Letter | Published:

Prodigious degassing of a billion years of accumulated radiogenic helium at Yellowstone

Nature volume 506, pages 355358 (20 February 2014) | Download Citation

Abstract

Helium is used as a critical tracer throughout the Earth sciences, where its relatively simple isotopic systematics is used to trace degassing from the mantle, to date groundwater and to time the rise of continents1. The hydrothermal system at Yellowstone National Park is famous for its high helium-3/helium-4 isotope ratio, commonly cited as evidence for a deep mantle source for the Yellowstone hotspot2. However, much of the helium emitted from this region is actually radiogenic helium-4 produced within the crust by α-decay of uranium and thorium. Here we show, by combining gas emission rates with chemistry and isotopic analyses, that crustal helium-4 emission rates from Yellowstone exceed (by orders of magnitude) any conceivable rate of generation within the crust. It seems that helium has accumulated for (at least) many hundreds of millions of years in Archaean (more than 2.5 billion years old) cratonic rocks beneath Yellowstone, only to be liberated over the past two million years by intense crustal metamorphism induced by the Yellowstone hotspot. Our results demonstrate the extremes in variability of crustal helium efflux on geologic timescales and imply crustal-scale open-system behaviour of helium in tectonically and magmatically active regions.

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Acknowledgements

We thank S. Ingebritsen for a review. C. Hendrix, S. Gunther, H. Heasler and D. Mahony assisted with field planning and logistics.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. US Geological Survey, Menlo Park, California 94025, USA

    • J. B. Lowenstern
    • , W. C. Evans
    •  & D. Bergfeld
  2. US Geological Survey, Denver, Colorado 80225, USA

    • A. G. Hunt

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Contributions

J.B.L. and D.B. together led the sampling program at Yellowstone. W.C.E. participated in the fieldwork. D.B. did all laboratory analyses except the noble-gas analyses. D.B. also led the diffuse degassing fieldwork at Brimstone Basin and Heart Lake. A.G.H. performed the noble-gas analyses. J.B.L. first recognized the significance of the He emission rates for crustal degassing and wrote the first draft of the manuscript. W.C.E. provided considerable input on gas geochemistry and noble-gas systematics, and assisted with subsequent drafts. All authors edited later versions of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. B. Lowenstern.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature12992

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