Discover the most talked about and latest scientific content & concepts.

Concept: Mesosphere


Molecular nitrogen (N2) comprises three-quarters of Earth’s atmosphere and significant portions of other planetary atmospheres. We report a 19 per mil (‰) excess of (15)N(15)N in air relative to a random distribution of nitrogen isotopes, an enrichment that is 10 times larger than what isotopic equilibration in the atmosphere allows. Biological experiments show that the main sources and sinks of N2 yield much smaller proportions of (15)N(15)N in N2. Electrical discharge experiments, however, establish (15)N(15)N excesses of up to +23‰. We argue that (15)N(15)N accumulates in the atmosphere because of gas-phase chemistry in the thermosphere (>100 km altitude) on time scales comparable to those of biological cycling. The atmospheric (15)N(15)N excess therefore reflects a planetary-scale balance of biogeochemical and atmospheric nitrogen chemistry, one that may also exist on other planets.

Concepts: Evolution, Earth, Planet, Gas, Atmosphere, Venus, Planetary science, Mesosphere


The hydrogen-isotope [deuterium/hydrogen (D/H)] ratio of Earth can be used to constrain the origin of its water. However, the most accessible reservoir, Earth’s oceans, may no longer represent the original (primordial) D/H ratio, owing to changes caused by water cycling between the surface and the interior. Thus, a reservoir completely isolated from surface processes is required to define Earth’s original D/H signature. Here we present data for Baffin Island and Icelandic lavas, which suggest that the deep mantle has a low D/H ratio (δD more negative than -218 per mil). Such strongly negative values indicate the existence of a component within Earth’s interior that inherited its D/H ratio directly from the protosolar nebula.

Concepts: Lithosphere, 2000s music groups, 2006 albums, Ocean, Mantle, Crust, Structure of the Earth, Mesosphere


The Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission, during the second of its Deep Dip campaigns, made comprehensive measurements of martian thermosphere and ionosphere composition, structure, and variability at altitudes down to ~130 kilometers in the subsolar region. This altitude range contains the diffusively separated upper atmosphere just above the well-mixed atmosphere, the layer of peak extreme ultraviolet heating and primary reservoir for atmospheric escape. In situ measurements of the upper atmosphere reveal previously unmeasured populations of neutral and charged particles, the homopause altitude at approximately 130 kilometers, and an unexpected level of variability both on an orbit-to-orbit basis and within individual orbits. These observations help constrain volatile escape processes controlled by thermosphere and ionosphere structure and variability.

Concepts: Earth, Planet, Mars, Atmosphere, Stratosphere, Mesosphere, Ionosphere, Thermosphere


One of the most repeatable phenomena seen in the atmosphere, the quasi-biennial oscillation (QBO) between prevailing eastward and westward wind-jets in the equatorial stratosphere (~16-50 km altitude), was unexpectedly disrupted in February 2016. An unprecedented westward jet formed within the eastward phase in the lower stratosphere and cannot be accounted for by the standard QBO paradigm based on vertical momentum transport. Instead the primary cause was waves transporting momentum from the Northern Hemisphere. Seasonal forecasts did not predict the disruption but analogous QBO disruptions are seen very occasionally in some climate simulations. A return to more typical QBO behavior within the next year is forecast, though the possibility of more frequent occurrences of similar disruptions is projected for a warming climate.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Greek loanwords, Atmosphere, Equator, Northern Hemisphere, Stratosphere, Mesosphere


The decay of short-lived iodine (I) and plutonium (Pu) results in xenon (Xe) isotopic anomalies in the mantle that record Earth’s earliest stages of formation. Xe isotopic anomalies have been linked to degassing during accretion, but degassing alone cannot account for the co-occurrence of Xe and tungsten (W) isotopic heterogeneity in plume-derived basalts and their long-term preservation in the mantle. Here we describe measurements of I partitioning between liquid Fe alloys and liquid silicates at high pressure and temperature and propose that Xe isotopic anomalies found in modern plume rocks (that is, rocks with elevated 3He/4He ratios) result from I/Pu fractionations during early, high-pressure episodes of core formation. Our measurements demonstrate that I becomes progressively more siderophile as pressure increases, so that portions of mantle that experienced high-pressure core formation will have large I/Pu depletions not related to volatility. These portions of mantle could be the source of Xe and W anomalies observed in modern plume-derived basalts. Portions of mantle involved in early high-pressure core formation would also be rich in FeO, and hence denser than ambient mantle. This would aid the long-term preservation of these mantle portions, and potentially points to their modern manifestation within seismically slow, deep mantle reservoirs with high 3He/4He ratios.

Concepts: Iron, Density, Temperature, Chemical elements, Xenon, Mantle, Structure of the Earth, Mesosphere


Late accretion, early mantle differentiation, and core-mantle interaction are processes that could have created subtle (182)W isotopic heterogeneities within Earth’s mantle. Tungsten isotopic data for Kostomuksha komatiites dated at 2.8 billion years ago show a well-resolved (182)W excess relative to modern terrestrial samples, whereas data for Komati komatiites dated at 3.5 billion years ago show no such excess. Combined (182)W, (186,187)Os, and (142,143)Nd isotopic data indicate that the mantle source of the Kostomuksha komatiites included material from a primordial reservoir that represents either a deep mantle region that underwent metal-silicate equilibration or a product of large-scale magmatic differentiation of the mantle. The preservation, until at least 2.8 billion years ago, of this reservoir-which likely formed within the first 30 million years of solar system history-indicates that the mantle may have never been well mixed.

Concepts: Earth, Magma, Terrestrial planet, Mantle, Structure of the Earth, Cumulate rock, Mesosphere, Peridotite


Iron may critically influence the physical properties and thermochemical structures of Earth’s lower mantle. Its effects on thermal conductivity, with possible consequences on heat transfer and mantle dynamics, however, remain largely unknown. We measured the lattice thermal conductivity of lower-mantle ferropericlase to 120 GPa using the ultrafast optical pump-probe technique in a diamond anvil cell. The thermal conductivity of ferropericlase with 56% iron significantly drops by a factor of 1.8 across the spin transition around 53 GPa, while that with 8-10% iron increases monotonically with pressure, causing an enhanced iron substitution effect in the low-spin state. Combined with bridgmanite data, modeling of our results provides a self-consistent radial profile of lower-mantle thermal conductivity, which is dominated by pressure, temperature, and iron effects, and shows a twofold increase from top to bottom of the lower mantle. Such increase in thermal conductivity may delay the cooling of the core, while its decrease with iron content may enhance the dynamics of large low shear-wave velocity provinces. Our findings further show that, if hot and strongly enriched in iron, the seismic ultralow velocity zones have exceptionally low conductivity, thus delaying their cooling.

Concepts: Earth, Temperature, Heat, Diamond, Heat transfer, Mantle, Structure of the Earth, Mesosphere


The remarkable survival of microorganisms high above the surface of the Earth is of increasing interest. At stratospheric levels, multiple stressors including ultraviolet and ionizing radiation, low temperatures, hypobaric conditions, extreme desiccation, and nutrient scarcity are all significant challenges. Our understanding of which microorganisms are capable of tolerating such stressful conditions has been addressed by stratospheric sample collection and survival assays, through launching and recovery, and exposure to simulated conditions in the laboratory. Here, we review stratospheric microbiology studies providing our current perspective on microbial life at extremely high altitudes and discuss implications for health and agriculture, climate change, planetary protection, and astrobiology.

Concepts: Microbiology, Atmosphere, Microorganism, Mesosphere, Extraterrestrial life


The cycling of hydrogen plays an important role in the geochemical evolution of our planet. Under high-pressure conditions, asymmetric hydroxyl bonds tend to form a symmetric O-H-O configuration in which H is positioned at the center of two O atoms. The symmetrization of O-H bonds improves their thermal stability and as such, water-bearing minerals can be present deeper in the Earth’s lower mantle. However, how exactly H is recycled from the deep mantle remains unclear. Here, we employ first-principles free-energy landscape sampling methods together with high pressure-high temperature experiments to reveal the dehydrogenation mechanism of a water-bearing mineral, FeO2H, at deep mantle conditions. Experimentally, we show that ~50% H is released from symmetrically hydrogen-bonded ε-FeO2H upon transforming to a pyrite-type phase. By resolving the lowest-energy transition pathway from ε-FeO2H to the Py-phase, we demonstrate that half of the O-H bonds in the mineral rupture during the structural transition, leading toward the breakdown of symmetrized hydrogen bonds and eventual dehydrogenation. Our study sheds new light on the stability of symmetric hydrogen bonds during structural transitions and provides a dehydrogenation mechanism for hydrous minerals existing in the deep mantle.

Concepts: Earth, Hydrogen, Chemistry, Aluminium, Mantle, Structure of the Earth, Olivine, Mesosphere


Molten I-type cosmic spherules formed by heating, oxidation and melting of extraterrestrial Fe,Ni metal alloys. The entire oxygen in these spherules sources from the atmosphere. Therefore, I-type cosmic spherules are suitable tracers for the isotopic composition of the upper atmosphere at altitudes between 80 and 115 km. Here we present data on I-type cosmic spherules collected in Antarctica. Their composition is compared with the composition of tropospheric O2. Our data suggest that the Earth’s atmospheric O2 is isotopically homogenous up to the thermosphere. This makes fossil I-type micrometeorites ideal proxies for ancient atmospheric CO2 levels.

Concepts: Photosynthesis, Carbon dioxide, Iron, Earth, Planet, Atmosphere, Mesosphere, Exosphere