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Earth’s volatile element depletion pattern inherited from a carbonaceous chondrite-like source


Earth’s volatile element abundances (for example, sulfur, zinc, indium and lead) provide constraints on fundamental processes, such as planetary accretion, differentiation and the delivery of volatile species, like water, which contributed to Earth becoming a habitable planet. The composition of the silicate Earth suggests a chemical affinity but isotopic disparity to carbonaceous chondrites—meteorites that record the early element fractionations in the protoplanetary disk. However, the volatile element depletion pattern of the silicate Earth is obscured by core formation. Another key problem is the overabundance of indium, which could not be reconciled with any known chondrite group. Here we complement recently published volatile element abundances for carbonaceous chondrites with high-precision sulfur, selenium and tellurium data. We show that both Earth and carbonaceous chondrites exhibit a unique hockey stick volatile element depletion pattern in which volatile elements with low condensation temperatures (750–500 K) are unfractionated from each other. This abundance plateau accounts for the apparent overabundance of indium in the silicate Earth without the need of exotic building materials or vaporization from precursors or during the Moon-forming impact and suggests the accretion of 10–15 wt% CI-like material before core formation ceased. Finally, more accurate estimates of volatile element abundances in the core and bulk Earth can now be provided.

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Fig. 1: Volatile element depletion pattern for different carbonaceous chondrite groups and the BSE.
Fig. 2: In and Zn abundances normalized to CI chondrites and Mg in chondrites and the BSE.
Fig. 3: Mg-normalized volatile element abundances in the BSE relative to CI as a function of their T50% (refs. 26,41,50).

Data availability

The authors declare that the data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and the Supplementary Information files.


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This research was supported by the European Commission through ERC grant no. 669666 ‘Infant Earth’ and through DFG grant WO1594 within the priority program SPP1385 ‘The First 10 Million Years of the Solar System—a Planetary Materials Approach’. We thank A. Heuser for technical support during the ICP–MS measurements and R. Fonseca, A. Bragagni and M. Kirchenbaur for fruitful discussions. We are grateful for the supply of meteorite samples by several people and institutions, as listed in Supplementary Table 2. This is contribution no. 57 from the DFG-funded ICP–MS facility of the Steinmann-Institut für Geologie, Mineralogie und Paläontologie, University of Bonn.

Author information




F.W. and C.M. designed the project. C.F. carried out the ICP–MS analyses for Se, Te and S. N.B. compiled the data, did the calculations and wrote the manuscript with substantial contributions from F.W. and C.M. All the authors contributed to the discussion of the results and editing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Ninja Braukmüller.

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Supplementary Fig. 1 and data (Supplementary Tables 1 and 2).

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Braukmüller, N., Wombacher, F., Funk, C. et al. Earth’s volatile element depletion pattern inherited from a carbonaceous chondrite-like source. Nat. Geosci. 12, 564–568 (2019).

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