In examining the lithium content in a variety of rocks, Lee realized that lithium tended to behave like the magnesium that was missing from continents. In fact, the correlation was so close, he realized that lithium could be used as a proxy to find out how much magnesium continents had lost due to chemical weathering.
Continents ride higher than oceans, partly because the Earth's crust is thicker beneath continents than it is beneath the oceans. In addition, the rock beneath continents is made primarily of silicon-rich minerals like granite and quartz, which are less dense than the magnesium-rich basalt beneath the oceans.
Lee said he always assumed that processes deep in the Earth, beneath the volcanoes that feed continents, accounted for far more magnesium loss than weathering. In particular, a process called "delamination" occurs in subduction zones, places where one piece of the Earth's crust slides beneath another and gets recycled into the Earth's magma. As magma wells up beneath continent-feeding volcanoes, it often leaves behind a dense, magnesium-rich layer that ultimately founders back into the Earth's interior.
In previous research, Lee found that about 40 percent of the magnesium in basaltic magma was lost to delamination. He said he was thus surprised to find that chemical weathering alone accounted for another 20 percent.
"Weathering occurs in just the top few meters or so of the Earth's crust, and it's driven by the hydrosphere, the water that moves between the air, land and oceans," Lee said. "It appears that our planet has continents because we have an active hydrosphere, so if we want to find a hydrosphere on distant planets, perhaps we should look for continents."
|Contact: Jade Boyd|