Xenon Fractionation, Hydrogen Escape, and the Oxidation of the Earth

Friday, 19 December 2014
Kevin J Zahnle, NASA, Moffett Field, CA, United States and David C Catling, University of Washington, Seattle, WA, United States
Xenon in Earth's atmosphere is severely mass fractionated and depleted compared to any plausible solar system source material, yet Kr is unfractionated. These observations seem to imply that Xe has escaped from Earth. Vigorous hydrodynamic hydrogen escape can produce mass fractionation in heavy gases. The required hydrogen flux is very high but within the range permitted by solar EUV heating when Earth was 100 Myrs old or younger. However this model cannot explain why Xe escapes but Kr does not.

Recently, what appears to be ancient atmospheric xenon has been recovered from several very ancient (3-3.5 Ga) terrestrial hydrothermal barites and cherts (Pujol 2011, 2013). What is eye-catching about this ancient Xe is that it is less fractionated that Xe in modern air. In other words, it appears that a process was active on Earth some 3 to 3.5 billion years ago that caused xenon to fractionate. By this time the Sun was no longer the EUV source that it used to be. If xenon was being fractionated by escape — currently the only viable hypothesis — it had to be in Earth’s Archean atmosphere and under rather modest levels of EUV forcing.

It should be possible for Xe, but not Kr, to escape from Earth as an ion. In a hydrodynamically escaping hydrogen wind the hydrogen is partially ionized. The key concepts are that ions are much more strongly coupled to the escaping flow than are neutrals (so that a relatively modest flow of H and H+ to space could carry Xe+ along with it, the flux can be small enough to be consistent with diffusion-limited flux), and that Xe alone among the noble gases is more easily ionized than hydrogen. This sort of escape is possible along the polar field lines, although a weak or absent magnetic field would likely work as well. The extended history of hydrogen escape implicit in Xe escape in the Archean is consistent with other suggestions that hydrogen escape in the Archean was considerable. Hydrogen escape plausibly played the key role in creating oxidizing conditions at the surface of the Earth and setting the stage for the creation of an O2 atmosphere (Urey 1951, Catling et al 2001, Zahnle et al 2013). Catling, McKay, Zahnle (2001) Science 293, 839.

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Zahnle, Catling, Claire (2013) Ch. Geol. 362, 26.