Nitrogen speciation in upper mantle fluids and the origin of Earth’s nitrogen-rich atmosphere

Sami Mikhail, Dimitri Sverjensky

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101 Citations (Scopus)
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Volatile elements stored in the mantles of terrestrial planets escape through volcanic degassing, and thereby influence planetary atmospheric evolution and habitability. Compared with the atmospheres of Venus and Mars, Earth's atmosphere is nitrogen-rich relative to primordial noble gas concentrations1, 2, 3. The compatibility of volatile elements in mantle minerals versus melts and fluids controls how readily these elements are degassed. However, the speciation of nitrogen in mantle fluids is not well constrained4, 5, 6. Here we present thermodynamic calculations that establish the speciation of nitrogen in aqueous fluids under upper mantle conditions. We find that, under the relatively oxidized conditions of Earth's mantle wedges at convergent plate margins7, 8, 9, nitrogen is expected to exist predominantly as N2 in fluids and, therefore, be degassed easily. In contrast, under more reducing conditions elsewhere in the Earth's upper mantle and in the mantles of Venus and Mars, nitrogen is expected predominantly in the form of ammonium (NH4+) in aqueous fluids. Ammonium is moderately compatible in upper mantle minerals10, 11 and unconducive to nitrogen degassing. We conclude that Earth's oxidized mantle wedge conditions—a result of subduction and hence plate tectonics—favour the development of a nitrogen-enriched atmosphere, relative to the primordial noble gases, whereas the atmospheres of Venus and Mars have less nitrogen because they lack plate tectonics.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)816-819
JournalNature Geoscience
Issue number11
Early online date19 Oct 2014
Publication statusPublished - Nov 2014


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