In the new study, the researchers report the hydrogen isotope ratios of water trapped in glassy inclusions inside the basalts. The results, published online today in Science, reveal that the inclusions have a much lighter isotopic signature than does the ocean, suggesting that the composition of seawater has indeed evolved over time. Although scientists were aware of processes that could cause an isotopic shift in surface waters, Hallis says, “until we made our measurements, we didn’t know whether that would be a measureable difference or not.”
The new data suggest that the difference is vast. And Hallis suspects that the deepest, most primitive material in the mantle should have an even lighter isotopic composition than the inclusions her team measured. That’s because the rising magma that produced the lavas probably mixed with upper mantle rocks, which have been contaminated with isotopically heavy surface water that got dragged down by subducting slabs of tectonic plates.
So what does all this mean for the origin of Earth’s water? For one, the new data throw a wrench in the conventional story that carbonaceous chondrites—a water-rich variety of asteroid—delivered water to an initially dry Earth after its formation. That scenario has been bolstered by similarities in the isotopic signatures of the asteroids and seawater. But the chondrite signatures are too heavy to explain the deep Earth samples, Hallis says. “The carbonaceous chondrites don’t really work.”