Objective estimates of mantle 3He in the ocean and implications for constraining the deep ocean circulation

Mark Holzer, Timothy DeVries, Daniele Bianchi, Robert Newton, Peter Schlosser, Gisela Winckler

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

21 Scopus citations


Hydrothermal vents along the ocean's tectonic ridge systems inject superheated water and large amounts of dissolved metals that impact the deep ocean circulation and the oceanic cycling of trace metals. The hydrothermal fluid contains dissolved mantle helium that is enriched in 3He relative to the atmosphere, providing an isotopic tracer of the ocean's deep circulation and a marker of hydrothermal sources. This work investigates the potential for the 3He/4He isotope ratio to constrain the ocean's mantle 3He source and to provide constraints on the ocean's deep circulation. We use an ensemble of 11 data-assimilated steady-state ocean circulation models and a mantle helium source based on geographically varying sea-floor spreading rates. The global source distribution is partitioned into 6 regions, and the vertical profile and source amplitude of each region are varied independently to determine the optimal 3He source distribution that minimizes the mismatch between modeled and observed δ3He. In this way, we are able to fit the observed δ3He distribution to within a relative error of ∼15%, with a global 3He source that ranges from 640 to 850 mol yr−1, depending on circulation. The fit captures the vertical and interbasin gradients of the δ3He distribution very well and reproduces its jet-sheared saddle point in the deep equatorial Pacific. This demonstrates that the data-assimilated models have much greater fidelity to the deep ocean circulation than other coarse-resolution ocean models. Nonetheless, the modelled δ3He distributions still display some systematic biases, especially in the deep North Pacific where δ3He is overpredicted by our models, and in the southeastern tropical Pacific, where observed westward-spreading δ3He plumes are not well captured. Sources inferred by the data-assimilated transport with and without isopycnally aligned eddy diffusivity differ widely in the Southern Ocean, in spite of the ability to match the observed distributions of CFCs and radiocarbon for either eddy parameterization.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)305-314
Number of pages10
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
StatePublished - Jan 15 2017
Externally publishedYes


  • inverse modelling
  • mantle helium-3
  • ocean circulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)


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