 (1993)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Frost, D. J. et al. Experimental evidence for the existence of iron-rich metal in the Earth’s lower mantle. Nature 428, 409–412 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Schuth, S. et al. Geochemical constraints on the petrogenesis of arc picrites and basalts, New Georgia Group, Solomon Islands. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 148, 288–304 (2004)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Jones, J. H. & Drake, M. J. Geochemical constraints on core formation in the Earth. Nature 322, 221–228 (1986)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


The paper benefited from our discussions with F. Tomaschek, E. E. Scherer, A. Rohrbach, R. Fonseca and K. Mezger, as well as from a review by S. B. Jacobsen. Financial support from the German Research Council through the Priority Programme ‘Mars and the Terrestrial Planets’ to C.B. and C.M. is acknowledged.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. Lagos.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes, Supplementary Figure 1 with Legend and Supplementary Tables S1-S2. (PDF 1130 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Lagos, M., Ballhaus, C., Münker, C. et al. The Earth’s missing lead may not be in the core. Nature 456, 89–92 (2008).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing