Is There A Subterranean Ocean?

In his compulsively readable 2008 science fiction novel Flood, Stephen Baxter writes about an incredible series of events. Due to irreversible climate change, the various nations of the world experience a series of catastrophic floods. But as the novels proceed, it gets worse. The flooding overwhelms entire continents as hidden sources of water pour out their contents.

Although I was captivated by the novel, I was finding it difficult to properly suspend my disbelief in the main premise of the story. Now, however, I'm beginning to wonder if it might be possible.

[The] chemical makeup of a tiny, extremely rare gemstone has made researchers think there's a massive water reservoir hundreds of miles under the earth.

The gemstone in question is called ringwoodite, which is created when olivine, a material that is extremely common in the mantle, is highly pressurized; when it’s exposed to less pressurized environments, it reverts into olivine. It has previously been seen in meteorites and created in a laboratory, but until now it had never been found in a sample of the earth’s mantle.

Diamond expert Graham Pearson of the University of Alberta came across a seemingly worthless, three-millimeter piece of brown diamond that had been found in Mato Grosso, Brazil, while he was researching another type of mineral. Within that diamond, he and his team found ringwoodite—and they found that roughly 1.5 percent of the ringwoodite’s weight was made up of trapped water.

(Are there subterranean oceans?)

The ultimate origin of water in the Earth’s hydrosphere is in the deep Earth—the mantle. Theory and experiments have shown that although the water storage capacity of olivine-dominated shallow mantle is limited, the Earth’s transition zone, at depths between 410 and 660 kilometres, could be a major repository for water, owing to the ability of the higher-pressure polymorphs of olivine—wadsleyite and ringwoodite—to host enough water to comprise up to around 2.5 per cent of their weight.

A hydrous transition zone may have a key role in terrestrial magmatism and plate tectonics yet despite experimental demonstration of the water-bearing capacity of these phases, geophysical probes such as electrical conductivity have provided conflicting results and the issue of whether the transition zone contains abundant water remains highly controversial.

Here we report X-ray diffraction, Raman and infrared spectroscopic data that provide, to our knowledge, the first evidence for the terrestrial occurrence of any higher-pressure polymorph of olivine: we find ringwoodite included in a diamond from Juína, Brazil.

The water-rich nature of this inclusion, indicated by infrared absorption, along with the preservation of the ringwoodite, is direct evidence that, at least locally, the transition zone is hydrous, to about 1 weight per cent. The finding also indicates that some kimberlites must have their primary sources in this deep mantle region.

Fans of Jules Verne of course recall his 1864 blockbuster Journey to the Center of the Earth (aka Voyage au centre de la Terre). Read the relevant quote about Jules Verne's subterranean ocean from Journey to the Center of the Earth.

See Hydrous mantle transition zone indicated by ringwoodite included within diamond (Nature) via There's an ocean deep inside the Earth.

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