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New Theory: How Earth Got its Oceans

The mystery of how water came to be on Earth has long exercised scientists. A new theory seems to be uniquely plausible.

Colourful illustration of Earth as seen from space

The current perceived wisdom is that icy comets or asteroids crashed into the planet, leaving behind the water that formed our oceans. Now, a new theory from researchers at Carnegie Science and UCLA suggests that the origins of Earth’s water may be linked to the interactions between hydrogen-rich atmospheres and magma oceans of the planetary embryos during Earth’s formative years.

The researchers' explanation is simple: a study of young exoplanets (planets outside the solar system) has revealed that many are cloaked in a thick atmosphere of hydrogen. This could have reacted with magma to form huge amounts of water. “Increasingly powerful telescopes are enabling astronomers to understand the compositions of exoplanet atmospheres in never-before-seen detail,” said Dr Anat Shahar of the Carnegie Institution for Science.

Using this data, Shahar and her colleagues developed a new computerised model that shows how the “magma ocean” on the young Earth’s surface could have reacted with atmospheric hydrogen to form one of our planet’s signature features.

The research offers new insights into the development of water and has significant implications for our understanding of the planet’s evolution.

The research has been published in the journal Nature.

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