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Connections between the bulk composition, geodynamics and habitability of Earth

Abstract

The bulk composition of the silicate part of Earth has long been linked to chondritic meteorites. Ordinary chondrites — the most abundant meteorite class — are thought to represent planetary building materials. However, a landmark discovery showed that the 142Nd/144Nd ratio of the accessible parts of the modern terrestrial mantle on Earth is greater than that of ordinary chondrites. If Earth was derived from these precursors, mass balance requires that a missing reservoir with 142Nd/144Nd lower than ordinary chondrites was isolated from the accessible mantle within 20 to 30 million years of accretion. This reservoir would host the equivalent of the modern continents' budget of radioactive heat-producing elements (uranium, thorium and potassium), yet has not been discovered. We argue that this reservoir could have been lost to space by ablation from early impactors. If so, Earth's radiogenic heat generation is between 18 and 45% lower than estimates based on a chondritic composition. Calculations of Earth's thermal history that incorporate such reduced radiogenic heating are consistent with a transition to the current plate tectonic mode in the past 2.5 billion years or so, a late onset of the dynamo and an evolving rate of volcanic outgassing consistent with Earth's long-term habitable climate. Reduced heat production compared with Venus and Mars could also explain aspects of the differences between the current climatic regimes of these planets and Earth.

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Figure 1: Three scenarios for the differentiation of Earth from a chondrite-based starting composition.
Figure 2: Primitive mantle normalized trace element patterns illustrating two-fold depletion of Earth's mantle.
Figure 3: Thermal, magnetic and climatic histories of a non-chondritic Earth.

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Acknowledgements

We thank H. O'Neill, J. Wade, R. Carlson, M. Boyet, Al Hofmann, N. Shimizu, W. McDonough, F. Horton, A. Lenardic, P. Hoffman, R. Pierrehumbert, and D. Archer for comments and engaging discussions. We acknowledge constructive reviews from W. White and S. Labrosse. M.G.J. acknowledges grants from NSF that funded this research: EAR-1348082, EAR-1347377, EAR-1145202 and OCE-1153894. A.M.J. acknowledges support from NSERC, the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and NSF PHY11-25915.

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Jellinek, A., Jackson, M. Connections between the bulk composition, geodynamics and habitability of Earth. Nature Geosci 8, 587–593 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2488

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