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Carbon Cycle Requirements for Advanced Life, Part 2

By Hugh Ross - November 25, 2019
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When humans experience or learn of an earthquake or volcano anywhere in the world, a natural response is to express concern and then mobilize to help the suffering. Because these disasters often result in tragedy, many people are surprised to learn that the processes involved in plate tectonics also play a crucial role in sustaining life on Earth. For example, who would have thought that the exchange of carbon between Earth’s layers must occur at just-right rates to ensure our survival? Thanks to ongoing research, scientists have discovered that 60 components of Earth’s deep carbon cycle must be fine-tuned for advanced life.

In part 1 of this two-part series, I described why carbon cycles are crucial for the long-term existence of life on a planet and especially crucial for advanced life. I explained the operation of the different components comprising the shallow carbon cycle. Here in part 2 I will describe the operation of the components of the deep carbon cycle and discuss how our increasing understanding of both the shallow and deep carbon cycles is giving humanity increasing evidences for the existence and operations of God.

Deep Carbon Cycle
Only recently have geophysicists and geochemists gained a good qualitative understanding of the deep carbon cycle. Their capacity to determine the quantities of carbon being moved through the different elements of the deep carbon cycle is just now gaining a measure of confidence. The deep carbon cycle refers to the movements of carbon occurring in the deepest parts of Earth’s crust and throughout the entirety of Earth’s mantle. Earth’s mantle is Earth’s thickest layer. It extends from 5–70 kilometers below Earth’s surface, down to 2,890 kilometers (1,800 miles).

Every year, many megatons of carbon are driven from Earth’s surface and crust into Earth’s mantle through tectonic plate subduction. Earth’s crust is divided into a few dozen tectonic plates. Currently, Earth possesses 10 tectonic plates measuring in excess of 10,000,000 square kilometers, 13 tectonic plates measuring between 1–10 million square kilometers, and 57 microplates measuring less than 1 million square kilometers.1 Tectonic plate subduction occurs when one tectonic plate slides under another and is thereby driven into Earth’s mantle (see figure).

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Figure: Tectonic Plate Subduction
On Earth, the collision of an oceanic crustal plate with a continental crustal plate typically results in the oceanic crustal plate sliding underneath the continental crustal plate into Earth’s mantle. Image credit: Subduction-en.svg from Wikimedia Commons by K. D. Schroeder, CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Volcanoes return megatons of carbon trapped in Earth’s mantle back to Earth’s atmosphere and hydrosphere (Earth’s oceans, seas, lakes, rivers, icefields, and glaciers). Whereas the removal of carbon from the atmosphere and hydrosphere through tectonic plate subduction has occurred continuously during the past three billion years, the release of carbon back to the atmosphere through volcanoes occurs episodically. Nevertheless, volcanic eruptions on Earth are neither too frequent nor too seldom, neither too violent nor too tepid, to present a problem either for compensating for the Sun’s increasing luminosity or brightness (see figure in part 1 of this two-part series) or for the long-term survival of life on Earth.

Deep Carbon Cycle’s Fine-Tuned Components and Parameters
There are 23 known subcomponents comprising the deep carbon cycle:

  1. Oxidation and methanogenesis by microbes residing in the deepest sediments of Earth’s crust2
  2. Rivers delivering high fluxes of carbon-bearing sediments from continental regions of active tectonic uplift and erosion along deep-sea fans to subduction zones3
  3. Collisions between continental plates delivering organic carbon via deep-sea fans to subduction zones4
  4. Sinking of dense mantle material by cold downwellings into isolated thermochemical piles5
  5. Harsh oxic oceanic sediments that limit biological survivability and productivity near some subduction zones6
  6. Population growth and spread of carbonate-shell-producing marine microorganisms and bottom-dwelling coccolithophores and foraminifera7
  7. Subducting tectonic plates that drive two different kinds of chemical reactions: one that returns carbon to the atmosphere, the second that drives carbon into the deep mantle8
  8. Arc volcanoes that bring the carbon that escapes deep descent through plate subduction to Earth’s surface9
  9. Volcanic calderas and tectonic faults diffusely emitting carbon dioxide10
  10. Chemical reactions and movements in tectonic subduction zones that mobilize subducted carbon into fluids and melts11
  11. Weathering of seafloor basalts that results in the carbonation of these basalts12
  12. Subduction of carbonated oceanic lithosphere (crustal plates) into the mantle13
  13. Mantle convection, which is determined by mantle temperature and viscosity, which is determined by the quantity of long-half-life radioisotopes in Earth’s core and mantle and the composition and the compositional heterogeneity of the mantle14
  14. Mantle cooling rate with respect to mantle depth and mantle density15
  15. Decompression melting of carbonated mantle material16
  16. Redox melting of diamond-bearing and metal-carbide-bearing material that is dredged up from the deep mantle to the shallow mantle via large mantle plumes17
  17. In regions of the mantle that are oxygen-poor, conversion of carbon subducted into the mantle into graphite and diamonds18
  18. Iron in mantle silicates reacting with graphite to produce carbonate-rich melts19
  19. Chemical reactions that convert mantle carbon into virtually permanent carbon storage as metal carbides and metal alloys in Earth’s deep mantle20
  20. Deep faulting and fracturing of oceanic plates, bringing seawater into contact with mantle peridotite, allowing the seawater to chemically react with the mantle peridotite so as to hydrate and carbonate the mantle peridotite, transforming it into serpentinite21
  21. Subtraction of carbon from subducting slabs via mechanical removal,22 metamorphic decarbonation,23 and melting24
  22. Magmas dissolving carbon as carbonate in the mantle25
  23. Vapor-saturated magmas degassing throughout their ascent into the crust26

There are 37 known sets of parameters that affect the rates at which these 23 subcomponents operate:

  1. Masses of water, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere and hydrosphere27
  2. Population levels and geographical locations of methanogenic and photosynthetic microorganisms28
  3. Rates at which deep storage petrology occurs29
  4. Degree of iron-metal saturation in the deep mantle30
  5. Degree of decompression melting of carbonated mantle material31
  6. Degree of mantle hydration32
  7. Degree of mantle viscosity33
  8. Measure of mantle pressure with respect to mantle depth34
  9. Measure of redox melting with respect to mantle depth35
  10. Rates at which basalt is added to the oceanic crust at spreading locations (currently 21 km3 per year) throughout Earth’s history36
  11. Hydrostatic pressure at the seafloor, which determines the content of carbon dioxide in seafloor water and in seafloor basalts37
  12. Rates of magma volume expelled from arc volcanoes throughout Earth’s history (currently 0.5 km3 per year)38
  13. Rates of magma volumes expelled from mantle plume volcanoes (currently 0.4 km3 per year) throughout Earth’s history39
  14. Heat flow rates in the mantle throughout Earth’s history40
  15. Quantities of sulfates in the lower crust in the different mantle layers41
  16. Hydrostatic pressure on the seafloor sediments, which determines the amount of carbon dioxide in deep seawaters and the amount of carbon that can be sequestered in the seafloor sediments42
  17. Carbonate storage times in ocean crust along passive margins43
  18. Seep rates associated with gas hydrates in the deep crust and shallow mantle44
  19. Rates at which serpentinization of mantle minerals occur, which is partly determined by the fracturing extents and rates of oceanic tectonic plates45
  20. Timing of the onsets in Earth’s history of magmatism, embryonic plate tectonics, and subduction plate tectonics46
  21. Delivery rates of carbon to Earth from comets, asteroids, and interplanetary dust throughout Earth’s history47
  22. Oxidation state of the upper mantle throughout Earth’s history48
  23. Recycling efficiency of carbon relative to water and nitrogen49
  24. Convergence speed of subducting tectonic plates50
  25. Fraction of carbon in the oceans that enters deep seafloor subduction zones51
  26. Rates at which oceanic plates are deeply fractured throughout Earth’s history52
  27. Seafloor water temperatures throughout Earth’s history53
  28. Rates at which new organic matter is being produced and delivered into the oceans throughout Earth’s history54
  29. Timing of the first appearance of calcifying marine microorganisms and of molluscs55
  30. Ocean pH throughout Earth’s history56
  31. Ocean salinity throughout Earth’s history57
  32. Fraction of Earth’s oceans deeper than 3,000 meters throughout Earth’s history58
  33. Oxygenation level of Earth’s oceans throughout Earth’s history59
  34. Rate at which the mantle becomes chemically reducing with depth60
  35. Lengths of Earth’s subduction zones throughout Earth’s history61
  36. Average oceanic plate thickness throughout Earth’s history62
  37. Plate tectonic heat transport throughout Earth’s history63

Extraordinary Fine-Tuning Points to Design
The 23 subcomponents of the deep carbon cycle and the 37 parameters that affect the rates at which these 23 subcomponents operate must all be individually fine-tuned so that, in combination with the shallow carbon cycle, carbon dioxide and methane are removed from the atmosphere at just-right rates throughout the 3.8-billion-year history of life Earth in a manner that perfectly and continuously compensates for the Sun’s increasing luminosity (see figure in part 1 of this two-part series). It is the net removal of carbon dioxide and methane that is referred to here. Measurements of the amounts of carbon delivered from Earth’s mantle and crust to Earth’s atmosphere almost, but not quite, equal the amounts of carbon transported from Earth’s atmosphere to Earth’s crust and mantle. It is this slight imbalance that perfectly compensates for the Sun’s increasing luminosity so that life can be sustained and thrive on Earth for 3.8 billion years.

The deep carbon cycle not only plays a crucial role in compensating for the Sun’s increasing luminosity, it also plays a critically essential role in the rise of Earth’s atmospheric oxygen.64 If it were not for organic carbon being efficiently subducted into Earth’s mantle at just-right times in Earth’s history, animal life and human life, in particular, would have been impossible.

Fine-tuning 60 different features and processes on Earth in different ways and at different rates throughout the past 3.8 billion years is no mean task. Even just fine-tuning the features and processes relevant to tectonic plate subduction is a tall order. As geophysicist Robert Stern noted in a paper published in Geology, “Earth is the only known planet with subduction zones and plate tectonics, and this fact demonstrates that special conditions are required for this mode of planetary heat loss.”65 As geophysicist John Hayes and oceanographer Jacob Waldbauer commented in their paper that specifically addressed the subduction components of the deep carbon cycle, “A very clever demon will be required to operate the carbon valve in the subduction zone.”66

However, it takes a lot more than “a clever demon” to explain the exquisite, continual control of the sixty features and processes described here. As the prophet Isaiah in the Bible repeatedly declares,67 only the God that created and designed the universe for humanity’s specific benefit possesses the power, knowledge, intellect, and cleverness to control the natural realm to this extraordinary degree.

Featured image: Movement of Subducted Tectonic Plates in Earth’s Mantle
Image credit: Erin Walden, Creative Commons Attribution

Endnotes
  1. Peter Bird, “An Updated Digital Model of Plate Boundaries,” Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 4, no. 3 (March 2003): article #9, 1027, doi:10.1029/2001GC000252.
  2. Thomas W. Evans et al., “Assessing the Carbon Assimilation and Production of Benthic Archaeal Lipid Biomarkers Using Lipid-RIP,” Geochimica et Cosmochimica Acta 265 (November 15, 2019): 431–42, doi:10.1016/j.gca.2019.08.030.
  3. Valier Galy et al., “Efficient Organic Carbon Burial in the Bengal Fan Sustained by the Himalayan Erosional System,” Nature 450 (November 15, 2007): 407–10, doi:10.1038/nature06273.
  4. Galy et al., “Efficient Organic Carbon Burial”; Terry Plank and Craig E. Manning, “Subducting Carbon,” Nature 574 (October 17, 2019): 345, 350, doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1643-z.
  5. Mingming Li and Allen K. McNamara, “The Influence of Deep Mantle Compositional Heterogeneity on Earth’s Thermal Evolution,” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 500 (October 15, 2018): 86–96, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2018.08.009.
  6. Steven D’Hondt, Fumio Inagaki, and Wiebke Ziebis, “Presence of Oxygen and Aerobic Communities from Sea Floor to Basement in Deep-Sea Sediments,” Nature Geoscience 8 (March 16, 2015): 299–304, doi:10.1038/ngeo2387.
  7. Plank and Manning, “Subducting Carbon,” 343–44, 350.
  8. Peter B. Kelemen and Craig E. Manning, “Reevaluating Carbon Fluxes in Subduction Zones, What Goes Down, Mostly Comes Up,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 112, no. 30 (July 28, 2015): E3997–E4006, doi:10.1073/pnas.1507889112; Plank and Manning, 343.
  9. Alessandro Aiuppa et al., “Along-Arc, Inter-Arc, and Arc-to-Arc Variations in Volcanic Gas CO2/Sr Ratios Reveal Dual Source of Carbon in Arc Volcanism,” Earth Science Reviews 168 (May 2017): 24–47, doi:10.1016/j.earscirev.2017.03.005; Plank and Manning, 343–52.
  10. Cynthia Werner et al., “Carbon Dioxide Emissions from Subaerial Volcanic Regions: Two Decades in Review,” in Deep Carbon: Past to Present, eds. Beth N. Orcutt, Isabelle Daniel, and Rajdeep Dasgupta (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019): 188–236, doi:10.1017/9781108677950; Plank and Manning, 343–52; Kelemen and Manning, “Reevaluating Carbon Fluxes,” E4002–E4004.
  11. Daniele Grassi and Max W. Schmidt, “The Melting of Carbonated Pelites from 70 to 700 km Depth,” Journal of Petrology 52, no. 4 (February 27, 2011): 765–89, doi:10.1093/petrology/egr002; Vincenzo Stagno and Daniel J. Frost, “Carbon Speciation in the Asthenosphere: Experimental Measurements of the Redox Conditions at Which Carbonate-Bearing Melts Coexist with Graphite or Diamond in Peridotite Assemblages,” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 300, nos. 1–2 (November 15, 2010): 72–84, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.09.038.
  12. Hubert Staudigel et al., “Cretaceous Ocean Crust at DSDP Sites 417 and 418: Carbon Uptake from Weathering Versus Loss by Magmatic Outgassing,” Geochemica Cosmochemica Acta 53, no. 11 (November 1989): 3091–94, doi:10.1016/0016-7037(89)90189-0.
  13. Rajdeep Dasgupta and Marc M. Hirschmann, “The Deep Carbon Cycle and Melting in Earth’s Interior,” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 298, nos. 1–2 (September 15, 2010): 1–13, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2010.06.039; Peter B. Kelemen et al., “Rates and Mechanisms of Mineral Carbonation in Peridotite: Natural Processes and Recipes for Enhanced in Situ CO2 Capture and Storage,” Annual Reviews of Earth and Planetary Science 39 (May 2011): 545–76, doi:10.1146/annurev-earth-092010-152509; Jeffrey C. Alt et al., “The Role of Serpentinites in Cycling of Carbon and Sulfur: Seafloor Serpentinization and Subduction Metamorphism,” Lithos 178 (September 15, 2013): 40­–54, doi:10.1016/j.lithos.2012.12.006.
  14. Li and McNamara, “Deep Mantle Compositional Heterogeneity.”
  15. Li and McNamara.
  16. Dasgupta and Hirschmann, “The Deep Carbon Cycle.”
  17. Dasgupta and Hirschmann.
  18. Stagno and Frost, “Carbon Speciation.”
  19. Stagno and Frost.
  20. Dasgupta and Hirschmann.
  21. Kelemen et al., “Rates and Mechanisms”; Plank and Manning, “Subducting Carbon,” 344.
  22. Christine Regalla et al., “Relationship between Outer Forearc Subsidence and Plate Boundary Kinematics along the Northeast Japan Convergent Margin,” Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 14, no. 12 (December 20, 2013): 5227–43, doi:10.1002/2013GC005008; T. V. Gerya and F. I. Meilick, “Geodynamic Regimes of Subduction under an Active Margin: Effects of Rheological Weakening by Fluids and Melts,” Journal of Metamorphic Geology 29, no. 1 (January 2011): 7–31, doi:10.1111/j.1525-1314.2010.00904.x.
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  24. Daniele Grassi and Max W. Schmidt, “The Melting of Carbonated Pelites from 70 to 700 km Depth,” Journal of Petrology 52, no. 4 (February 2011): 765–89, doi:10.1093/petrology/egr002.
  25. Rajdeep Dasgupta et al., “Carbon-Dioxide-Rich Silicate Melt in the Earth’s Upper Mantle,” Nature 493 (January 9, 2013): 211–15, doi:10.1038/nature11731.
  26. Paul J. Wallace, “Volatiles in Subduction Zone Magmas: Concentrations and Fluxes Based on Melt Inclusion and Volcanic Gas Data,” Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research 140, nos. 1–3 (January 30, 2005): 217–40, doi:10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2004.07.023.
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  30. Dasgupta and Hirschmann.
  31. Dasgupta and Hirschmann.
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  33. Dasgupta and Hirschmann.
  34. Stagno and Frost, “Carbon Speciation.”
  35. Stagno and Frost.
  36. David B. Rowley, “Rate of Plate Creation and Destruction: 180 Ma to Present,” Geological Society American Bulletin 114, no. 8 (August 2002): 927–33, doi:10.1130/0016-7606(2002)114<0927/ROPCAD>2.0.CO;2.
  37. Joseph A. Resing et al., “CO2 and 3He in Hydrothermal Plumes: Implications for Mid-Ocean Ridge CO2 Flux,” Earth and Planetary Science Letters 226, nos. 3–4 (October 15, 2004): 449­–64, doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2004.07.028; Hayes and Waldbauer, “The Carbon Cycle,” 936.
  38. Ian S. E. Carmichael, “The Andesite Aqueduct: Perspectives on the Evolution of Intermediate Magmatism in West-Central (105–99°W) Mexico,” Contributions to Mineralogy and Petrology 143, no. 6 (September 2002): 641–63, doi:10.1007/s00410-002-0370-9.
  39. Bernard Marty and Igor N. Tolstikhin, “CO2 Fluxes from Mid-Ocean Ridges, Arcs, and Plumes,” Chemical Geology 145, nos. 3–4 (April 15, 1998): 233–48, doi: 10.1016/S0009-2541(97)00145-9.
  40. Robert P. Lowell and Susan M. Keller, “High-Temperature Seafloor Hydrothermal Circulation over Geologic Time and Archean Banded Iron Formations,” Geophysical Research Letters 30, no. 7 (April 9, 2003): 1–44, doi:10.1029/2002GL016536; Hayes and Waldbauer, 936–37.
  41. Li and McNamara, “Deep Mantle Compositional Heterogeneity”; Lowell and Keller, “Seafloor Hydrothermal Circulation”; Plank and Manning, “Subducting Carbon”; Kelemen and Manning, “Reevaluating Carbon Fluxes”; Hayes and Waldbauer.
  42. Alberto E. Saal et al., “Vapour Undersaturation in Primitive Mid-Ocean-Ridge Basalt and the Volatile Content of Earth’s Upper Mantle,” Nature 419 (October 3, 2002): 451–55, doi:10.1038/nature01073; Hayes and Waldbauer, 936.
  43. Wolfgang Bach et al., “Geochemistry of Hydrothermally Altered Oceanic Crust: DSDP/ODP Hole 504B—Implications for Seawater-Crust Exchange Budgets and Sr- and Pb-Isotopic Evolution of the Mantle,” Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 4, no. 3 (March 2003): 1–29, doi:10.1029/2002GC000419; Hayes and Waldbauer, 938–39.
  44. S. Wenau and V. Spiess, “Active Seafloor Seepage along Hydraulic Fractures Connected to Lateral Stress from Salt-Related Rafting: Regab Pockmark, Congo Fan,” Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 123, no. 5 (May 2018): 3301–19, doi:10.1002/2017JB015006; Hayes and Waldbauer, 939.
  45. Long Zhang, Wei-dong Sun, and Ren-Xu Chen, “Evolution of Serpentinite from Seafloor Hydration to Subduction Zone Metamorphism: Petrology and Geochemistry of Serpentinite from the Ultrahigh Pressure North Qaidam Orogen in Northern Tibet,” Lithos 346–47 (November 15, 2019): id. 105158, doi:10.1016/j.lithos.2019.105158.
  46. Robert J. Stern, “Evidence from Ophiolites, Blueschists, and Ultrahigh-Pressure Metamorphic Terranes that the Modern Episode of Subduction Tectonics Began in Neoproterozoic Time,” Geology 33, no. 7 (July 1, 2005): 557–60, doi:10.1130/G21365.1; Paul F. Hoffman, “Evidence from Ophiolites, Blueschists, and Ultrahigh-Pressure Metamorphic Terranes that the Modern Episode of Subduction Tectonics Began in Neoproterozoic Time: Comment and Reply: COMMENT,” Geology 34, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): e105, doi:10.1130/G22300.1; Robert J. Stern, “Evidence from Ophiolites, Blueschists, and Ultrahigh-Pressure Metamorphic Terranes that the Modern Episode of Subduction Tectonics Began in Neoproterozoic Time: Comment and Reply: REPLY,” Geology 34, no. 1 (January 1, 2006): e105–e106, doi:10.1130/G23026.1.
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  49. Hirschmann, “Comparative Deep Earth Volatile Cycles.”
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  65. Stern, “Evidence from Ophiolites,” 557.
  66. Hayes and Waldbauer, 946.
  67. Isaiah 40:26–28, 44:24, 45:5–7, 45:12, 45:18, 48:12–13, 51:13.

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