Biotic vs abiotic Earth: A model for mantle hydration and continental coverage

Dennis Höning*, Hendrik Hansen-Goos, Alessandro Airo, Tilman Spohn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


The origin and evolution of life has undoubtedly had a major impact on the evolution of Earth's oceans and atmosphere. Recent studies have suggested that bioactivity may have had an even deeper impact and may have caused a change in the redox-state of the mantle and provided a path for the formation of continents. We here present a numerical model that assumes that bioactivity increases the continental weathering rate and that relates the sedimentation rate to the growth of continents and to the hydration of the mantle using elements of plate tectonics and mantle convection. The link between these factors is provided by assuming that an increase of the thickness of the sedimentary layer of low permeability on top of a subducting oceanic slab will reduce its dewatering upon subduction. This in turn leads to a greater availability of water in the source region of andesitic partial melt, resulting in an enhanced rate of continental crust production, and to an increased regassing rate of the mantle. The mantle in turn responds by reducing the mantle viscosity while increasing the convective circulation rate, degassing rate and plate speed. We use parameters that are observed for the present Earth and gauge uncertain parameters such that the present day continental surface area and mantle water concentration can be obtained. Our steady state results show two stable fixed points in a phase plane defined by the fractional continental surface area and the water concentration in the mantle, one of them pertaining to a wet mantle and the continental surface area of the present day Earth, and the other to a dry mantle and a small continental surface area. When the sedimentation rate is reduced, both fixed points move and the area of attraction of the latter fixed point increases systematically. We conclude that if the presence of life has increased the continental weathering rate, as is widely believed, and led to the observables of a wet mantle and a continental surface coverage of roughly 40%, an abiotic Earth would likely have evolved toward a dry mantle with a small continental surface area instead.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)5-13
Number of pages9
JournalPlanetary and Space Science
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Astrobiology
  • Biological weathering
  • Continental growth
  • Global water cycle
  • Life
  • Plate tectonics


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