Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Discovery sheds new light on wandering continents

23.03.2012
A layer of partially molten rock about 22 to 75 miles underground can't be the only mechanism that allows continents to gradually shift their position over millions of years, according to a NASA-sponsored researcher. The result gives insight into what allows plate tectonics – the movement of the Earth's crustal plates – to occur.

"This melt-rich layer is actually quite spotty under the Pacific Ocean basin and surrounding areas, as revealed by my analysis of seismometer data," says Dr. Nicholas Schmerr, a NASA Postdoctoral Program fellow. "Since it only exists in certain places, it can't be the only reason why rigid crustal plates carrying the continents can slide over softer rock below." Schmerr, who is stationed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is author of a paper on this research appearing in Science on March 23.

The slow slide of Earth's continents results from plate tectonics. Our planet is more than four billion years old, and over this time, the forces of plate tectonics have carried continents many thousands of miles, forging mountain ranges when they collided and valleys that sometimes filled with oceans when they were torn apart. This continental drift could also have changed the climate by redirecting currents in the ocean and atmosphere.

The outermost layer of Earth, the lithosphere, is broken into numerous tectonic plates. The lithosphere consists of the crust and an underlying layer of cool and rigid mantle. Beneath the oceans, the lithosphere is relatively thin (about 65 miles), though beneath continents, it can be as thick as 200 miles. Lying beneath the lithosphere is the asthenosphere, a layer of rock that is slowly deforming and gradually flowing like taffy. Heat in Earth's core produced by the radioactive decay of elements escapes and warms mantle rocks above, making them softer and less viscous, and also causes them to convect. Like the circulating blobs in a lava lamp, rock in the mantle rises where it is warmer than its surroundings, and sinks where it's cooler. This churn moves the continental plates above, similar to the way a raft of froth gets pushed around the surface of a simmering pot of soup.

Although the basic process that drives plate tectonics is understood, many details remain a mystery. "Something has to decouple the crustal plates from the asthenosphere so they can slide over it," says Schmerr. "Numerous theories have been proposed, and one of those was that a melt-rich layer lubricates the boundary between the lithosphere and the asthenosphere, allowing the crustal plates to slide. However, since this layer is only present in certain regions under the Pacific plate, it can't be the only mechanism that allows plate tectonics to happen there. Something else must be letting the plate slide in areas where the melt doesn't exist."

Other possible mechanisms that would make the boundary between the lithosphere and the asthenosphere flow more easily include the addition of volatile material like water to the rock and differences in composition, temperature, or the grain size of minerals in this region. However, current data lacks the resolution to distinguish among them.

Schmerr made the discovery by analyzing the arrival times of earthquake waves at seismometers around the globe. Earthquakes generate various kinds of waves; one type has a back-and-forth motion and is called a shear wave, or S-wave. S-waves traveling through the Earth will bounce or reflect off material interfaces inside the Earth, arriving at different times depending on where they interact with these interfaces.

One type of S-wave reflects from Earth's surface halfway between an earthquake and a seismometer. An S-wave encountering a deeper melt layer at the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary at this location will take a slightly shorter path to the seismometer and therefore arrive several tens of seconds earlier. By comparing the arrival times, heights, and shapes of the primary and the melt-layer-reflected waves at various locations, Schmerr could estimate the depth and seismic properties of melt layers under the Pacific Ocean basin.

"Most of the melt layers are where you would expect to find them, like under volcanic regions like Hawaii and various active undersea volcanoes, or around subduction zones – areas at the edge of a continental plate where the oceanic plate is sinking into the deep interior and producing melt," said Schmerr. "However, the interesting result is that this layer does not exist everywhere, suggesting something other than melt is needed to explain the properties of the asthenosphere."

Understanding how plate tectonics works on Earth could help us figure out how other rocky planets evolved, according to Schmerr. For example, Venus has no oceans, and no evidence of plate tectonics, either. This might be a clue that water is needed for plate tectonics to work. One theory proposes that without water, the asthenosphere of Venus will be more rigid and unable to sustain plates, suggesting internal heat is released in some other way, maybe through periodic eruptions of global volcanism.

Schmerr plans to analyze data from other seismometer networks to see if the same patchy pattern of melt layers exists under other oceans and the continents as well. The research was supported by the NASA Postdoctoral Program and the Carnegie Institution of Washington Department of Terrestrial Magnetism Postdoctoral Fellowship.

For a related image, refer to:
http://www.nasa.gov/topics/earth/features/wandering-continents.html

Bill Steigerwald | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nasa.gov

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht NASA eyes Pineapple Express soaking California
24.02.2017 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

nachricht 'Quartz' crystals at the Earth's core power its magnetic field
23.02.2017 | Tokyo Institute of Technology

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Breakthrough with a chain of gold atoms

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

In the field of nanoscience, an international team of physicists with participants from Konstanz has achieved a breakthrough in understanding heat transport

Im Focus: DNA repair: a new letter in the cell alphabet

Results reveal how discoveries may be hidden in scientific “blind spots”

Cells need to repair damaged DNA in our genes to prevent the development of cancer and other diseases. Our cells therefore activate and send “repair-proteins”...

Im Focus: Dresdner scientists print tomorrow’s world

The Fraunhofer IWS Dresden and Technische Universität Dresden inaugurated their jointly operated Center for Additive Manufacturing Dresden (AMCD) with a festive ceremony on February 7, 2017. Scientists from various disciplines perform research on materials, additive manufacturing processes and innovative technologies, which build up components in a layer by layer process. This technology opens up new horizons for component design and combinations of functions. For example during fabrication, electrical conductors and sensors are already able to be additively manufactured into components. They provide information about stress conditions of a product during operation.

The 3D-printing technology, or additive manufacturing as it is often called, has long made the step out of scientific research laboratories into industrial...

Im Focus: Mimicking nature's cellular architectures via 3-D printing

Research offers new level of control over the structure of 3-D printed materials

Nature does amazing things with limited design materials. Grass, for example, can support its own weight, resist strong wind loads, and recover after being...

Im Focus: Three Magnetic States for Each Hole

Nanometer-scale magnetic perforated grids could create new possibilities for computing. Together with international colleagues, scientists from the Helmholtz Zentrum Dresden-Rossendorf (HZDR) have shown how a cobalt grid can be reliably programmed at room temperature. In addition they discovered that for every hole ("antidot") three magnetic states can be configured. The results have been published in the journal "Scientific Reports".

Physicist Dr. Rantej Bali from the HZDR, together with scientists from Singapore and Australia, designed a special grid structure in a thin layer of cobalt in...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Booth and panel discussion – The Lindau Nobel Laureate Meetings at the AAAS 2017 Annual Meeting

13.02.2017 | Event News

Complex Loading versus Hidden Reserves

10.02.2017 | Event News

International Conference on Crystal Growth in Freiburg

09.02.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Stingless bees have their nests protected by soldiers

24.02.2017 | Life Sciences

New risk factors for anxiety disorders

24.02.2017 | Life Sciences

MWC 2017: 5G Capital Berlin

24.02.2017 | Trade Fair News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>