“What we may be detecting is the start of one of these large eruptive events that – if it ever happens – could cause very massive destruction on Earth,” says seismologist Michael Thorne, the study’s principal author and an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.
Michael S. Thorne, University of Utah.
This map shows Earth’s surface superimposed on a depiction of what a new University of Utah study indicates is happening 1,800 miles deep at the boundary between Earth’s warm, rocky mantle and its liquid outer core. Using seismic waves the probe Earth’s deep interior, seismologist Michael Thorne found evidence that two continent-sized piles of rock are colliding as they move atop the core. The merger process isn’t yet complete, so there is a depression or hole between the merging piles. But in that hole, a Florida-sized blob of partly molten rock – called a “mega ultra low velocity zone” – is forming from the collision of smaller blobs on the edges of the continent-sized piles. Thorne believe this process is the beginning stage of massive volcanic eruptions that won’t occur for another 100 million to 2100 million years.
Since the early 1990s, scientists have known of the existence of two continent-sized “thermochemical piles” sitting atop Earth’s core and beneath most of Earth’s volcanic hotspots – one under much of the South Pacific and extending up to 20 degrees north latitude, and the other under volcanically active Africa.
Using the highest-resolution method yet to make seismic images of the core-mantle boundary, Thorne and colleagues found evidence the pile under the Pacific actually is the result of an ongoing collision between two or more piles. Where they are merging is a spongy blob of partly molten rock the size of Florida, Wisconsin or Missouri beneath the volcanically active Samoan hotspot.
The study’s computer simulations “show that when these piles merge together, they may trigger the earliest stages of a massive plume eruption,” Thorne says.
Thorne conducted the new study with Allen McNamara and Edward Garnero of Arizona State University, and Gunnar Jahnke and Heiner Igel of the University of Munich. The National Science Foundation funded the research.
Probing the Deep Earth with Seismic Waves
Seismic imaging uses earthquake waves to make images of Earth’s interior somewhat like X-rays make CT scan pictures of the inside of the human body.
The new study assembled the largest set of data ever used to map the lower mantle in the Pacific region by using 4,221seismograms from hundreds of seismometers around the world that detected 51 deep earthquakes originating more than 60 miles under the surface.
Thorne and colleagues looked for secondary earthquake shear waves known as S-waves that travel through much of the Earth, hitting the core, and then convert to primary compressional waves or P-waves as they travel across the top of the core. Then they convert back to S-waves as they re-enter the mantle and then reach seismometers. Thorne says the short bursts of P-wave energy are very sensitive to detecting variations in the rock at the core-mantle boundary.
Thorne performed 200 days of supercomputer simulations at the University of Utah’s Center for High Performance Computing. He simulated hundreds of possible shapes of the continent-sized piles and state-sized blobs until he found the shapes that could best explain the seismic wave patterns that were observed.
A Look at the Core-Mantle Boundary
The new study provided an unusual look at one of the most remote parts of the Earth, located about 1,800 miles beneath the surface: the boundary between the planet’s molten outer core and its warm mantle rock, which has convection movement that has been compared with a conveyor belt or slowly boiling tomato soup. (Tectonic plates of Earth’s crust and uppermost mantle drift atop the warmer, convecting lower mantle.)
“We did hundreds of simulations for lots of different variations of what the Earth might look like at the core-mantle boundary – the most simulations anybody has ever done to look at the core-mantle boundary structure,” Thorne says
At some places where oceanic and continental tectonic plates collide – such as offshore from the Pacific Northwest to Alaska – the seafloor plate dives or “subducts” beneath the continent and plunges slowly into the mantle. Thorne suspects subducting plates ultimately fall deep enough to help push the piles around on Earth’s core.
Whether hotspots originate at the core-mantle boundary or at shallower depths has been debated for decades.
But in the 1990s, geophysicists found evidence for the continent-size thermochemical piles beneath Africa and the Pacific. These are known technically as LLSVPs, or “large low shear velocity provinces,” because seismic shear waves passing through them move 5 percent slower that through surrounding mantle rock. That suggests they have a different composition and-or temperature than the surrounding mantle.
Previous studies also have observed smaller blobs of rock, measuring perhaps 60-by-60 miles on the edges of the continent-sized masses. Seismic shear waves move as much as 45 percent slower through these blobs – known technically as ULVZs or “ultra low velocity zones” – indicating they may be spongy and partly molten.
Thorne says his analysis of seismic waves passing through the core-mantle boundary reveals the Pacific pile really represents two or more continent-sized piles slowly sliding atop the core and colliding so that partly molten blobs on their edges are merging into the largest such blob or ULVZ ever observed – roughly the size of Florida.
“My study might be the first to show actual seismic evidence that the piles are moving,” he says. “People who have done previous simulations have suggested this. They are sitting atop the core and getting pushed around by overlying mantle forces like subduction. They move around on the core somewhat like continental plates drift at Earth’s surface.”
Thorne says the merging LLSVP piles are each about 1,800 miles diameter, forming a single pile some 3,600 miles wide from east to west and stretching across Earth’s core beneath an area from Australia almost to South America. Two blobs, or ULVZs, on the piles’ edges merged to form a new blob that is perhaps 6 to 10 miles thick and covers an area about 500 miles long and 150 miles wide, about the area of Florida or “eight to 10 times larger than any ULVZs we observed before,” Thorne says.
Because the larger piles haven’t fully merged, seismic imaging shows there is a depression or “hole” between them, and the Florida-sized blob is forming there as smaller UVLZs merge in the hole.
“We are actually seeing that these piles are being shoved around,” Thorne says. “If hotspots actually are generated near the core-mantle boundary, where they are being generated seems related to where these piles and ULVZs are. So if we are pushing these piles around, we also are pushing around where hotspot volcanism may occur.”
Warmer rock is less dense than cooler rock. Thorne says that where the ULVZ blobs form seems to be related to where the hot rock starts convecting upward to begin the long, slow process of forming a plume that eventually causes massive eruptions.University of Utah Communications
Lee Siegel | Newswise
Water - as the underlying driver of the Earth’s carbon cycle
17.01.2017 | Max-Planck-Institut für Biogeochemie
Modeling magma to find copper
13.01.2017 | Université de Genève
Yersiniae cause severe intestinal infections. Studies using Yersinia pseudotuberculosis as a model organism aim to elucidate the infection mechanisms of these...
Researchers from the University of Hamburg in Germany, in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Aarhus in Denmark, have synthesized a new superconducting material by growing a few layers of an antiferromagnetic transition-metal chalcogenide on a bismuth-based topological insulator, both being non-superconducting materials.
While superconductivity and magnetism are generally believed to be mutually exclusive, surprisingly, in this new material, superconducting correlations...
Laser-driving of semimetals allows creating novel quasiparticle states within condensed matter systems and switching between different states on ultrafast time scales
Studying properties of fundamental particles in condensed matter systems is a promising approach to quantum field theory. Quasiparticles offer the opportunity...
Among the general public, solar thermal energy is currently associated with dark blue, rectangular collectors on building roofs. Technologies are needed for aesthetically high quality architecture which offer the architect more room for manoeuvre when it comes to low- and plus-energy buildings. With the “ArKol” project, researchers at Fraunhofer ISE together with partners are currently developing two façade collectors for solar thermal energy generation, which permit a high degree of design flexibility: a strip collector for opaque façade sections and a solar thermal blind for transparent sections. The current state of the two developments will be presented at the BAU 2017 trade fair.
As part of the “ArKol – development of architecturally highly integrated façade collectors with heat pipes” project, Fraunhofer ISE together with its partners...
At TU Wien, an alternative for resource intensive formwork for the construction of concrete domes was developed. It is now used in a test dome for the Austrian Federal Railways Infrastructure (ÖBB Infrastruktur).
Concrete shells are efficient structures, but not very resource efficient. The formwork for the construction of concrete domes alone requires a high amount of...
10.01.2017 | Event News
09.01.2017 | Event News
05.01.2017 | Event News
18.01.2017 | Power and Electrical Engineering
18.01.2017 | Materials Sciences
18.01.2017 | Life Sciences