Letter | Published:

Water and its influence on the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary

Nature volume 467, pages 448451 (23 September 2010) | Download Citation

  • An Addendum to this article was published on 27 April 2011


The Earth has distinctive convective behaviour, described by the plate tectonics model, in which lateral motion of the oceanic lithosphere of basaltic crust and peridotitic uppermost mantle is decoupled from the underlying mechanically weaker upper mantle (asthenosphere). The reason for differentiation at the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary is currently being debated with relevant observations from geophysics (including seismology) and geochemistry (including experimental petrology). Water is thought to have an important effect on mantle rheology, either by weakening the crystal structure of olivine and pyroxenes by dilute solid solution1, or by causing low-temperature partial melting2. Here we present a novel experimental approach to clarify the role of water in the uppermost mantle at pressures up to 6 GPa, equivalent to a depth of 190 km. We found that for lherzolite in which a water-rich vapour is present, the temperature at which a silicate melt first appears (the vapour-saturated solidus) increases from a minimum of 970 °C at 1.5 GPa to 1,350 °C at 6 GPa. We have measured the water content in lherzolite to be approximately 180 parts per million, retained in nominally anhydrous minerals at 2.5 and 4 GPa at temperatures above and below the vapour-saturated solidus. The hydrous mineral pargasite is the main water-storage site in the uppermost mantle, and the instability of pargasite at pressures greater than 3 GPa (equivalent to more than about 90 km depth) causes a sharp drop in both the water-storage capacity and the solidus temperature of fertile upper-mantle lherzolite. The presence of interstitial melt in mantle with more than 180 parts per million of water at pressures greater than 3 GPa alters mantle rheology and defines the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary. Modern asthenospheric mantle acting as the source for mid-oceanic ridge basalts has a water content of 50–200 parts per million (refs 3–5). We show that this matches the water content of residual nominally anhydrous minerals after incipient melting of lherzolite at the vapour-saturated solidus at high pressure.

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We thank H. St C. O’Neill, J. Hermann and G. M. Yaxley for discussions, and F. Brink for comprehensive support at scanning electron microscopy (SEM) facilities. We appreciate the help of J. Blundy in the revision of the original manuscript. This research was supported by Australian Research Council grants to D.H.G., and to G. M. Yaxley and D.H.G. I.K. was supported by an A. E. Ringwood Memorial Scholarship, an Australian International Postgraduate Research Scholarship and a Marie Curie International Reintegration Grant (NAMS-230937). A.R. was supported by an Australian National University PhD Scholarship.

Author information

Author notes

    • William O. Hibberson
    • , István Kovács
    •  & Anja Rosenthal

    These authors contributed equally to this work.


  1. School of Earth Sciences and Centre for Ore Deposit Studies, University of Tasmania, Hobart 7001, Tasmania, Australia

    • David H. Green
  2. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Mills Road, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • David H. Green
    • , William O. Hibberson
    • , István Kovács
    •  & Anja Rosenthal
  3. Department of Data Management, Eötvös Loránd Geophysical Institute of Hungary, Columbus utca 17–23, H-1145 Budapest, Hungary

    • István Kovács


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D.H.G. initiated and planned the project, and made most of the SEM micro-analyses. W.O.H. carried out the high-pressure experimental work and prepared the experimental charges for SEM analysis. A.R. did some 6 GPa experiments, assisted in SEM analyses and compiled all the analyses. I.K. prepared the thin sections for FTIR analyses, performed the FTIR spectroscopy and processed the data. All authors contributed to the writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David H. Green.

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