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Earth's surface water dives deep, transforming core's outer layer

  • Earth's surface water dives deep, transforming core's outer layer
    Illustration of Earth’s interior revealing subducting water and a rising plume of magma.
  • ASU researchers contribute to discovery revealing more dynamic core-mantle interaction than previously known.

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Arizona State University
Recognized by U.S. News & World Report as the country’s most innovative school, Arizona State University is where students and faculty work with NASA to develop, advance and lead innovations in space exploration.

A few decades ago, seismologists imaging the deep planet identified a thin layer, just over a few hundred kilometers thick. The origin of this layer, known as the E prime layer, has been a mystery — until now.

An international team of researchers, including Arizona State University scientists Dan Shim, Taehyun Kim and Joseph O’Rourke of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, has revealed that water from the Earth's surface can penetrate deep into the planet, altering the composition of the outermost region of the metallic liquid core and creating a distinct, thin layer.

Their research was recently published in Nature Geoscience.

Research indicates that over billions of years, surface water has been transported deep into the Earth by descending, or subducted, tectonic plates. Upon reaching the core-mantle boundary, about 1,800 miles below the surface, this water triggers a profound chemical interaction, altering the core’s structure.

Along with Yong Jae Lee of Yonsei University in South Korea, Shim and his team have demonstrated through high-pressure experiments that subducted water chemically reacts with core materials. This reaction forms a hydrogen-rich, silicon-depleted layer, altering the topmost outer core region into a film-like structure. Additionally, the reaction generates silica crystals that rise and integrate into the mantle. This modified liquid metallic layer is predicted to be less dense, with reduced seismic velocities, in alignment with anomalous characteristics mapped by seismologists.

“For years, it has been believed that material exchange between Earth's core and mantle is small. Yet, our recent high-pressure experiments reveal a different story. We found that when water reaches the core-mantle boundary, it reacts with silicon in the core, forming silica," said Shim. "This discovery, along with our previous observation of diamonds forming from water reacting with carbon in iron liquid under extreme pressure, points to a far more dynamic core-mantle interaction, suggesting substantial material exchange.”

This finding advances our understanding of Earth's internal processes, suggesting a more extensive global water cycle than previously recognized. The altered "film" of the core has profound implications for the geochemical cycles that connect the surface-water cycle with the deep metallic core.

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