Where Did Earth’s Water Come From?


Unlike every other planet in our solar system,
Earth’s surface is 70% liquid water, which while useful for life, is also kind of weird,
because everything we know about how and when our planet formed says Earth’s surface should
be bone dry. The story goes like this: our solar system
formed from the collapse of a large cloud of dust and gas. The dense blob of gas at
the center ignited to form the sun, which as a young, unstable star unleashed a fierce
solar wind. Over time this stream of charged particles pushed the remaining gas cloud farther
and farther out, leaving only solid particles behind to clump together into rocks, planetesimals,
and finally, the rocky planets of the inner solar system that we know today. And here’s the problem: water, in the form
of ice, couldn’t have been one of the solid particles that stuck around, because the early
inner solar system was far too hot for frozen water, and any water vapor would have been
blasted away by the solar wind. So if Earth didn’t start off with water, how
did we end up with such splendid oceans? We know H2O wasn’t manufactured here over the
eons, because natural processes like combustion, breathing and photosynthesis create and destroy
roughly equal amounts of water – and either way, the amounts in question are so miniscule
that they can’t account for the abundance of water on the planet. Since Earth’s water was neither part of the
original package nor manufactured here, it must have flown in from far away, on meteoroids
or comets or other bodies originating in the outer solar system where they were far enough
from the Sun for frozen water to survive. Comets, being dirty iceballs, are a logical
candidate for the source of our water, but were ruled out when we discovered that they
are far richer in heavy hydrogen (that’s hydrogen with a neutron as well as a proton in its
nucleus) than Earth water. For every million hydrogen atoms in Earth water, about 150 are
heavy ones, while typical comet water has twice that many. These mismatched chemical
signatures suggest that Earth’s water could not have arrived on comets. It turns out that the most likely source for
Earth’s water is a type of meteorite called a carbonaceous chondrite. “Chondrite” is just
the name given to the class of stony meteoroids that most commonly strike the Earth. But only
the carbonaceous chondrites contain water – as well as lots of carbon, if you couldn’t
tell from their name. They have water in them because they formed out beyond the sun’s “frost
line”, and what’s more, their water has levels of heavy hydrogen similar to that of earth
water, strongly suggesting that these earth-crashers are the source of our ice caps, clouds, rivers,
and oceans. And thus the water that turned our planet
into a blue marble came, quite literally, out of the blue.

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