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Sea-level stability over geological time owing to limited deep subduction of hydrated mantle


Liquid surface oceans are a seemingly unique feature of Earth. Long-term, global sea level depends on the balance of water fluxes between Earth’s mantle and surface: between mantle degassing through volcanism and mantle regassing via the subduction of hydrous minerals. However, the overall balance of these fluxes at geological timescales remains uncertain. Geological observations suggest the stability of the long-term sea level and thus a near-steady-state regassing–degassing balance. In contrast, according to current thermopetrological modelling, the global input of H2O inferred from geophysical observations leads to an unequivocal excess of regassing relative to degassing. Here we use recent experimental high-pressure data on natural hydrated peridotites to update the thermopetrological models and to reassess the calculations of H2O fluxes into the mantle via subduction. Our models of 56 subduction transects show that a global input of 15−20 × 108 TgH2O every million years yields a limited global mantle regassing of 2.0−3.5 × 108 TgH2O every million years. The regassing occurs exclusively via the hydrated lithospheric mantle of the coldest subducting plates. Our requantification of the H2O budget associated with subduction matches the estimations of mantle degassing and suggests that global sea levels have been relatively stable over geological timescales.

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Fig. 1: Geotherms at the Moho of the 56 modelled subduction transects plotted on top of diagrams of bound H2O \(({\mathrm{C}}_{\mathrm{H}_{{2}}}{\mathrm{O})}\).
Fig. 2: Depth of near-complete (95%) dehydration of the lithological layers for each subduction transect.
Fig. 3: Global input of H2O at the present-day subduction trenches and GWR computed using an experimental peridotite model.
Fig. 4: GWR at a 350 km depth as function of the global input at present-day subduction trenches.

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Data availability

The numerical data generated for the 56 subduction transects (geotherms and water retention within the subducting slabs) are available in the Zenodo public repository

Code availability

The code TerraFERMA used to compute the thermal models is open source and available at The thermodynamic code Perple_X is freely available at and information to reproduce the results is provided in Methods and the Supplementary Information.


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We thank A. Tommasi and S. Lallemand for their very useful suggestions, and S. Arnal and F. Rétif for their assistance in installing the code on the clusters. This study was publicly funded by through ANR under the ‘Investissements d’avenir, Initiative Sciences Innovation Territoires—MUSE’ programme with reference ANR-16-IDEX-0006. The work was realized with the support of the HPC Platform MESO@LR, financed by the Occitanie/Pyrénées-Méditerranée Region, Montpellier Mediterranean Metropole and the University of Montpellier. J.A.P.-N. is supported by the project DESTINE (PID2019-105192GB-I00) funded by MICIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033 and the FEDER programme ‘Una manera de hacer Europa’, and acknowledges a Ramón y Cajal contract (RYC2018-024363-I) funded by MICIN/AEI/10.13039/501100011033 and the FSE program ‘FSE invierte en tu futuro’. Perceptually uniform colour maps were used in some figures of this study to prevent visual distortion of the data56.

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Authors and Affiliations



N.G.C. conceived the study, designed and performed the numerical models, analysed the results and wrote the first draft of the paper. D.A. provided funding for the project, participated in conceiving the study and analysed the results. J.A.P.-N. contributed to the petrological modelling and to the analysis of the results. All the authors discussed the implications of the study and wrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to N. G. Cerpa.

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Nature Geoscience thanks Valentina Magni and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Rebecca Neely, in collaboration with the Nature Geoscience team.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Previous estimates of mean sea level change in the Phanerozoic, global input and GWR.

The first row displays the average change in sea level over the Phanerozoic derived from geological constraints. The second and third row provide bounds on the GWR (admissible GWR) compatible with a 0 to 100-m of change in sea-level. Note that the asterisk (2nd row) denotes an indirect bound where we have assumed that a 0-m change of sea level over the Phanerozoic will be achieved if the GWR is equal to the total H2O degassing both at mid-ocean ridges and at ocean islands. The fourth row shows the estimated GWR by the thermopetrological models of ref. 5.

Extended Data Fig. 2 H2O retention per subduction zone at depths of 230 km and 350 km assuming a globally-uniform thickness of 4 km for the hydrated mantle.

H2O retention per subduction zone at depths of 230 km (a) and 350 km (b) assuming a globally-uniform thickness of 4 km for the hydrated mantle. The calculations with our two peridotite models are displayed. The names of the subduction zones are color-coded as a function of their thermal state (see Fig. 1).

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Supplementary text arranged into sections 1–6 and Figs. 1–15.

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Cerpa, N.G., Arcay, D. & Padrón-Navarta, J.A. Sea-level stability over geological time owing to limited deep subduction of hydrated mantle. Nat. Geosci. 15, 423–428 (2022).

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