Volatiles, Geodynamics & Solid Earth Controls on the Habitable Planet

Photo: Fountaining volcano, Hawaii.

The principal goal of this programme is to understand the dynamic role of mantle volatiles (water, carbon dioxide, nitrogen, sulfur, halogens and noble gases) in mediating fundamental Earth processes that affect the habitability of the surface. These include mantle convection, plate tectonics, mantle melting and volcanism, which all control the exchange of volatiles between the Earth's deep interior and the surface. Specifically, the programme will aim to define and understand the key mantle reservoirs and their chemical and physical evolution over time; and focus on the volatile feedbacks on mantle behaviour through time to establish the controls on the volatile flows and budgets into and out of the mantle.

2017 Deep Volatiles programme fall meeting

21 Aug 2017

The next programme meeting is taking place in Puerto da la Cruz, Tenerife. Over 70 delegates from all over the UK, Europe and the USA will be attending.

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The Earth is a layered, planetary body from the core to the atmosphere, with mantle, lithosphere and hydrosphere between. Water and gas are abundant on the fertile surface we inhabit, which overlies the barren, tracts of solid silicate mantle. This familiar arrangement has fundamentally compartmentalised the study of the Earth, with the hot interior frequently assumed to be dry. Such thinking has been reinforced by the practical difficulties of measuring the low abundances of volatiles within the Earth. Yet it has become increasingly apparent that the small amounts of volatile constituents can have a dominant effect on the behaviour of the mantle.

The mantle is the largest reservoir on Earth, so even small abundances of volatiles within it can represent a major part of the planet's total stock. Thus the influence of volatile species on the operation of the mantle, which controls the storage and release of these volatiles to the surface, represents Earth system science on the grandest, most challenging scale.

Advances in measurements of volatiles in nature and experiments, an understanding of their effects on rheology and an ability to compute these effects on the dynamics of the Earth now converge for the community to address this inter-connected system holistically. This research theme will thus move geological thinking from assuming a largely separate dry interior and wet exterior to a fully interacting model of the Earth.

We will address the critical state of balance of the planet. Under what range of starting conditions can the Earth evolve to a planet with oceans and plate tectonics, and how robust is this system to perturbations? Can we lose our oceans and greenhouse-regulated atmosphere to the interior just as readily as we seem to have acquired them? Not only is the time ripe to tackle these fundamental problems, but there is the critical density of skills within the UK geoscience community needed to efficiently address the interlinked components in this truly inter-disciplinary endeavour.

The programme will focus on the fundamental science of volatiles and deep Earth processes, plate tectonics, melting and volcanism and their feedbacks to the surface environment. Specifically, the aim is to define and understand the controls on the volatile flows and budgets in the mantle, and their feedbacks with mantle behaviour, through well-defined programmes including observations on active geological systems (subduction zones, mantle plumes and spreading centres) and palaeo-analogues together with closely aligned laboratory experiments and computer simulations, and coupled geodynamic modelling and seismic imaging.

It is expected that successful bids to this programme will combine subdisciplines within Earth sciences, and that their chosen areas of study will be justified through their relevance to global Earth system science problems. The programme will require a highly collaborative and interdisciplinary approach to address and integrate the following themes:

  • How has cycling of volatiles between the Earth's surface and interior influenced the evolution of the habitable planet?
  • How have volatile flows both within the solid Earth and its surface reservoirs controlled, and been influenced by, redox (reduction-oxidation) reactions through geological time?
  • How have the content and distribution of volatiles influenced mantle convection and plate tectonics since the Earth formed?


2014 - 2020

Can I apply for a grant?

There are currently no open calls.


This programme has a budget of £8m over five years.

Programme awards

Award details are shown in our online grants browser - Grants on the Web.

View details of funded applications - external link

The Volatiles, Geodynamics & Solid Earth Controls on the Habitable Planet research programme reports below have details of its work.

Scoping Study (PDF, 523KB)

Deep Volatiles - publications - external link

Professor Tamsin Mather was on the Radio 4 programme The Life Scientific talking about volcanology. If you would like to listen to the programme please visit the BBC - external link.