Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Viscous Cycle: Quartz is Key to Plate Tectonics

17.03.2011
Findings offer new approach to understanding movements of continents

More than 40 years ago, pioneering tectonic geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson published a paper in the journal Nature describing how ocean basins opened and closed along North America's eastern seaboard.

His observations, dubbed "The Wilson Tectonic Cycle," suggested the process occurred many times during Earth's long history, most recently causing the giant supercontinent Pangaea to split into today's seven continents.

Wilson's ideas were central to the so-called Plate Tectonic Revolution, the foundation of contemporary theories for processes underlying mountain-building and earthquakes.

Since his 1967 paper, additional studies have confirmed that large-scale deformation of continents repeatedly occurs in some regions but not others, though the reasons why remain poorly understood.

Now, new findings by Utah State University geophysicist Tony Lowry and colleague Marta Pérez-Gussinyé of Royal Holloway, University of London, shed surprising light on these restless rock cycles.

"It all begins with quartz," says Lowry, who published results of the team's recent study in the March 17 issue of Nature.

The scientists describe a new approach to measuring properties of the deep crust.

It reveals quartz's key role in initiating the churning chain of events that cause Earth's surface to crack, wrinkle, fold and stretch into mountains, plains and valleys.

"If you've ever traveled westward from the Midwest's Great Plains toward the Rocky Mountains, you may have wondered why the flat plains suddenly rise into steep peaks at a particular spot," Lowry says.

"It turns out that the crust beneath the plains has almost no quartz in it, whereas the Rockies are very quartz-rich."

He thinks that those belts of quartz could be the catalyst that sets the mountain-building rock cycle in motion.

"Earthquakes, mountain-building and other expressions of continental tectonics depend on how rocks flow in response to stress," says Lowry.

"We know that tectonics is a response to the effects of gravity, but we know less about rock flow properties and how they change from one location to another."

Wilson's theories provide an important clue, Lowry says, as scientists have long observed that mountain belts and rift zones have formed again and again at the same locations over long periods of time.

But why?

"Over the last few decades, we've learned that high temperatures, water and abundant quartz are all critical factors in making rocks flow more easily," Lowry says. "Until now, we haven't had the tools to measure these factors and answer long-standing questions."

Since 2002, the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded Earthscope Transportable Array of seismic stations across the western United States has provided remote sensing data about the continent's rock properties.

"We've combined Earthscope data with other geophysical measurements of gravity and surface heat flow in an entirely new way, one that allows us to separate the effects of temperature, water and quartz in the crust," Lowry says.

Earthscope measurements enabled the team to estimate the thickness, along with the seismic velocity ratio, of continental crust in the American West.

"This intriguing study provides new insights into the processes driving large-scale continental deformation and dynamics," says Greg Anderson, NSF program director for EarthScope. "These are key to understanding the assembly and evolution of continents."

Seismic velocity describes how quickly sound waves and shear waves travel through rock, offering clues to its temperature and composition.

"Seismic velocities are sensitive to both temperature and rock type," Lowry says.

"But if the velocities are combined as a ratio, the temperature dependence drops out. We found that the velocity ratio was especially sensitive to quartz abundance."

Even after separating out the effects of temperature, the scientists found that a low seismic velocity ratio, indicating weak, quartz-rich crust, systematically occurred in the same place as high lower-crustal temperatures modeled independently from surface heat flow.

"That was a surprise," he says. "We think this indicates a feedback cycle, where quartz starts the ball rolling."

If temperature and water are the same, Lowry says, rock flow will focus where the quartz is located because that's the only weak link.

Once the flow starts, the movement of rock carries heat with it and that efficient movement of heat raises temperature, resulting in weakening of crust.

"Rock, when it warms up, is forced to release water that's otherwise chemically bound in crystals," he says.

Water further weakens the crust, which increasingly focuses the deformation in a specific area.

Media Contacts
Cheryl Dybas, NSF (703) 292-7734 cdybas@nsf.gov
Mary-Ann Muffoletto, Utah State University (435) 797-3517 maryann.muffoletto@usu.edu
Related Websites
EarthScope Project: http://www.earthscope.org/
The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2010, its budget is about $6.9 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives over 45,000 competitive requests for funding, and makes over 11,500 new funding awards. NSF also awards over $400 million in professional and service contracts yearly.

Cheryl Dybas | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.nsf.gov
http://nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=118951&org=NSF&from=news

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology
22.06.2017 | Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

nachricht How reliable are shells as climate archives?
21.06.2017 | Leibniz-Zentrum für Marine Tropenforschung (ZMT)

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

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

Im Focus: Can we see monkeys from space? Emerging technologies to map biodiversity

An international team of scientists has proposed a new multi-disciplinary approach in which an array of new technologies will allow us to map biodiversity and the risks that wildlife is facing at the scale of whole landscapes. The findings are published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. This international research is led by the Kunming Institute of Zoology from China, University of East Anglia, University of Leicester and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.

Using a combination of satellite and ground data, the team proposes that it is now possible to map biodiversity with an accuracy that has not been previously...

Im Focus: Climate satellite: Tracking methane with robust laser technology

Heatwaves in the Arctic, longer periods of vegetation in Europe, severe floods in West Africa – starting in 2021, scientists want to explore the emissions of the greenhouse gas methane with the German-French satellite MERLIN. This is made possible by a new robust laser system of the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology ILT in Aachen, which achieves unprecedented measurement accuracy.

Methane is primarily the result of the decomposition of organic matter. The gas has a 25 times greater warming potential than carbon dioxide, but is not as...

Im Focus: How protons move through a fuel cell

Hydrogen is regarded as the energy source of the future: It is produced with solar power and can be used to generate heat and electricity in fuel cells. Empa researchers have now succeeded in decoding the movement of hydrogen ions in crystals – a key step towards more efficient energy conversion in the hydrogen industry of tomorrow.

As charge carriers, electrons and ions play the leading role in electrochemical energy storage devices and converters such as batteries and fuel cells. Proton...

Im Focus: A unique data centre for cosmological simulations

Scientists from the Excellence Cluster Universe at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität Munich have establised "Cosmowebportal", a unique data centre for cosmological simulations located at the Leibniz Supercomputing Centre (LRZ) of the Bavarian Academy of Sciences. The complete results of a series of large hydrodynamical cosmological simulations are available, with data volumes typically exceeding several hundred terabytes. Scientists worldwide can interactively explore these complex simulations via a web interface and directly access the results.

With current telescopes, scientists can observe our Universe’s galaxies and galaxy clusters and their distribution along an invisible cosmic web. From the...

Im Focus: Scientists develop molecular thermometer for contactless measurement using infrared light

Temperature measurements possible even on the smallest scale / Molecular ruby for use in material sciences, biology, and medicine

Chemists at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) in cooperation with researchers of the German Federal Institute for Materials Research and Testing (BAM)...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Plants are networkers

19.06.2017 | Event News

Digital Survival Training for Executives

13.06.2017 | Event News

Global Learning Council Summit 2017

13.06.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Study shines light on brain cells that coordinate movement

26.06.2017 | Life Sciences

Smooth propagation of spin waves using gold

26.06.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Switchable DNA mini-machines store information

26.06.2017 | Information Technology

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>