In the mantle wet may not imply soft

For half a century the Earth’s planetary dynamism – plate movements, mantle convection and so on – has been ascribed to its abundance of water. Experiments on the ductility of quartz seemed to show that it became much weaker under hydrous conditions, and that was assumed to hold for all common silicates, a view backed up by experiments that deformed minerals under varying conditions. It was widely believed that even a few parts per million in a rock at depth would weaken it by orders of magnitude, a view that increasingly dominated theoretical tectonics on scales up to the whole lithosphere and at different mantle depths. Strangely, the founding assertion was not followed up with more detailed and sophisticated work until the last year or so. Though rarely seen in bulk, the dominant mineral in the mantle is olivine and that is likely to be a major control over ductility at depth, in plumes and other kinds of convection.

Peridotite xenoliths in basalt—olivines are li...
Peridotite xenoliths —olivines are light green crystals, pyroxenes are darker. (credit: Wikipedia)

Experimental work at the temperatures and pressures of the mantle has never been easy, and that becomes worse the more realistic the mineral composition of the materials being investigated. High-T, high-P research tends to focus on as few variables as possible: one mineral and one variable other than P and T is the norm. This applies to the latest research (Fei, H. et al. 2013. Small effect of water on upper mantle rheology based on silicon self-diffusion coefficients. Nature, v. 498, p. 213-215) but the measurements are of the rate at which silicon atoms diffuse through olivine molecules rather than direct measurements of strain. The justification for this approach is that one of the dominant processes involved in plastic deformation is a form of structural creep in which atoms diffuse through molecules in response to stress – the other is ‘dislocation creep’ achieved by the migration of structural defects in the atomic lattice.

Contrary to all expectations, changing the availability of water by 4 to 5 orders of magnitude changed silicon diffusion by no more than one order. If confirmed this presents major puzzles concerning Earth’s mantle and lithosphere dynamics. For instance, the weak zone of the asthenosphere cannot be a response to water and nor can the relative immobility of hotspots. Confirmation is absolutely central, in the sense of repeating Fei et al.’s experiments and also extending the methods to other olivine compositions – magnesium-rich forsterite was used, whereas natural olivines are solid solutions of Mg- and Fe-rich end members – and to materials more representative of the mantle, e.g.  olivine plus pyroxene as a minimum (Brodholt, J. 2013. Water may be a damp squib. Nature, v. 498, p. 18-182)

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