Constraining mantle carbon: CO2-trace element systematics in basalts and the roles of magma mixing and degassing

Mixing and degassing systematics

The systematics of mixing and degassing magmas, shown schematically (top) and as seen in the melt inclusion record (bottom). Primary melts are generated with correlated C-trace element systematics (left). Degassing only affects carbon, reducing its concentration in saturated (high C) melts (middle). Subsequent mixing of this variably degassed suite of inclusions can generate the appearance of no degassing having occurred.

The mantle is an important, yet poorly understood, part of Earth’s carbon cycle, which interacts with Earth’s surface through volcanism and subduction. The CO2 flux in to and out of the mantle regulates the mass of CO2 in Earth’s crust and hydrosphere, exerting control over the evolution of Earth’s climate and carbon availability for life. However, carbon’s volatility, and therefore tendency to degas from magmas and emanate at Earth’s surface diffusely, has made identifying the present-day mantle carbon distribution difficult.

Droplets of magma trapped within crystals as they grow deep in the crust offer a chance of observing CO2 concentrations in magmas prior to degassing. The behaviour of CO2 during magma evolution is encoded in the covariation of CO2 and trace element concentrations. In a small number of datasets, a correlation between CO2 and either Ba or Nb has been reported; consequently identical behaviour, in particular a lack of degassing, has been inferred. These, apparently undegassed, datasets underpin our understanding of carbon distribution in the mantle.

In this paper, we argue that many of the melts supplied from the mantle should be oversaturated in CO2 vapour at the pressure of magma storage, whilst others will be sufficiently depleted in CO2 that they should be strongly undersaturated. Such a population of melts will tend to partially degas at the earliest stages of melt evolution, before subsequent mixing and fractionation. We show that positive correlations between CO2 and both Ba and Nb are a natural consequence of this process. Furthermore, our new model makes specific predictions about the covariance of CO2 with a gamut of trace elements, if partial degassing and mixing has taken place.

Since we demonstrate that positive correlations between CO2 and trace element concentrations are arise from partial degassing and mixing, we cannot use this metric alone as a criterion for identifying whether a dataset has been affected by degassing. Mantle carbon contents, derived by assuming such melts preserve primary CO2 concentrations, are likely to be underestimates. We find the maximum CO2/Ba ratio in a dataset is the best proxy for mantle carbon content.

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Reference: Simon Matthews, Oliver Shorttle, John F Rudge, John Maclennan. Constraining mantle carbon: CO2-trace element systematics in basalts and the roles of magma mixing and degassing. Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2017).