A Piece of Primitive Earth
The Earth's mantle is a rocky, solid shell that is between the Earth's crust and the outer core, and makes up about 84 percent of the Earth's volume. The mantle is made up of many distinct portions or reservoirs that have different chemical compositions.
Scientists had previously concluded that the Earth was slightly older than 4.5 billion years old, but had not found a piece of the Earth's primitive mantle.
Until recently, researchers generally thought that the Earth and the other planets of the solar system were chondritic, meaning that the mantle's chemistry was thought to be similar to that of chondrites--some of the oldest, most primitive objects in the solar system. Assuming a chondritic model of the Earth, a piece of the primitive mantle would have certain isotope ratios of the chemical elements of helium, lead and neodymium.
That finding changed the neodymium ratio expected in the primitive mantle and in turn, changed where researchers should be looking to find evidence of a primitive mantle. According to the lead author, Matthew Jackson, "We had been looking under the wrong rock."
Since many of the ancient rocks have melted over time, finding a piece of the primitive mantle means studying lavas. Lavas retain the same isotopic composition of the rocks that have melted into the lava. Therefore, testing the lava's composition is identical to testing the original rock's composition.
When the researchers studied the composition of the lava found at Baffin Island, they discovered that the sample had the correct ratios of all three chemical elements--helium, lead, and the new non-chronditic neodymium ratio. This discovery suggests that the sample from Baffin Island is the first evidence for the oldest mantle reservoir.
This study challenges the idea that the Earth has a chondritic primitive mantle and according to Matthew Jackson is, "suggesting an alternative." One possibility, according to Jackson, is that "the early Earth went through a differentiation event and the Earth's crust was extracted from the early mantle and is now hidden in the deep earth; the hidden crust and the mantle found on Baffin Island would sum to chondritic."
This discovery will help researchers understand the composition of the original, early Earth. This research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Carnegie Institution of Washington.