Heat-pipe Earth


The heat transport and lithospheric dynamics of early Earth are currently explained by plate tectonic and vertical tectonic models, but these do not offer a global synthesis consistent with the geologic record. Here we use numerical simulations and comparison with the geologic record to explore a heat-pipe model in which volcanism dominates surface heat transport. These simulations indicate that a cold and thick lithosphere developed as a result of frequent volcanic eruptions that advected surface materials downwards. Declining heat sources over time led to an abrupt transition to plate tectonics. Consistent with model predictions, the geologic record shows rapid volcanic resurfacing, contractional deformation, a low geothermal gradient across the bulk of the lithosphere and a rapid decrease in heat-pipe volcanism after initiation of plate tectonics. The heat-pipe Earth model therefore offers a coherent geodynamic framework in which to explore the evolution of our planet before the onset of plate tectonics.

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Figure 1: Snapshots of the temperature field for two-dimensional models of mantle convection.
Figure 2: Temperature as a function of depth in lithosphere.
Figure 3: Heat flow contributions and dimensionless maximum lithospheric stress as functions of the dimensionless internal heating rate (αHD2/k).
Figure 4: Internal heat production, surface conductive heat transport and surface volcanic heat transport as functions of time in a model with a finite yield stress.


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This research has been supported by NSF Geophysics, NASA PG&G, the NASA Astrobiology Institute and a start-up fund from Louisiana State University, and has made use of the Astrophysics Data System. We thank M. Stiegler for discussions.

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Both authors contributed to the writing of this paper. W.B.M. performed the numerical modelling and A.A.G.W. provided the review of the geologic literature.

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Correspondence to William B. Moore.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Moore, W., Webb, A. Heat-pipe Earth. Nature 501, 501–505 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12473

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