Geochemical evidence for high volatile fluxes from the mantle at the end of the Archaean

Abstract

The exchange of volatile species—water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen and halogens—between the mantle and the surface of the Earth has been a key driver of environmental changes throughout Earth’s history. Degassing of the mantle requires partial melting and is therefore linked to mantle convection, whose regime and vigour in the Earth’s distant past remain poorly constrained1,2. Here we present direct geochemical constraints on the flux of volatiles from the mantle. Atmospheric xenon has a monoisotopic excess of 129Xe, produced by the decay of extinct 129I. This excess was mainly acquired during Earth’s formation and early evolution3, but mantle degassing has also contributed 129Xe to the atmosphere through geological time. Atmospheric xenon trapped in samples from the Archaean eon shows a slight depletion of 129Xe relative to the modern composition4,5, which tends to disappear in more recent samples5,6. To reconcile this deficit in the Archaean atmosphere by mantle degassing would require the degassing rate of Earth at the end of the Archaean to be at least one order of magnitude higher than today. We demonstrate that such an intense activity could not have occurred within a plate tectonics regime. The most likely scenario is a relatively short (about 300 million years) burst of mantle activity at the end of the Archaean (around 2.5 billion years ago). This lends credence to models advocating a magmatic origin for drastic environmental changes during the Neoarchaean era, such as the Great Oxidation Event.

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Fig. 1: Principle of xenon isotope evolution over time.
Fig. 2: Time evolution of the deficit of 129Xe (Δ129Xe) in ancient atmospheric gases, of the atmospheric 129Xe/130Xe ratio, and of the flux of 129Xe from the mantle (φ129Xe).
Fig. 3: Time evolution of the deficit of 129Xe (Δ129Xe) in ancient atmospheric gases compared to petrological estimates of mantle potential temperature (TP) for non-arc lavas.

Data availability

The sample description and Xe data are available at https://zenodo.org/record/3378722#.Xa6cMi3pNvE.

Code availability

The Matlab code for modelling the degassing rate of Xe from the mantle is available at https://zenodo.org/record/3381874#.Xa6cey3pNvE.

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Acknowledgements

This study was supported by the European Research Council (Photonis Advanced Grant no. 695618). We thank G. Avice for discussions, and the Fondation des Treilles for providing a congenial environment in which to discuss these concepts with colleagues.

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Contributions

B.M. developed the ideas presented in the manuscript. D.B. wrote the Matlab script for the numerical modelling, M.B. contributed the geological context and developed noble-gas constraints on atmospheric evolution. C.J. developed the thermal model. All authors participated in the writing of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Bernard Marty.

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Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Peer review information Nature thanks Greg Holland and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 MDF of atmospheric Xe with time relative to the modern atmosphere.

Grey and blue data points5,8 define the evolution (red curve) of atmospheric Xe mass-dependent fractionation (MDF)4. The left-hand y axis shows the isotopic fractionation of atmospheric Xe (δXeair) in units of ‰ per atomic mass unit (u). The right-hand y axis represents multiples of the Xe inventory of the modern atmosphere, ATMXe. Error bars, ±2σ. The purple point on the left-hand side (ATM) is the modern atmospheric composition, the red dot on the right-hand side (U-Xe) is the primordial composition of atmospheric xenon3, the grey-shaded area shows the data range from ref. 5 and references therein, and the dotted horizontal line gives the MDF value; the ATMXe values correspond to a mean age of 3 Ga.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Plot of 128Xe/130Xe versus 129Xe/130Xe for CO2 well gases.

Open circle data points are from ref. 38, and the pink filled circle shows the isotopic composition of air (error bars, 1σ). The boxed area at lower left is shown magnified in the inset. There is a correlation between the excess 129Xe and 128Xe (thick line, dotted thin lines define the error envelope, 95% CI) that can be used to extrapolate the primordial 129Xe/130Xe of the mantle source for an AVCC-like 128Xe/130Xe (dashed black line).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Modelled evolution of the atmospheric 40Ar/36Ar ratio as a function of time following a mantle degassing event between 2.6 Ga and 2.2 Ga.

The values are scaled to 129XeDEF, and are shown with different contributions of mantle 40Ar: 0% (‘Monotonic’), 5% and 10%. Atmospheric 40Ar/36Ar ratios are normalized to the present-day value of 298.6, and the evolution curves were adjusted in order to yield the modern value. The Archaean atmosphere’s value is from ref. 14. The yellow dot marks the end of catastrophic degassing and the start of continuous degassing, following ref. 14.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Schematic representation of the method used to calculate the contribution of mantle-derived 129Xe to the atmospheric budget of  129Xe from step i − 1 to step i.

The format is the same as in Fig. 1, where the y axis corresponds to δXeair (only indicative here).The ‘mantle’ arrow indicates that the 129Xe/130Xe of the mantle end-member is high, and would plot off-graph in this space. Δ129Xe values at each step of the simulation are reported on the left of the corresponding data points. The dashed line corresponds to the MDF line, with the shaded blue area representing the corresponding error envelope.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Time series showing possible scenarios of mantle regassing histories.

Shown is recycling of atmospheric Xe into the mantle (blue lines, left-hand y axis)17 compared to the time evolution of atmospheric Xe isotopic composition4 (δXeair, right-hand y axis). The pink arrow shows the direction of atmospheric Xe isotopic evolution, from U-Xe (the progenitor of atmospheric Xe) to present. This illustrates the fact that regassing of atmospheric Xe into the mantle would have become efficient only after atmospheric Xe had reached a modern-like isotopic composition, that is, within the last 1.5 Gyr. Adapted from ref. 17.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Maximum flux of Xe (represented by 130Xe) degassed from the mantle as a function of the mantle 129Xe/130Xe ratio.

Computations reported in Fig. 2 of the main text have been carried out using a fixed mantle 129Xe/130Xe of 14. Here we show that lowering this ratio (for example, via subduction of atmospheric Xe) down to modern mantle-like 129Xe/130Xe ≈ 7–8 would result in even greater Xe fluxes from the Archaean mantle (see black arrow). Given that the onset of atmospheric Xe recycling into the mantle is not well known, possible 130Xe flux values from the Archaean mantle are within the range 10–150 mol yr−1 (orange curve), well above the modern flux value (0.85 ± 0.35 mol yr−1, horizontal dashed line; Extended Data Table 2).

Extended Data Table 1 Δ129Xe values (in ‰) versus ages (in Ga)
Extended Data Table 2 Archaean atmospheric inventory and modern mantle flux
Extended Data Table 3 Mantle and atmosphere inventories
Extended Data Table 4 Results of models for flux evolution through time

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Marty, B., Bekaert, D.V., Broadley, M.W. et al. Geochemical evidence for high volatile fluxes from the mantle at the end of the Archaean. Nature 575, 485–488 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1745-7

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