Are Oceans of Water Hiding Beneath Earth’s Surface?

Posted March 12th, 2014 at 6:32 pm (UTC-4)

Photomicrograph of a grown ringwoodite blue crystal (Jasperox via Wikimedia Commons)

Photomicrograph of a man-grown ringwoodite blue crystal (Jasperox via Wikimedia Commons)

Scientists have discovered the first-ever earthly sample of a water-rich mineral they say provides new proof that there are vast oceans of water deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

The team, led by Graham Pearson from Canada’s University of Alberta, found a mineral called ringwoodite in a sample of rock taken from a Brazilian riverbed. Ringwoodite is a form of the gem-quality mineral peridot. Scientists believe there’s a sizable amount of peridot in part of Earth’s mantle called the transition zone, a high-pressure area located between the lower and upper mantle.

While ringwoodite has been found in meteorites, it hadn’t been previously detected in earthen samples. Its color can range from deep blue to red, violet, or it can even be colorless. Scientists have not been able to do the kind of research to locate ringwoodite because of the depths that would be involved in searching for and retrieving the mineral from its theorized location. The sample of ringwoodite found by the research team was designated a water-rich mineral after the scientists conducted an analysis that indicated that 1.5 percent of its total weight is water.

Researchers said the presence of this water confirms the theories that there are vast bodies of water being held somewhere between 410 and 660 kilometers below the surface of the Earth.

“This sample really provides extremely strong confirmation that there are local wet spots deep in the Earth in this area,” said Pearson. “That particular zone in the Earth, the transition zone, might have as much water as all the world’s oceans put together.”

Graham Pearson holds a diamond that contains the water-rich mineral "ringwoodite" (Richard Siemens - University of Alberta)

Graham Pearson holds a diamond that contains the water-rich mineral “ringwoodite” (Richard Siemens – University of Alberta)

Pearson said that their discovery almost didn’t happen since he and his team were originally looking for another mineral when they first obtained a little hunk of what they referred to as a “three-millimeter-wide, dirty-looking, commercially worthless brown diamond” in 2009. They didn’t spot the ringwoodite until they happened to dig beneath the diamond’s surface.

“It’s so small, this inclusion, it’s extremely difficult to find, never mind work on,” Pearson said, “so it was a bit of a piece of luck, this discovery, as are many scientific discoveries.”

The brown diamond sample Pearson’s team worked with was found in shallow river gravels by Brazilian miners in 2008. The scientists believe the diamond made it to Earth’s surface via a volcanic rock called kimberlite, which has been known to contain diamonds.  Formation of kimberlite takes place deep within the Earth’s mantle and is considered to be one of the deepest of all volcanic rocks.

The research team analyzed their sample of ringwoodite for several years. Among the techniques that were used to confirm the find were Raman and infrared spectroscopy as well as X-ray diffraction.  The team measured the water content of the mineral at Pearson’s Arctic Resources Geochemistry Laboratory at the University of Alberta.

Scientists have debated the structure of Earth’s transition zone; some say the region of the mantle is full of water, while others insist is dry.

(University of Alberta)

(University of Alberta)

Pearson and his team say being able to provide some proof that water does exists deep within the Earth will provide insight to those who study volcanism as well as plate tectonics.

“One of the reasons the Earth is such a dynamic planet is the presence of some water in its interior,” Pearson said. “Water changes everything about the way a planet works.”

The Pearson team’s research and findings are featured in Nature.

Rick Pantaleo
Rick Pantaleo maintains the Science World blog and writes stories for VOA’s web and radio on a variety of science, technology and health topics. He also occasionally appears on various VOA programs to talk about the latest scientific news. Rick joined VOA in 1992 after a 20 year career in commercial broadcasting.

8 responses to “Are Oceans of Water Hiding Beneath Earth’s Surface?”

  1. Methoozala says:

    It ain’t in the bible, so it’s a trick of the devil to make you think that the world is made of different stuff than clay. Only clay is mentioned in the bible, so that’s all there is.

    • Prestor John says:

      Here is a partial list of minerals mentioned in the Bible. Caulk, Flint, Lime, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron, Marble, Salt, Sulfur, Soda, Lye, ruby, topaz, diamond, beryl, onyx, jasper, lapis lazuli, turquoise, emerald, sapphires, tin, lead, copper, agate, amber, AMETHYST, beryl, Carnelian, Chalcedony, Chrysoprase, Quartz (Crystal), garnet, HYACINTH, Onyx, Peridot, Sardonyx, topaz, Turquoise, etc

    • Eddie B says:

      LOL – and everything you read on the internet is true as well right?

    • Francis says:

      Ozone is not mentioned in the Bible either. It does not mean that it does not exist nor that the Bible claims it does not exist. The Bible is not a science textbook. It focuses on specific kinds of materials that were regarded as most relevant to faith. It cannot possibly cover every single topic nor tries to. Moreover, there is more poetry in the Bible than many readers realize. Some read poetical language and think it is a literal description of how things are. Any poet will know that poetry just does not work that way. In addition to poetry, the Bible communicates in a language intelligible to the time when it was written. To speak of Ozone would have been unintelligible to those to whom it was first written. Sometimes analogous language is used to help readers of past time understand. Such language is not meant to be technically precise but understandable. Many people say all kinds of things about the Bible (believers and unbelievers alike) without really knowing all that much about what they are talking about. We can all make mistakes though.

    • jon says:

      Please stay at church, because that is all you would be useful for.

    • Jason says:

      Actually it is in the bible. In Psalms it says that God “Spreads Out the Earth Over the Waters”.
      This did not make scientific sense until this discovery.

  2. Rudy Haugeneder says:

    So, when a super sized asteroid hits the planet and completely smashes the earth’s upper surface and exposes — replaces — the upper and lower mantel, the part that’s left will likely turn into a new ocean covering the entire surface and starting the planet’s evolutionary cycle — life — all over again and because there is only one layer of mineral then below the new water, the new life forms will be totally different: gelatin bodies with big brains that will make past life seem incredibly primitive — which current of on earth, including us, really are.

  3. Dumisani John Hlatywayo says:

    Yes, this discovery seems quite interesting. It will probably change the thinking of those interested in tectinics. The implications are that we have a belt of water in the transition zone and that belt should average 250 km thick. The belt may be a belt of just fluid material and not liquid. Such a belt would certainly mean there is more water buried in the transition zone compared to the water in the oceans at the surface. Forther implications are that all S-waves passing the transition zone should convert to P-waves if they should emerge on the other side. The unfortunate thing is that we are dealing with material that we collect from the surface of the earth. There are no known holes that have been drilled to beyond the crust to give us evidence of what exists beyond 100km into the earth. What we know at the present moment is derived from inversion theories. And because they give us credible results regarding the tratigraphy below, we do believe them. This theory that there is water trapped in the transition zone may have come at an early age before its time and will needs to wait for its opportune time to come for earth scientists to pick it up on board. More investigations are necessary.