Partitioning of nitrogen during melting and recycling in subduction zones and the evolution of atmospheric nitrogen

Michael W. Förster*, Stephen F. Foley, Olivier Alard, Stephan Buhre

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Citations (Scopus)


The subduction of sediment connects the surface nitrogen cycle to that of the deep Earth. To understand the evolution of nitrogen in the atmosphere, the behavior of nitrogen during the subduction and melting of subducted sediments has to be estimated. This study presents high-pressure experimental measurements of the partitioning of nitrogen during the melting of sediments at sub-arc depths. For quantitative analysis of nitrogen in minerals and glasses, we calibrated the electron probe micro-analyzer on synthetic ammonium feldspar to measure nitrogen concentrations as low as 500 μg g−1. Nitrogen abundances in melt and mica are used together with mass balance calculations to determine DN(Mica/Melt), DN(Fluid/Mica), and DN(Fluid/Melt). Calculated partition coefficients correspond to expected values for NH4 +, which behaves similarly to Rb+ due to its nearly identical size. Nitrogen partitioning between fluid and melt (DN(Fluid/Melt)) and fluid and bulk residue (melt+mica) (DN(Fluid/Bulk)) increase linearly with temperature normalized to pressure. This linear relationship can be used to calculate DN(Fluid/Melt) and DN(Fluid/Bulk) for slab melts from 800 to 1200 °C following: [Formula Presented]. We used these partition coefficients to quantify the amount of N recycled into the mantle as 50 ± 6% of today's atmospheric N. Depending on the rate of mantle N degassing we calculated 4 different scenarios for atmospheric pN2 evolution. All 4 scenarios estimate pN2 to be 8–12% higher at the beginning of the Phanerozoic. These estimates diverge towards the past due to uncertainties in the mechanism and magnitude of N degassing from the mantle. Assuming degassing of N in the past was close to modern degassing rates from MORB, pN2 was up to 40% higher at the onset of plate tectonics at 3–4 Ga. However, degassing rates were probably higher than this: assuming 10× and 20× times higher rates at the onset of plate tectonics leads to pN2 within 20% of modern values. If N degassing from the mantle is increased to 40× the modern MORB rate, pN2 in the Archean would have been 50% lower than today's, which is in accordance with observations from paleoatmospheric studies.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)334-342
Number of pages9
JournalChemical Geology
Publication statusPublished - 20 Oct 2019
Externally publishedYes


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