The composition of the Earth

W. F. McDonough, S. s. Sun

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11680 Citations (Scopus)


Compositional models of the Earth are critically dependent on three main sources of information: the seismic profile of the Earth and its interpretation, comparisons between primitive meteorites and the solar nebula composition, and chemical and petrological models of peridotite-basalt melting relationships. Whereas a family of compositional models for the Earth are permissible based on these methods, the model that is most consistent with the seismological and geodynamic structure of the Earth comprises an upper and lower mantle of similar composition, an FeNi core having between 5% and 15% of a low-atomic-weight element, and a mantle which, when compared to CI carbonaceous chondrites, is depleted in Mg and Si relative to the refractory lithophile elements. The absolute and relative abundances of the refractory elements in carbonaceous, ordinary, and enstatite chondritic meteorites are compared. The bulk composition of an average CI carbonaceous chondrite is defined from previous compilations and from the refractory element compositions of different groups of chondrites. The absolute uncertainties in their refractory element compositions are evaluated by comparing ratios of these elements. These data are then used to evaluate existing models of the composition of the Silicate Earth. The systematic behavior of major and trace elements during differentiation of the mantle is used to constrain the Silicate Earth composition. Seemingly fertile peridotites have experienced a previous melting event that must be accounted for when developing these models. The approach taken here avoids unnecessary assumptions inherent in several existing models, and results in an internally consistent Silicate Earth composition having chondritic proportions of the refractory lithophile elements at ∼ 2.75 times that in CI carbonaceous chondrites. Element ratios in peridotites, komatiites, basalts and various crustal rocks are used to assess the abundances of both non-lithophile and non-refractory elements in the Silicate Earth. These data provide insights into the accretion processes of the Earth, the chemical evolution of the Earth's mantle, the effect of core formation, and indicate negligible exchange between the core and mantle throughout the geologic record (the last 3.5 Ga). The composition of the Earth's core is poorly constrained beyond its major constituents (i.e. an FeNi alloy). Density contrasts between the inner and outer core boundary are used to suggest the presence (∼ 10 ± 5%) of a light element or a combination of elements (e.g., O, S, Si) in the outer core. The core is the dominant repository of siderophile elements in the Earth. The limits of our understanding of the core's composition (including the light-element component) depend on models of core formation and the class of chondritic meteorites we have chosen when constructing models of the bulk Earth's composition. The Earth has a bulk Fe Al of ∼ 20 ± 2, established by assuming that the Earth's budget of Al is stored entirely within the Silicate Earth and Fe is partitioned between the Silicate Earth (∼ 14%) and the core (∼ 86%). Chondritic meteorites display a range of Fe Al ratios, with many having a value close to 20. A comparison of the bulk composition of the Earth and chondritic meteorites reveals both similarities and differences, with the Earth being more strongly depleted in the more volatile elements. There is no group of meteorites that has a bulk composition matching that of the Earth's.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)223-253
Number of pages31
JournalChemical Geology
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 1995 Mar 1


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