A study of lava deposits in northern Canada may have found evidence that the Earth’s core is leaking.
The rocks — on Baffin Island — contain higher levels of the isotope helium-3 and higher ratios of helium-3 to helium-4 (³He/⁴He) than seen anywhere else on the Earth’s surface.
Helium-3 is both rare and what scientists call a “primordial nuclide”, meaning that it was present in the interstellar medium from which the solar system coalesced and thus existed in the Earth since it formed.
Over millions of years, helium-3 is capable of escaping from the Earth’s surface into the atmosphere, and from there into outer space.
While the source of helium-3 found in rock on the Earth’s surface has long been thought to have been a mantle-based reservoir, the new analysis suggests that this flux may be coming from the outer core instead.
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The study was undertaken by geochemist Dr Forrest Horton of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and his colleagues.
The researchers wrote: “The observation that many lavas associated with mantle plumes have higher ³He/⁴He ratios that the upper convecting mantle underpins geophysical, geodynamic and geochemical models of Earth’s deep interior.
“High ³He/⁴He ratios are thought to derive from the solar nebula or from solar-wind-irradiated material that became incorporated into Earth during early planetary accretion.
“Traditionally, this high-³He/⁴He component has been considered intrinsic to the mantle, having avoided outgassing caused by giant impacts and billions of years of mantle convection.”
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Volcanic activity on Baffin Island, the researchers explain, was driven by a vast upwelling from the mantle — a predecessor to the plume that causes eruptions in Iceland.
The team continued: “Here we report the highest magmatic ³He/⁴He ratio — 67.2 ± 1.8 times the atmospheric ratio — yet measured in terrestrial igneous rocks, in olivines from Baffin Island lavas.”
“We argue that the extremely high-³He/⁴He helium in these lavas might derive from Earth’s core.”
Supporting this hypothesis, the team note, is the additional presence in the Baffin Island lavas of neon with an isotopic ratio similar to that found in interstellar nebulae.
The full findings of the study were published in the journal Nature.
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