Water in the Earth's upper mantle and crust likely plays a less important role as a lubricant of plate tectonics than previously assumed, according to a paper presented by geoscientists present in the current issue of Nature (13/06/2013) after the examination of water in the mineral olivine.
Laboratory experiments over the past three decades have suggested the presence of water greatly weakens the mechanical strength of the mineral olivine, a key component of the Earth's upper mantle.
In the recent study, led by the Bayerisches Geoinstitut in Bayreuth, the Secondary Ion Mass Spectrometer (SIMS) facility at the Potsdam based GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences was used to reassess the importance of water in defining the rigidity of olivine.
While earlier studies were based on mineral aggregates, the SIMS method enabled a look at the role of water in single olivine crystals at the near-atomic scale.
Michael Wiedenbeck, who conducted the SIMS experiment at the GFZ, said, "We discovered that water has a much, much lower effect in terms of the mechanical weakening of olivine as previously believed. The new observations call for a reassessment of the role of water within the Earth's interior."
One important consequence is that the earlier concept, indicating that water provides lubrication for continental drift, needs to be carefully reconsidered.