Earth’s building blocks may have had far more water than previously thought

Meteorites suggest that H2O in the mantle comes from local origins, contrary to expectations

enstatite chondrite

A study of enstatite chondrites (one shown), a type of meteorite similar to the material that formed Earth, suggests that Earth’s primordial building material had plenty of water, even though the planet is thought to have been born in an interplanetary desert.

L. Piani, Museum of Natural History in Paris

Earth’s deep stores of water may have been locally sourced rather than trucked in from far-flung regions of the solar system.

A new analysis of meteorites from the inner solar system — home to the four rocky planets — suggests that Earth’s building blocks delivered enough water to account for all the H2O buried within the planet. What’s more, the water produced by the local primordial building material likely shares a close chemical kinship with Earth’s deep-water reserves, thus strengthening the connection, researchers report in the Aug. 28 Science.

Earth is thought to have been born in an interplanetary desert, too close to the sun for water ice to survive. Many researchers suspect that ocean water got delivered toward the end of Earth’s formation by ice-laden asteroids that wandered in from cooler, more distant regions of the solar system (SN: 5/6/15). But the ocean isn’t the planet’s largest water reservoir. Researchers estimate that Earth’s interior holds several times as much water as is found at the surface.

To test whether or not the material that formed Earth could have delivered this deep water, cosmochemist Laurette Piani of the University of Lorraine in Vandœuvre-lès-Nancy, France, and colleagues analyzed meteorites known as enstatite chondrites. Thanks to many chemical similarities with Earth rocks, these relatively rare meteorites are widely thought to be good analogs of the dust and space rocks from the inner solar system that formed Earth’s building blocks, Piani says.

She and her team measured the abundance of hydrogen in these meteorites — a proxy for how much H2O they could produce — and calculated that local interplanetary debris had the potential to deliver at least three times as much water as is found in all the oceans. The meteorites don’t contain water, Piani says. Rather, they house enough of the raw ingredients to create water when heated.

In the meteorites, the team also found a close match to the type of water found in Earth’s mantle. A smattering of all water molecules on Earth contain a heavy variant of hydrogen known as deuterium. The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the enstatite chondrites lies within the range measured in Earth’s deep water. That similarity, the team argues, makes a strong case for local building blocks being the source of much of the planet’s water.

“This work is something I wanted to do myself or had been waiting for someone to do,” says Lydia Hallis, a planetary scientist at the University of Glasgow in Scotland. In 2015, she led a team that measured the deuterium abundance in lava plumes that tap deep into Earth’s mantle (SN: 11/12/15). “I’m really happy that [the new data] sits within the region where our previous data from deep mantle samples is sitting.”

Hallis and others stress that these new measurements are difficult. Once the meteorites hit the ground, they quickly absorb hydrogen from Earth’s environment. “They did a really good job of picking the right meteorites and making the right measurements,” she says. “This is pretty convincing that this hydrogen that’s measured is from the enstatite chondrites rather than from terrestrial contamination.”

The enstatite chondrites could have also contributed a lot of water to the oceans as well — but they are not the full story. The deuterium-hydrogen ratio in ocean water, which is a bit higher than that of mantle water, is better matched to the ratio found in icy asteroids from the outer solar system. “We still need a bit of water coming from the outer solar system,” Piani says. So, while local materials may have delivered the bulk of Earth’s water, the oceans were likely topped off a bit later by collisions with remote space rocks.

headshot of Associate News Editor Christopher Crockett

Christopher Crockett is an Associate News Editor. He was formerly the astronomy writer from 2014 to 2017, and he has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of California, Los Angeles.

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