New data about Ceres has just been released. Raymond et al. (2020) show the existence of gravity anomalies interpreted as low density pockets of brine under the crust. They show how impacts can trigger eruption of this brine onto the surface.

I understand how a low density layer can remain trapped under a higher density layer by lack of pores and/or fractures to rise through by buoyancy. However, I cannot figure how it got trapped there in the first place? For subsurface oceans under an icy crust (like Europa), I can imagine a simple freezing mechanism, but Ceres has a rocky crust.

Wikipedia's Ocean World - Formation goes:

Since water is highly soluble in magma, a large fraction of the planet's water content will initially be trapped in the mantle. As the planet cools and the mantle begins to solidify from the bottom up, large amounts of water (between 60% and 99% of the total amount in the mantle) are exsolved to form a steam atmosphere, which may eventually condense to form an ocean.

But it doesn't really help as it applies to surface oceans only. Neither does Extraterrestrial oceans on that particular matter.

How do subsurface oceans form under a rocky crust?

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There seems to be a whole bunch of publications on the matter: nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1146-8, nature.com/articles/s41550-020-1019-1, nature.com/articles/s41561-020-0581-6. I don't have access to all of them (too expensive ...). Maybe there's some useful information on the matter. $\endgroup$ – user20217 Aug 12 at 12:59
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Interesting! The first one states that "the interior of Ceres consists of (1) a thin lag deposit (regolith) layer, (2) an icy crust that contains the bulk of an origin ocean [...]". That would explain a lot, the rocky layer being created on top of the icy surface by impacts. What got me was this passage in doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-15973-8 : "Ceres [...] is partially differentiated into a rocky interior and a comparatively more volatile-rich crust, which is composed of rock, salts, clathrates, and $\leq$ 40% water ice." Looks like the crust might not be so "rocky" after all... $\endgroup$ – Jean-Marie Prival Aug 12 at 14:10
  • $\begingroup$ @Jean-Marie this looks like an answer to me. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Lanzi Aug 13 at 13:31

As Jean-Marie Prival comments, Ceres doesn't have a rocky crust. It has an icy crust in which rocky matter is embedded from asteroid impacts. I'd rather see this comment turned into an answer than reinvent the wheel on that dwarf planet.

Instead, here I consider a celestial body closer at hand. Earth does not have a subterranean ocean but it can produce water deep in the mantle, extracted from rock. As described in this answer from Space Exploration Stack Exchange, a high-pressure solid phase of water, Ice VII, has been identified as inclusions in diamonds; the presence of these inclusions implies that water exists in the molecular state ($\text{H}_2\text{O}$) as distinct from hydroxyl groups in minerals. The water is first trapped as a supercritical fluid as the diamonds form deep in the mantle, then condenses to Ice VII as the diamonds cool at the surface but retain mantle-level pressures internally.

Water in Earth's mantle likely does not come directly from surface oceans, but from hydroxide-bearing minerals in the rock. When the rock is cycled downwards by plate tectonics, it becomes hot enough to decompose the hydroxides (hydroxides of silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium, and magnesium, the elements to which hydroxyl groups are most likely to be bound in crustal rocks, all decompose well below 1000°C), thus generating the subterranean water.

| improve this answer | |
  • $\begingroup$ I don't think high pressure phases play a role here. The crust may have formed after the separation of the body into a more stoney interior and an icy shell. The water/brine may have formed much later, almost recently, thorugh impact melting, and reached the surface through crakcs of the same origin. $\endgroup$ – user20217 Aug 13 at 13:32
  • $\begingroup$ High pressure does not form the water. It directs what water there is to form the Ice VII phase instead of an ordinary solid or liquid. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Lanzi Aug 13 at 13:36
  • $\begingroup$ Thank you for your answer. I am well aware of the water stored in Earth's mantle. However it is not "subterranean water" per se, as in pockets of liquid (like on Ceres), but rather water included in mineral structures as OH groups. Even if studies like this one (doi.org/10.1126/science.1253358) are often reported by mass media as "Earth's hidden ocean" (sigh). $\endgroup$ – Jean-Marie Prival Aug 13 at 14:15
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ In the mantle it would be supercritical. The ice forms upon cooling under internally retained pressure in the diamond. Note that I say molecular water exists, not that it is aggregated into any ocean (unless a watery inclusion in the diamond counts. How big is an "ocean" anyway?). $\endgroup$ – Oscar Lanzi Aug 13 at 15:24
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @a_donda I was looking at the mechanism on Earth, because the comments seem to answer the original question on Ceres. Maybe turn those to an answer related to Ceres? I would upvote such an answer. $\endgroup$ – Oscar Lanzi Aug 13 at 16:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.