Earth Institute Research Projects

Water in the Lithosphere: The Fidelity of Mantle Xenoliths

Lead PI: Terry A. Plank

Unit Affiliation: Geochemistry, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO)

September 2017 - August 2019
North America ; Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) ; Grand Canyon, AZ ; Arizona ; Mojave Desert, CA ; California
Project Type: Research

DESCRIPTION: The tectonic plates, formed from the outer rigid shell of Earth (termed lithosphere), have a long term strength and evolution that depends on the amount of water contained in mantle minerals. Water inserts itself into mineral defects, in places where Mg or Si are missing from the lattice, and in so doing, weakens the mineral structure. The primary way the water content of the mantle lithosphere is known is through study of xenoliths, pieces of the mantle that get accidently entrained in ascending magma and erupted out volcanoes. Recent research, however, has shown that water can sometimes be gained or lost from minerals at magmatic temperatures (>1000°C) in a matter of minutes. If this is true, then the fidelity of mantle xenoliths is questioned. Xenoliths would not necessarily preserve the concentrations they had in the mantle (> 40 km depth), but be reset to the concentration in the magma that conveyed them to the surface. Additionally, water may be lost during degassing, eruption and cooling in lava flows. If this is true, then most of the existing measurements of water in mantle xenoliths would have to be reinterpreted, and many notions about the strength of the lithosphere reconsidered. This projects aims to determine the fidelity of the water record in mantle xenoliths by intensive study of xenoliths in their context ? their size and the water content of their host magma. This project proposes three different approaches. 1) Study of xenolith-host magma pairs. Most xenoliths studies are carried out in the absence of data on the H2O content of the host magma and thus without constraints on the boundary conditions for H2O exchange. The simple test is whether xenolith minerals and host magma phenocrysts and melt inclusions reflect H2O equilibration. Pilot data on xenolith clinopyroxene and host magma melt inclusions are consistent with H2O equilibration. 2) Study of diffusive lengthscale relationships as a function of grain size, position within the xenolith, and xenolith size. If there is diffusive exchange, then small grains should reflect greater equilibration than large ones. Large xenolith clasts will cool more slowly post-eruption, and may reflect greater extents of dehydration. 3) Study of site-specific zonation patterns in xenolithic olivines and pyroxenes. H is associated with several point defects in both olivine and pyroxene, as identified by specific infrared (IR) absorption bands, and some may diffuse slowly enough to survive hours of transport in hot magma, while others will record degassing and H2O-loss. We will address each of these tests with an IR study of olivines and pyroxenes in variably-sized peridotite xenoliths erupted in alkali basalt cinder cones from the western US (Cima and Grand Canyon volcanic fields). Most of the project budget is in support of a Columbia Ph.D. student (Henry Towbin) already engaged in preliminary analyses. An undergraduate will also be supported to carry out field work, and complete a summer internship and senior thesis.