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Inner Earth Adds Magma Twist to Carbon Picture

woods hole scientists discover new role for magma in formation of earth's crustJust when you thought you knew it all, life has a habit of throwing you a curve, and that’s certainly the case when it comes to the formation of the ocean crust. Yep, for those of us who were convinced that the earth’s crust is formed when magma forces its way up through openings at the boundaries of tectonic plates, guess again: scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have observed a new phenomenon, one that could have some interesting implications for the impact of ocean floor carbon emissions on global climate change.

A New Kind of Crust Formation

The Woods Hole scientists made their observations at the Guaymas Basin in the Gulf of California, a unique marine ecosystem characterized by plate boundaries and an unusually thick layer of sediment. Instead of confining itself to the vicinity of the boundaries, magma in the basin is coming up as far away as 50 kilometers. Because of the thick sediment, these magma “sills” don’t rise all the way to the ocean floor. Instead, they spread out under the sediment, helping to release nutrients that feed deep-sea creatures.

Carbon Emissions and the Guaymas Basin

Heat from the magma sills also produces carbon dioxide and methane, and that’s where it gets interesting. The researchers estimate that the Guaymas sills produce far more of these greenhouse gasses than are released by conventional undersea crust formation. In turn, the extra-thick sediment and sea creature colonies may act as a carbon sink to balance out the effect. The next step is to conduct further observations at Guaymas and other sites on the globe where a similar phenomenon may be occurring, in order to determine what role it may play in the future climate of the Earth. Stay tuned!

Image: Magma by didier.bier on

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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