The volume of Earth's oceans may be determined by a dynamic mechanism involving exchange of water between the crust and the mantle. Fast-spreading mid-ocean ridges are currently submerged to a depth at which the pressure is close to the critical pressure for seawater. This ensures optimal convective heat transport and, hence, maximal penetration of hydrothermal circulation along the ridge axes. The oceanic crust is hydrated to a depth of a kilometer or more and can therefore carry a substantial flux of water to the upper mantle when it is subducted. The current ingassing rate of water by this process is probably at least sufficient to balance the outgassing rate. If the oceans were shallower, as they may have been in the distant past, convective heat transport would be reduced and the depth of hydrothermal penetration and crustal hydration would decrease. Outgassing would exceed ingassing and ocean volume would increase. The system is self-stabilizing as long as the depth of the oceans does not exceed its present value. This mechanism could explain why continental freeboard has remained approximately constant since the Archean despite probable increases in continental area.
All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes
- Geochemistry and Petrology
- Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
- Space and Planetary Science