Letter

The divergent fates of primitive hydrospheric water on Earth and Mars

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Accepted:
Published online:

Abstract

Despite active transport into Earth’s mantle, water has been present on our planet’s surface for most of geological time1,2. Yet water disappeared from the Martian surface soon after its formation. Although some of the water on Mars was lost to space via photolysis following the collapse of the planet’s magnetic field3,4,5, the widespread serpentinization of Martian crust6,7 suggests that metamorphic hydration reactions played a critical part in the sequestration of the crust. Here we quantify the relative volumes of water that could be removed from each planet’s surface via the burial and metamorphism of hydrated mafic crusts, and calculate mineral transition-induced bulk-density changes at conditions of elevated pressure and temperature for each. The metamorphic mineral assemblages in relatively FeO-rich Martian lavas can hold about 25 per cent more structurally bound water than those in metamorphosed terrestrial basalts, and can retain it at greater depths within Mars. Our calculations suggest that in excess of 9 per cent by volume of the Martian mantle may contain hydrous mineral species as a consequence of surface reactions, compared to about 4 per cent by volume of Earth’s mantle. Furthermore, neither primitive nor evolved hydrated Martian crust show noticeably different bulk densities compared to their anhydrous equivalents, in contrast to hydrous mafic terrestrial crust, which transforms to denser eclogite upon dehydration. This would have allowed efficient overplating and burial of early Martian crust in a stagnant-lid tectonic regime, in which the lithosphere comprised a single tectonic plate, with only the warmer, lower crust involved in mantle convection. This provided an important sink for hydrospheric water and a mechanism for oxidizing the Martian mantle. Conversely, relatively buoyant mafic crust and hotter geothermal gradients on Earth reduced the potential for upper-mantle hydration early in its geological history, leading to water being retained close to its surface, and thus creating conditions conducive for the evolution of complex multicellular life.

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Acknowledgements

J.W. acknowledges receipt of an NERC Independent Research Fellowship NE/K009540/1. J.D.P.M. was supported by the National Research Foundation (NRF) of Singapore under the NRF Fellowship scheme (National Research Fellow award NRF-NRFF2013-04) and by the Earth Observatory of Singapore, the NRF, and the Singapore Ministry of Education under the Research Centres of Excellence initiative.

Author information

Affiliations

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

    • Jon Wade
  2. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge, Cambridge CB2 3EQ, UK

    • Brendan Dyck
  3. Department of Earth Sciences, Simon Fraser University, Burnaby, British Columbia V5A 1S6, Canada

    • Brendan Dyck
  4. Department of Geology and Geological Engineering, Colorado School of Mines, Golden Colorado 80401, USA

    • Richard M. Palin
  5. Earth Observatory of Singapore, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

    • James D. P. Moore
  6. Department of Geosciences, Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania 16801, USA

    • Andrew J. Smye

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Contributions

J.W. conceived the idea in discussion with A.J.S. and performed initial calculations. R.M.P. and B.D. performed the petrological modelling. Thermal modelling was performed by J.D.P.M. All authors contributed to writing the final manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Jon Wade.

Reviewer Information Nature thanks T. Usui and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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