Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Plate tectonics without jerking

30.06.2016

AWI researchers are for the first time making detailed recordings of earthquakes on ultraslow mid-ocean ridges

The earthquake distribution on ultraslow mid-ocean ridges differs fundamentally from other spreading zones. Water circulating at a depth of up to 15 kilometres leads to the formation of rock that resembles soft soap.


OBS deployment

Photo: F. Mehrtens / Alfred-Wegener-Institut

This is how the continental plates on ultraslow mid-ocean ridges may move without jerking, while the same process in other regions leads to many minor earthquakes, according to geophysicists of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI). Their study is going to be published advanced online in the journal Nature on Wednesday, June 29, 2016.

Mountain ranges like the Himalayas rise up where continental plates collide. Mid-ocean ridges, where the continents drift apart, are just as spectacular mountain ranges, but they are hidden in the depths of the oceans. On the seabed, like on a conveyor belt, new ocean floor (oceanic lithosphere) is formed as magma rises from greater depths to the top, thus filling the resulting gap between the lithospheric plates.

This spreading process creates jerks, and small earthquakes continuously occur along the conveyor belt. The earthquakes reveal a great deal about the origin and structure of the new oceanic lithosphere. On the so-called ultraslow ridges, the lithospheric plates drift apart so slowly that the conveyor belt jerks and stutters and, because of the low temperature, there is insufficient melt to fill the gap between the plates. This way, the earth's mantle is conveyed to the seabed in many places without earth crust developing. In other locations along this ridge, on the other hand, you find giant volcanoes.

Ultraslow ridges can be found under the sea ice in the Arctic and south of Africa along the Southwest Indian Ridge in the notorious sea areas of the Roaring Forties and Furious Fifties. Because these areas are so difficult to access, earthquakes have not been measured there. And so until now, little was known about the structure and development of around 20 percent of the global seabed.

With the research vessel Polarstern, a reliable workhorse even in heavy seas, the researchers around Dr Vera Schlindwein of the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) have now for the first time risked deploying a network of ocean bottom seismometers (OBS) at the Southwest Indian Ridge in the Furious Fifties and recovered them a year later.

At the same time, a second network was placed on a volcano in the more temperate latitudes of the Southwest Indian Ridge. "Our effort and our risk were rewarded with a unique set of earthquake data, which for the first time provides deep insights into the formation of the ocean floor when spreading rates are very slow," explains AWI geophysicist Vera Schlindwein.

Her results turn current scientific findings on the functioning of ultra-slow mid-ocean ridges upside down: Schlindwein and her PhD student Florian Schmid found that water may circulate up to 15 kilometres deep in the young oceanic lithosphere, i.e. the earth crust and the outer part of the earth mantle. If this water comes into contact with rock from the earth mantle, a greenish rock called serpentinite forms.

Even small quantities of ten percent serpentinite are enough for the rock to move without any earthquakes as if on a soapy track. The researchers discovered such aseismic areas, clearly confined by many small earthquakes, in their data.

Until now, scientists thought that serpentinite only forms near fault zones and near the surface. "Our data now suggest that water circulates through extensive areas of the young oceanic lithosphere and is bound in the rock. This releases heat and methane, for example, to a degree not previously foreseen," says Vera Schlindwein.

The AWI geophysicists were now able to directly observe the active spreading processes using the ocean floor seismometers, comparing volcanic and non-volcanic ridge sections. "Based on the distribution of earthquakes, we are for the first time able to watch, so to speak, as new lithosphere forms with very slow spreading rates. We have not had such a data set from ultra-slow ridges before," says Vera Schlindwein.

"Initially, we were very surprised that areas without earth crust show no earthquakes at all down to 15 kilometres depth, even though OBS were positioned directly above. At greater depths and in the adjacent volcanic areas, on the other hand, where you can find basalt on the sea floor and a thin earth crust is present, there were flurries of quakes in all depth ranges," says Vera Schlindwein about her first glance at the data after retrieving the OBS with RV Polarstern in 2014.

The results also have an influence on other marine research disciplines: geologists think about other deformation mechanisms of the young oceanic lithosphere. Because rock that behaves like soft soap permits a completely different deformation, which could be the basis of the so-called "smooth seafloor" that is only known from ultra-slow ridges. Oceanographers are interested in heat influx and trace gases in the water column in such areas, which were previously thought to be non-volcanic and "cold". Biologists are interested in the increased outflow of methane and sulphide on the sea floor that is to be expected in many areas and that represents an important basis of life for deep-sea organisms.

Original publication:
Vera Schlindwein, Florian Schmid: Mid-ocean ridge seismicity reveals extreme types of ocean lithosphere. DOI: 10.1038/nature18277

EMBARGOED until: Wednesday, 29 June 2016, 1900 CEST, 1800 London Time, 1300 US Eastern Time

Notes for Editors:
Printable images are available in our online Media Centre until the embargo is lifted: http://multimedia.awi.de/medien/pincollection.jspx?collectionName=%7B3906d4a3-b1...

A video on the OBS deployment is available on our YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jb_DBCEyVM&feature=youtu.be

Your contact persons are Dr Vera Schlindwein (tel.: +49 (0)471 4831-1943; e-mail: Vera.Schlindwein(at)awi.de) as well as Dr Folke Mehrtens, Dept. of Communications and Media Relations (tel.: +49 (0)471 4831-2007; e-mail: Folke.Mehrtens(at)awi.de).

The Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) conducts research in the Arctic, Antarctic and oceans of the high and mid-latitudes. It coordinates polar research in Germany and provides major infrastructure to the international scientific community, such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctica. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the 18 research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.

Ralf Röchert | idw - Informationsdienst Wissenschaft

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Impacts of mass coral die-off on Indian Ocean reefs revealed
21.02.2017 | University of Exeter

nachricht How much biomass grows in the savannah?
16.02.2017 | Friedrich-Schiller-Universität Jena

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

Impacts of mass coral die-off on Indian Ocean reefs revealed

21.02.2017 | Earth Sciences

Novel breast tomosynthesis technique reduces screening recall rate

21.02.2017 | Medical Engineering

Use your Voice – and Smart Homes will “LISTEN”

21.02.2017 | Trade Fair News

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>