A new study suggests that the common belief that the Earth’s rigid tectonic plates stay strong when they slide under another plate, known as subduction, may not be universal.
Typically during subduction, plates slide down at a constant rate into the warmer, less-dense mantle at a fairly steep angle. However, in a process called flat-slab subduction, the lower plate moves almost horizontally underneath the upper plate.
The research, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, found that the Earth’s largest flat slab, located beneath Peru, where the oceanic Nazca Plate is being subducted under the continental South American Plate, may be relatively weak and deforms easily.
By studying the speed at which seismic waves travel in different directions through the same material, a phenomenon called seismic anisotropy, the researchers found that interior of the Nazca plate had been deformed during subduction.
Lead author of the study, Dr Caroline Eakin, Research Fellow in Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, said: “The process of consuming old seafloor at subduction zones, where great slabs of oceanic material are swallowed up, drives circulation in the Earth’s interior and keeps the planet going strong.
One of the most crucial but least known aspects of this process is the strength and behavior of oceanic slabs once they sink below the Earth’s surface. Our findings provide some of the first direct evidence that subducted slabs are not only weaker and softer than conventionally envisioned, but also that we can peer inside the slab and directly witness their behavior as they sink.”
When oceanic plates form at mid-ocean ridges, their movement away from the ridge causes olivine (the most abundant mineral in the Earth’s interior) to align with the direction of plate growth. This olivine structure is then ‘frozen’ into the oceanic plate as it travels across the Earth’s surface. The olivine fabric causes the seismic waves to travel at different speeds in different directions, depending on whether or not they are going ‘with the grain’ or ‘against the grain’.
The scientists measured seismic waves at 15 local seismic stations over two and a half years, from 2010 to 2013, and seven further stations located on different continents. They found that the original olivine structure within the slab had vanished and been replaced by a new olivine alignment in an opposing orientation to before.
Dr Eakin said: “The best way to explain this observation is that the slab’s interior must have been stretched or deformed during subduction. This means that slabs are weak enough to deform internally in the upper mantle over time.”
The researchers believe that deformation associated with stretching of the slab as it bends to takes on its flat-slab shape was enough to erase the frozen olivine structure and create a new alignment, which closely follows the contours of the slab bends.
“Imaging Earth’s plates once they have sunk back into the Earth is very difficult,” said Lara Wagner, from the Carnegie Institution for Science and a principal investigator of the PULSE Peruvian project. “It’s very exciting to see results that tell us more about their ultimate fate, and how the materials within them are slowly reworked by the planet’s hot interior. The original fabric in these plates stays stable for so long at the Earth’s surface, that it is eye opening to see how dramatically and quickly that can change,” Lara added.
Media Relations Officer
Phone: +44 23 8059 3212
Glenn Harris | newswise
NASA's AIM observes early noctilucent ice clouds over Antarctica
05.12.2016 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
GPM sees deadly tornadic storms moving through US Southeast
01.12.2016 | NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
Have you ever wondered how you see the world? Vision is about photons of light, which are packets of energy, interacting with the atoms or molecules in what...
A multi-institutional research collaboration has created a novel approach for fabricating three-dimensional micro-optics through the shape-defined formation of porous silicon (PSi), with broad impacts in integrated optoelectronics, imaging, and photovoltaics.
Working with colleagues at Stanford and The Dow Chemical Company, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fabricated 3-D birefringent...
In experiments with magnetic atoms conducted at extremely low temperatures, scientists have demonstrated a unique phase of matter: The atoms form a new type of quantum liquid or quantum droplet state. These so called quantum droplets may preserve their form in absence of external confinement because of quantum effects. The joint team of experimental physicists from Innsbruck and theoretical physicists from Hannover report on their findings in the journal Physical Review X.
“Our Quantum droplets are in the gas phase but they still drop like a rock,” explains experimental physicist Francesca Ferlaino when talking about the...
The Max Planck Institute for Physics (MPP) is opening up a new research field. A workshop from November 21 - 22, 2016 will mark the start of activities for an innovative axion experiment. Axions are still only purely hypothetical particles. Their detection could solve two fundamental problems in particle physics: What dark matter consists of and why it has not yet been possible to directly observe a CP violation for the strong interaction.
The “MADMAX” project is the MPP’s commitment to axion research. Axions are so far only a theoretical prediction and are difficult to detect: on the one hand,...
Broadband rotational spectroscopy unravels structural reshaping of isolated molecules in the gas phase to accommodate water
In two recent publications in the Journal of Chemical Physics and in the Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, researchers around Melanie Schnell from the Max...
16.11.2016 | Event News
01.11.2016 | Event News
14.10.2016 | Event News
05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering
05.12.2016 | Materials Sciences
05.12.2016 | Power and Electrical Engineering