August 10, 2011
Virtually all of the ocean islands are volcanoes. Several of them, such as Hawaii, originate from the lowest part of the mantle. This geological process is similar to the movement of coloured liquids in a lava lamp: hot rock rises in cylindrical columns, the so-called mantle plumes, from a depth of nearly 3,000 kilometers. Near the surface, it melts, because the pressure is reduced, and forms volcanoes. The plume originates from former ocean crust which early in the Earth's history sank to the bottom of the mantle. Previously, scientists had assumed that this recycling took about two billion years.
The chemical analysis of tiny glassy inclusions in olivine crystals from basaltic lava on Mauna Loa volcano in Hawaii has now surprised geologists: the entire recycling process requires at most half a billion years, four times faster than previously thought.
The microscopically small inclusions in the volcanic rock contain trace elements originally dissolved in seawater, and this allows the recycling process to be dated. Before the old ocean crust sinks into the mantle, it soaks up seawater, which leaves tell-tale trace elements in the rock. The age is revealed by the isotopic ratio of strontium which changes with time. Strontium is a chemical element, which occurs in trace amounts in sea water. The isotopes of chemical elements have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons. Mainz scientists developed a special laser mass spectrometry method which allowed the detection of isotopes of strontium in extremely small quantities.