To see if the transition zone really is a deep reservoir for water, researchers conducted experiments on water-rich ringwoodite, analyzed seismic waves travelling through the mantle beneath the United States, and studied numerical models. They discovered that downward-flowing mantle material is melting as it crosses the boundary between the transition zone and the lower mantle layer.
“If we are seeing this melting, then there has to be this water in the transition zone,” said Brandon Schmandt, a seismologist at the University of New Mexico and co-author of the new study published today (June 12) in the journal Science. “The transition zone can hold a lot of water, and could potentially have the same amount of H2O [water] as all the world’s oceans.” (Melting is a way of getting rid of water, which is unstable under conditions in Earth’s lower mantle, the researchers said.)
A water-rich mineral
Ringwoodite is a rare type of mineral that forms from olivine under very high pressures and temperatures, such as those present in the mantle’s transition zone. Laboratory studies have shown that the mineral can contain water, which isn’t present as liquid, ice or vapor; instead, it is trapped in the ringwoodite’s molecular structure as hydroxide ions (bonded oxygen and hydrogen atoms).