Letter | Published:

Earth’s volatile contents established by melting and vaporization

Nature volume 549, pages 507510 (28 September 2017) | Download Citation

Abstract

The silicate Earth is strongly depleted in moderately volatile elements (such as lead, zinc, indium and alkali elements) relative to CI chondrites, the meteorites that compositionally most closely resemble the Sun1. This depletion may be explained qualitatively by accretion of 10 to 20 per cent of a volatile-rich body to a reduced volatile-free proto-Earth2,3, followed by partial extraction of some elements to the core1. However, there are several unanswered questions regarding the sources of Earth’s volatiles4,5, notably the overabundance of indium in the silicate Earth. Here we examine the melting processes that occurred during accretion on Earth and precursor bodies and report vaporization experiments under conditions of fixed temperature and oxygen fugacity. We find that the pattern of volatile element depletion in the silicate Earth is consistent with partial melting and vaporization rather than with simple accretion of a volatile-rich chondrite-like body. We argue that melting and vaporization on precursor bodies and possibly during the giant Moon-forming impact6,7,8 were responsible for establishing the observed abundances of moderately volatile elements in Earth.

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Acknowledgements

This research was supported by grants from the European Research Council (267764) and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (UK) to B.J.W. and a Studentship to C.A.N. from the STFC. We thank D. Dingwell and his group in Munich for advice on furnace design and G. Fitton (Edinburgh) for donating the basalt.

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Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Oxford, South Parks Road, Oxford OX1 3AN, UK

    • C. Ashley Norris
    •  & Bernard J. Wood

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Contributions

C.A.N. constructed the furnace, performed the experiments and analyses, and contributed to writing the manuscript. B.J.W. conceived the project, provided guidance and wrote a substantial part of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bernard J. Wood.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks S. Jacobsen, F. Moynier and E. Young for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature23645

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