Cycling water through the transition zone
The water cycle involves more than just the water that circulates between the atmosphere, oceans, and surface waters. It extends deep into Earth’s interior as the oceanic crust subducts, or slides, under adjoining plates of crust and sinks into the mantle, carrying water with it. Schmandt et al. combined seismological observations beneath North America with geodynamical modeling and high-pressure and -temperature melting experiments. They conclude that the mantle transition zone—410 to 660 km below Earth’s surface—acts as a large reservoir of water.
The high water storage capacity of minerals in Earth’s mantle transition zone (410- to 660-kilometer depth) implies the possibility of a deep H2O reservoir, which could cause dehydration melting of vertically flowing mantle. We examined the effects of downwelling from the transition zone into the lower mantle with high-pressure laboratory experiments, numerical modeling, and seismic P-to-S conversions recorded by a dense seismic array in North America. In experiments, the transition of hydrous ringwoodite to perovskite and (Mg,Fe)O produces intergranular melt. Detections of abrupt decreases in seismic velocity where downwelling mantle is inferred are consistent with partial melt below 660 kilometers. These results suggest hydration of a large region of the transition zone and that dehydration melting may act to trap H2O in the transition zone.