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.

Online [publisher, open access]:

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).

Olivine-hosted melt inclusions as an archive of redox heterogeneity in magmatic systems

Olivine hosted melt inclusions from the AD 1783 Laki eruption. These inclusions were trapped early in the magma’s life, preserving many chemical signals from the subsequent reprocessing, which occurred as the magma cooled and crystallised in the crust. However, our new study shows the susceptibility of tracers of magma oxidation state in the melt inclusions to resetting, even following eruption.

The amount of oxygen in magmas affects their physical and chemical properties, and ultimately their impact on chemical cycles linking planetary oceans and atmospheres to their deepest interiors.  A key archive of information on oxygen in magmas is the abundance of Fe2+, reduced iron, compared with Fe3+, oxidised iron. The abundance of these two forms of Fe evolves as magmas are stored in the Earth’s crust, meaning that the primary Fe2+/Fe3+ that magmas have when they enter the crust from the mantle will not be preserved at the point a magma comes to erupt.

An important information source for getting back at the chemical state of primitive magmas, before their crustal evolution, is in melt inclusions — small pockets of melt trapped as crystals grow.  However, in this study we show that even these archives of early magma history are susceptible to chemical resetting.  Firstly, in magma chambers at high temperature diffusion can occur, resetting all the melt inclusions to record the same activity of oxygen in the magma (oxygen fugacity).   Secondly, even after eruption, as the magma is flowing along the surface of the Earth, changes in the oxygen fugacity of the surrounding magma can propagate through to the melt inclusions changing theirFe2+/Fe3+ ratio.

These results mean that to reconstruct the oxygen fugacity of primitive magma we have to 1) select our samples very carefully, and 2) characterise the crustal and eruptive processes that could have reset the melt inclusions.

Online [publisher]:

Reference: Margaret Hartley, Oliver Shorttle, John Maclennan, Yves Moussallam, Marie Edmonds. Olivine-hosted melt inclusions as an archive of redox heterogeneity in magmatic systems. Earth and Planetary Science Letters (2017).

Hot mantle rising


Belingwe Komatiite

A crossed polarised light image of the 2.7 billion-year-old Belingwe komatiite from Zimbabwe. Needle-like crystals of olivine give komatiites their characteristic texture. Komatiites form from magmas with temperatures greater than 1,500°C and were abundant during the Archaean, more than 2.5 billion years ago. As Earth’s mantle cooled over time, fewer komatiites fomed. Trela and colleagues have identified lavas formed just 89 million years ago from a mantle source with a similarly high temperature. Field of view is 3mm across. Specimen courtesy of Mike Bickle.

The Earth formed from a molten ball of rock, cooling rapidly at first, as it quenched to the rocky mantle we sit upon today.  Over the ensuing 4.5 billion years, Earth’s mantle underwent a slow cooling.  Although the precise temperature change of the Earth’s mantle over this period is debated, it has likely fallen by ~200K since the Archean Eon.

This change in mantle temperature has had an important impact on the way in which the planet’s interior interacts with the oceans and atmosphere.  Higher mantle temperatures in the Archean would have meant more voluminous magmatism, and possibly more frequent large igneous provinces, which have been linked to environmental catastrophism and mass extinction.

The types of lava produced during melting of the mantle have also changed.  Whilst the basalts erupting at mid-ocean ridges today typically have MgO contents of around 8wt%, Archean komatiites had MgO > 25wt%.  As MgO in a primitive lava is a proxy for the temperature of the mantle that melted to form it, the composition of ancient lavas can be used to track changes in mantle temperature.  It is using this type of observation, in addition to Al-in-olivine thermometry (e.g., Matthews et al., 2016) that Trela et al. used to identify young, 89 Ma, komatiites in Costa Rica.

These Costa Rican komatiites of the Tortugal suite have been inferred to record crystallisation temperatures of > 1550°C (e.g., Alvarado et al. 1997, Trela et al. 2017) and mantle potential temperatures of up to 1700°C.  These temperatures are at the limits of the calibration range of current petrological tools and are a challenge for any thermodynamic description of mantle melting to model accurately.  So work needs to be done extending igneous thermometers up to these temperatures.  Equally, the geodynamic implications of such high mantle potential temperatures being present in the upper mantle has yet to be fully understood.  If these temperature estimates are substantiated by further observations then it is perhaps most likely we are seeing an unusually efficient dredge up of a thermal boundary layer, possibly that at the core-mantle boundary.

Online [publisher]:

Discussing the article by Trela et al.

Reference: Oliver Shorttle. Hot mantle rising. Nature Geosciences (2017)

Publicity: Interview on Radio 4