Researchers find existence of large, deep magma chamber below Kilauea volcano

A new study led by scientists at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science uncovered a previously unknown magma chamber deep below the most active volcano in the world – Kilauea. This is the first geophysical observation that large magma chambers exist in the deeper parts of the volcano system.

Scientists analyzed the seismic waves that travel through the volcano to understand the internal structure of the volcanic system. Using the seismic data, the researchers developed a three-dimensional velocity model of a magma anomaly to determine the size, depth and composition of the lava chamber, which is several kilometers in diameter and located at a depth of 8-11 km (5 – 6.8 miles).

“It was known before that Kilauea had small, shallow magma chambers,” said Guoqing Lin, UM Rosenstiel School assistant professor of geology and geophysics and lead author of the study. “This study is the first geophysical observation that large magma chambers exist in the deep oceanic crust below.”

The study also showed that the deep chamber is composed of “magma mush,” a mixture of 10-percent magma and 90-percent rock. The crustal magma reservoir below Kilauea is similar to those widely observed beneath volcanoes located at mid-ocean ridge.

“Understanding these magma bodies are a high priority because of the hazard posed by the volcano,” said Falk Amelung, co-author and professor of geology and geophysics at the UM Rosenstiel School. “Kilauea volcano produces many small earthquakes and paying particular attention to new seismic activity near this body will help us to better understand where future lava eruptions will come from.”

Scientists are still unraveling the mysteries of the deep internal network of magma chambers and lava tubes of Kilauea, which has been in continuous eruption for more than 30 years and is currently the most active volcano in the world

Is there an ocean beneath our feet?

Scientists at the University of Liverpool have shown that deep sea fault zones could transport much larger amounts of water from the Earth’s oceans to the upper mantle than previously thought.

Seismologists at Liverpool have estimated that over the age of the Earth, the Japan subduction zone alone could transport the equivalent of up to three and a half times the water of all the Earth’s oceans to its mantle.

Water is carried to the mantle by deep sea fault zones which penetrate the oceanic plate as it bends into the subduction zone. Subduction, where an oceanic tectonic plate is forced beneath another plate, causes large earthquakes such as the recent Tohoku earthquake, as well as many earthquakes that occur hundreds of kilometers below the Earth’s surface.

Using seismic modelling techniques the researchers analysed earthquakes which occurred more than 100 km below the Earth’s surface in the Wadati-Benioff zone, a plane of Earthquakes that occur in the oceanic plate as it sinks deep into the mantle.

Analysis of the seismic waves from these earthquakes shows that they occurred on 1 – 2 km wide fault zones with low seismic velocities. Seismic waves travel slower in these fault zones than in the rest of the subducting plate because the sea water that percolated through the faults reacted with the oceanic rocks to form serpentinite – a mineral that contains water.

Some of the water carried to the mantle by these hydrated fault zones is released as the tectonic plate heats up. This water causes the mantle material to melt, causing volcanoes above the subduction zone such as those that form the Pacific ‘ring of fire’. Some water is transported deeper into the mantle, and is stored in the deep Earth.

“It has been known for a long time that subducting plates carry oceanic water to the mantle,” said Tom Garth, a PhD student in the Earthquake Seismology research group led by Professor Rietbrock. “This water causes melting in the mantle, which leads to arc releasing some of the water back into the atmosphere. Part of the subducted water however is carried deeper into the mantle and may be stored there.

“We found that fault zones that form in the deep oceanic trench offshore Northern Japan persist to depths of up to 150 km. These hydrated fault zones can carry large amounts of water, suggesting that subduction zones carry much more water from the ocean down to the mantle than has previously been suggested.This supports the theory that there are large amounts of water stored deep in the Earth.

Understanding how much water is delivered to the mantle contributes to our knowledge of how the mantle convects and how it melts. This is important to understanding how plate tectonics began and how the continental crust was formed.

World’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system created in Iceland

This image shows a flow test of the IDDP-1 well at Krafla. Note the transparent superheated steam at the top of the rock muffler. -  Kristján Einarsson.
This image shows a flow test of the IDDP-1 well at Krafla. Note the transparent superheated steam at the top of the rock muffler. – Kristján Einarsson.

In 2009, a borehole drilled at Krafla, northeast Iceland, as part of the Icelandic Deep Drilling Project (IDDP), unexpectedly penetrated into magma (molten rock) at only 2100 meters depth, with a temperature of 900-1000 C. The borehole, IDDP-1, was the first in a series of wells being drilled by the IDDP in Iceland in the search for high-temperature geothermal resources.

The January 2014 issue of the international journal Geothermics is dedicated to scientific and engineering results arising from that unusual occurrence. This issue is edited by Wilfred Elders, a professor emeritus of geology at the University of California, Riverside, who also co-authored three of the research papers in the special issue with Icelandic colleagues.

“Drilling into magma is a very rare occurrence anywhere in the world and this is only the second known instance, the first one, in 2007, being in Hawaii,” Elders said. “The IDDP, in cooperation with Iceland’s National Power Company, the operator of the Krafla geothermal power plant, decided to investigate the hole further and bear part of the substantial costs involved.”

Accordingly, a steel casing, perforated in the bottom section closest to the magma, was cemented into the well. The hole was then allowed to heat slowly and eventually allowed to flow superheated steam for the next two years, until July 2012, when it was closed down in order to replace some of the surface equipment.

“In the future, the success of this drilling and research project could lead to a revolution in the energy efficiency of high-temperature geothermal areas worldwide,” Elders said.

He added that several important milestones were achieved in this project: despite some difficulties, the project was able to drill down into the molten magma and control it; it was possible to set steel casing in the bottom of the hole; allowing the hole to blow superheated, high-pressure steam for months at temperatures exceeding 450 C, created a world record for geothermal heat (this well was the hottest in the world and one of the most powerful); steam from the IDDP-1 well could be fed directly into the existing power plant at Krafla; and the IDDP-1 demonstrated that a high-enthalpy geothermal system could be successfully utilized.

“Essentially, the IDDP-1 created the world’s first magma-enhanced geothermal system,” Elders said. “This unique engineered geothermal system is the world’s first to supply heat directly from a molten magma.”

Elders explained that in various parts of the world so-called enhanced or engineered geothermal systems are being created by pumping cold water into hot dry rocks at 4-5 kilometers depths. The heated water is pumped up again as hot water or steam from production wells. In recent decades, considerable effort has been invested in Europe, Australia, the United States, and Japan, with uneven, and typically poor, results.

“Although the IDDP-1 hole had to be shut in, the aim now is to repair the well or to drill a new similar hole,” Elders said. “The experiment at Krafla suffered various setbacks that tried personnel and equipment throughout. However, the process itself was very instructive, and, apart from scientific articles published in Geothermics, comprehensive reports on practical lessons learned are nearing completion.”

The IDDP is a collaboration of three energy companies – HS Energy Ltd., National Power Company and Reykjavik Energy – and a government agency, the National Energy Authority of Iceland. It will drill the next borehole, IDDP-2, in southwest Iceland at Reykjanes in 2014-2015. From the onset, international collaboration has been important to the project, and in particular a consortium of U.S. scientists, coordinated by Elders, has been very active, authoring several research papers in the special issue of Geothermics.

Scientists use ‘virtual earthquakes’ to forecast Los Angeles quake risk

Stanford scientists are using weak vibrations generated by the Earth’s oceans to produce “virtual earthquakes” that can be used to predict the ground movement and shaking hazard to buildings from real quakes.

The new technique, detailed in the Jan. 24 issue of the journal Science, was used to confirm a prediction that Los Angeles will experience stronger-than-expected ground movement if a major quake occurs south of the city.

“We used our virtual earthquake approach to reconstruct large earthquakes on the southern San Andreas Fault and studied the responses of the urban environment of Los Angeles to such earthquakes,” said lead author Marine Denolle, who recently received her PhD in geophysics from Stanford and is now at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego.

The new technique capitalizes on the fact that earthquakes aren’t the only sources of seismic waves. “If you put a seismometer in the ground and there’s no earthquake, what do you record? It turns out that you record something,” said study leader Greg Beroza, a geophysics professor at Stanford.

What the instruments will pick up is a weak, continuous signal known as the ambient seismic field. This omnipresent field is generated by ocean waves interacting with the solid Earth. When the waves collide with each other, they generate a pressure pulse that travels through the ocean to the sea floor and into the Earth’s crust. “These waves are billions of times weaker than the seismic waves generated by earthquakes,” Beroza said.

Scientists have known about the ambient seismic field for about 100 years, but it was largely considered a nuisance because it interferes with their ability to study earthquakes. The tenuous seismic waves that make up this field propagate every which way through the crust. But in the past decade, seismologists developed signal-processing techniques that allow them to isolate certain waves; in particular, those traveling through one seismometer and then another one downstream.

Denolle built upon these techniques and devised a way to make these ambient seismic waves function as proxies for seismic waves generated by real earthquakes. By studying how the ambient waves moved underground, the researchers were able to predict the actions of much stronger waves from powerful earthquakes.

She began by installing several seismometers along the San Andreas Fault to specifically measure ambient seismic waves.

Employing data from the seismometers, the group then used mathematical techniques they developed to make the waves appear as if they originated deep within the Earth. This was done to correct for the fact that the seismometers Denolle installed were located at the Earth’s surface, whereas real earthquakes occur at depth.

In the study, the team used their virtual earthquake approach to confirm the accuracy of a prediction, made in 2006 by supercomputer simulations, that if the southern San Andreas Fault section of California were to rupture and spawn an earthquake, some of the seismic waves traveling northward would be funneled toward Los Angeles along a 60-mile-long (100-kilometer-long) natural conduit that connects the city with the San Bernardino Valley. This passageway is composed mostly of sediments, and acts to amplify and direct waves toward the Los Angeles region.

Until now, there was no way to test whether this funneling action, known as the waveguide-to-basin effect, actually takes place because a major quake has not occurred along that particular section of the San Andreas Fault in more than 150 years.

The virtual earthquake approach also predicts that seismic waves will become further amplified when they reach Los Angeles because the city sits atop a large sedimentary basin. To understand why this occurs, study coauthor Eric Dunham, an assistant professor of geophysics at Stanford, said to imagine taking a block of plastic foam, cutting out a bowl-shaped hole in the middle, and filling the cavity with gelatin. In this analogy, the plastic foam is a stand-in for rocks, while the gelatin is like sediments, or dirt. “The gelatin is floppier and a lot more compliant. If you shake the whole thing, you’re going to get some motion in the Styrofoam, but most of what you’re going to see is the basin oscillating,” Dunham said.

As a result, the scientists say, Los Angeles could be at risk for stronger, and more variable, ground motion if a large earthquake – magnitude 7.0 or greater – were to occur along the southern San Andreas Fault, near the Salton Sea.

“The seismic waves are essentially guided into the sedimentary basin that underlies Los Angeles,” Beroza said. “Once there, the waves reverberate and are amplified, causing stronger shaking than would otherwise occur.”

Beroza’s group is planning to test the virtual earthquake approach in other cities around the world that are built atop sedimentary basins, such as Tokyo, Mexico City, Seattle and parts of the San Francisco Bay area. “All of these cities are earthquake threatened, and all of them have an extra threat because of the basin amplification effect,” Beroza said.

Because the technique is relatively inexpensive, it could also be useful for forecasting ground motion in developing countries. “You don’t need large supercomputers to run the simulations,” Denolle said.

In addition to studying earthquakes that have yet to occur, the technique could also be used as a kind of “seismological time machine” to recreate the seismic signatures of temblors that shook the Earth long ago, according to Beroza.

“For an earthquake that occurred 200 years ago, if you know where the fault was, you could deploy instruments, go through this procedure, and generate seismograms for earthquakes that occurred before seismographs were invented,” he said.

Rainforests in Far East shaped by humans for the last 11,000 years

New research from Queen’s University Belfast shows that the tropical forests of South East Asia have been shaped by humans for the last 11,000 years.

The rain forests of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Thailand and Vietnam were previously thought to have been largely unaffected by humans, but the latest research from Queen’s Palaeoecologist Dr Chris Hunt suggests otherwise.

A major analysis of vegetation histories across the three islands and the SE Asian mainland has revealed a pattern of repeated disturbance of vegetation since the end of the last ice age approximately 11,000 years ago.

The research, which was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy, is being published in the Journal of Archaeological Science. It is the culmination of almost 15 years of field work by Dr Hunt, involving the collection of pollen samples across the region, and a major review of existing palaeoecology research, which was completed in partnership with Dr Ryan Rabett from Cambridge University.

Evidence of human activity in rainforests is extremely difficult to find and traditional archaeological methods of locating and excavating sites are extremely difficult in the dense forests. Pollen samples, however, are now unlocking some of the region’s historical secrets.

Dr Hunt, who is Director of Research on Environmental Change at Queen’s School of Geography, Archaeology and Palaeoecology, said: “It has long been believed that the rainforests of the Far East were virgin wildernesses, where human impact has been minimal. Our findings, however, indicate a history of disturbances to vegetation. While it could be tempting to blame these disturbances on climate change, that is not the case as they do not coincide with any known periods of climate change. Rather, these vegetation changes have been brought about by the actions of people.

“There is evidence that humans in the Kelabit Highlands of Borneo burned fires to clear the land for planting food-bearing plants. Pollen samples from around 6,500 years ago contain abundant charcoal, indicating the occurrence of fire. However, while naturally occurring or accidental fires would usually be followed by specific weeds and trees that flourish in charred ground, we found evidence that this particular fire was followed by the growth of fruit trees. This indicates that the people who inhabited the land intentionally cleared it of forest vegetation and planted sources of food in its place.

“One of the major indicators of human action in the rainforest is the sheer prevalence of fast-growing ‘weed’ trees such as Macaranga, Celtis and Trema. Modern ecological studies show that they quickly follow burning and disturbance of forests in the region.

“Nearer to the Borneo coastline, the New Guinea Sago Palm first appeared over 10,000 years ago. This would have involved a voyage of more than 2,200km from its native New Guinea, and its arrival on the island is consistent with other known maritime voyages in the region at that time – evidence that people imported the Sago seeds and planted them.”

The findings have huge importance for ecological studies or rainforests as the historical role of people in managing the forest vegetation has rarely been considered. It could also have an impact on rainforest peoples fighting the advance of logging companies.

Dr Hunt continued: “Laws in several countries in South East Asia do not recognise the rights of indigenous forest dwellers on the grounds that they are nomads who leave no permanent mark on the landscape. Given that we can now demonstrate their active management of the forests for more than 11,000 years, these people have a new argument in their case against eviction.”

Subterranean ‘sedimentary bathtub’ amplifies earthquakes

These images show multiple scenarios for shallow earthquakes within the Georgia Basin. Numbers in the upper right-hand represent how much motion is amplified within the basin and on the surface in Vancouver, respectively. -  Sheri Molnar and Kim Olsen.
These images show multiple scenarios for shallow earthquakes within the Georgia Basin. Numbers in the upper right-hand represent how much motion is amplified within the basin and on the surface in Vancouver, respectively. – Sheri Molnar and Kim Olsen.

Like an amphitheater amplifies sound, the stiff, sturdy soil beneath the Greater Vancouver metropolitan area could greatly amplify the effects of an earthquake, pushing the potential devastation past what building codes in the region are prepared for. That’s the conclusion behind a pair of studies recently coauthored by San Diego State University seismologist Kim Olsen.

Greater Vancouver sits atop a tectonic plate known as the Juan de Fuca Plate, which extends south to encompass Washington and Oregon states. The subterranean region of this plate beneath Vancouver is a bowl-shaped mass of rigid soil called the Georgia Basin. Earthquakes can and do occur in the Georgia Basin and can originate deep within the earth, between 50 and 70 kilometers down, or as shallow as a couple kilometers.

While earthquake researchers have long known that the region is tectonically active and policymakers have enforced building codes designed to protect against earthquakes, those codes aren’t quite strict enough because seismologists have failed to account for how the Georgia Basin affects a quake’s severity, Olsen said. In large part, that’s because until recently the problem has been too computationally complex, he said.

“People have neglected the effects of stiffer soil,” Olsen said. “They haven’t been able to look at the basin as a three-dimensional object.”

The idea to investigate the basin’s effect on earthquakes originated with Sheri Molnar, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia. She reached out to Olsen, an expert in earthquake simulation, for help modeling the problem. Using supercomputer technology, Olsen has previously simulated the potential effects of a supermassive magnitude 8.0 quake in Southern California.

Using the same technology, Molnar and Olsen coded an algorithm to take into account the stiff-soil geography of the Georgia Basin to see how it would influence the surface effects of a magnitude 6.8 earthquake. They then ran the simulation for both a shallow and a deep quake.

In both simulations they found that the basin had an amplifying effect on motion on the surface, but the amplification was especially pronounced in shallow earthquakes. In the latter scenario, their model predicts that the sedimentary basin would cause the surface to shake for approximately 22 seconds longer than normal.

“The deep structure of the Georgia Basin can amplify the ground motion of an earthquake by a factor of three or more,” Olsen said. “It’s an irregularly shaped bathtub of sediments that can trap and amplify the waves.”

The deep and shallow studies were published today in the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America.

Current building codes in Vancouver don’t take into account this amplification, Olsen added, meaning many buildings in the region would be in danger if a large earthquake were to hit.

Vancouver isn’t the only large metropolis built atop sedimentary basins. Los Angeles and San Francisco, too, sit on basins similar to the Georgia Basin. Olsen is currently investigating how major earthquakes along the San Andreas Fault would be affected by these basins.

He hopes that city planners can use this knowledge to update their building codes to reflect the amplifying geography beneath their feet.

“That’s always going to be the goal, to make structures safer and to mitigate the damage in the future,” Olsen said.

Nearby Georgia basin may amplify ground shaking from next quake

Tall buildings, bridges and other long-period structures in Greater Vancouver may experience greater shaking from large (M 6.8 +) earthquakes than previously thought due to the amplification of surface waves passing through the Georgia basin, according to two studies published by the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA). The basin will have the greatest impact on ground motion passing over it from earthquakes generated south and southwest of Vancouver.

“For very stiff soils, current building codes don’t include amplification of ground motion,” said lead author Sheri Molnar, a researcher at the University of British Columbia. “While the building codes say there should not be any increase or decrease in ground motion, our results show that there could be an average amplification of up to a factor of three or four in Greater Vancouver.”

The research provides the first detailed studies of 3D earthquake ground motion for a sedimentary basin in Canada. Since no large crustal earthquakes have occurred in the area since the installation of a local seismic network, these studies offer refined predictions of ground motion from large crustal earthquakes likely to occur.

Southwestern British Columbia is situated above the seismically active Cascadia subduction zone. A complex tectonic region, earthquakes occur in three zones: the thrust fault interface between the Juan de Fuca plate, which is sliding beneath the North America plate; within the over-riding North America plate; and within the subducting Juan de Fuca plate.

Molnar and her colleagues investigate the effect the three dimensional (3D) deep basin beneath Greater Vancouver has on the earthquake-generated waves that pass through it. The Georgia basin is one in a series of basins spanning form California to southern Alaska along the Pacific margin of the North America and is relatively wide and shallow. The basin is filled with sedimentary layers of silts, sands and glacial deposits.

While previous research suggested how approximately 100 meters of material near the surface would affect ground shaking, no studies had looked at the effect of the 3D basin structure on long period seismic waves.

To fill in that gap in knowledge, Molnar and colleagues performed numerical modeling of wave propagation, using various scenarios for both shallow quakes (5 km in depth) within the North America plate and deep quakes (40 – 55 km in depth) within the Juan de Fuca subducting plate, the latter being the most common type of earthquake. The authors did not focus on earthquakes generated by a megathrust rupture of the Cascadia subduction zone, a scenario studied previously by co-author Kim Olsen of San Diego State University.

For these two studies, the authors modeled 10 scenario earthquakes for the subducting plate and 8 shallow crustal earthquakes within the North America plate, assuming rupture sites based on known seismicity. The computational analyses suggest the basin distorts the seismic radiation pattern – how the energy moves through the basin – and produces a larger area of higher ground motions. Steep basin edges excite the seismic waves, amplifying the ground motion.

The largest surface waves generated across Greater Vancouver are associated with earthquakes located approximately 80 km or more, south-southwest of the city, suggest the authors.

“The results were an eye opener,” said Molnar. “Because of the 3D basin structure, there’s greater hazard since it will amplify ground shaking. Now we have a grasp of how much the basin increases ground shaking for the most likely future large earthquakes.”

In Greater Vancouver, there are more than 700 12-story and taller commercial and residential buildings, and large structures – high-rise buildings, bridges and pipelines – that are more affected by long period seismic waves, or long wavelength shaking. “That’s where these results have impact,” said Molnar.

Source of Galapagos eruptions is not where models place it

Birds flock not far from a volcano on Isabella Island, where two still active volcanoes are located. The location of the mantle plume, to the southeast of where computer modeling had put it, may explain the continued activity of volcanoes on the various Galapagos Islands. -  Douglas Toomey
Birds flock not far from a volcano on Isabella Island, where two still active volcanoes are located. The location of the mantle plume, to the southeast of where computer modeling had put it, may explain the continued activity of volcanoes on the various Galapagos Islands. – Douglas Toomey

Images gathered by University of Oregon scientists using seismic waves penetrating to a depth of 300 kilometers (almost 200 miles) report the discovery of an anomaly that likely is the volcanic mantle plume of the Galapagos Islands. It’s not where geologists and computer modeling had assumed.

The team’s experiments put the suspected plume at a depth of 250 kilometers (155 miles), at a location about 150 kilometers (about 100 miles) southeast of Fernandina Island, the westernmost island of the chain, and where generations of geologists and computer-generated mantle convection models have placed the plume.

The plume anomaly is consistent with partial melting, melt extraction, and remixing of hot rocks and is spreading north toward the mid-ocean ridge instead of, as projected, eastward with the migrating Nazca plate on which the island chain sits, says co-author Douglas R. Toomey, a professor in the UO’s Department of Geological Sciences.

The findings — published online Jan. 19 ahead of print in the February issue of the journal Nature Geoscience — “help explain why so many of the volcanoes in the Galapagos are active,” Toomey said.

The Galapagos chain covers roughly 3,040 square miles of ocean and is centered about 575 miles west of Ecuador, which governs the islands. Galapagos volcanic activity has been difficult to understand, Toomey said, because conventional wisdom and modeling say newer eruptions should be moving ahead of the plate, not unlike the long-migrating Yellowstone hotspot. </p

The separating angles of the two plates in the Galapagos region cloud easy understanding. The leading edge of the Nazca plate is at Fernandina. The Cocos plate, on which the islands’ some 1,000-kilometer-long (620-miles) hotspot chain once sat, is moving to the northeast.

The suspected plume’s location is closer to Isabella and Floreana islands. While a dozen volcanoes remain active in the archipelago, the three most volatile are Fernandina’s and the Cerro Azul and Sierra Negra volcanoes on the southwest and southeast tips, respectively, of Isabella Island, the archipelago’s largest landmass.

The plume’s more southern location, Toomey said, adds fuel to his group’s findings, at three different sites along the globe encircling mid-ocean ridge (where 85 percent of Earth’s volcanic activity occurs), that Earth’s internal convection doesn’t always adhere to modeling efforts and raises new questions about how ocean plates at the Earth’s surface — the lithosphere — interact with the hotter, more fluid asthenosphere that sits atop the mantle.

“Ocean islands have always been enigmatic,” said co-author Dennis J. Geist of the Department of Geological Sciences at the University of Idaho. “Why out in the middle of the ocean basins do you get these big volcanoes? The Galapagos, Hawaii, Tahiti, Iceland — all the world’s great ocean islands – they’re mysterious.”

The Galapagos plume, according to the new paper, extends up into shallower depths and tracks northward and perpendicular to plate motion. Mantle plumes, such as the Galapagos, Yellowstone and Hawaii, generally are believed to bend in the direction of plate migration. In the Galapagos, however, the volcanic plume has decoupled from the plates involved.

“Here’s an archipelago of volcanic islands that are broadly active over a large region, and the plume is almost decoupled from the plate motion itself,” Toomey said. “It is going opposite than expected, and we don’t know why.”

The answer may be in the still unknown rheology of the gooey asthenosphere on which the Earth’s plates ride, Toomey said. In their conclusion, the paper’s five co-authors theorize that the plume material is carried to the mid-ocean ridge by a deep return flow centered in the asthenosphere rather than flowing along the base of the lithosphere as in modeling projections.

“Researchers at the University of Oregon are using tools and technologies to yield critical insights into complex scientific questions,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, vice president for research and innovation and dean of the UO Graduate School. “This research by Dr. Toomey and his team sheds new light on the volcanic activity of the Galapagos Islands and raises new questions about plate tectonics and the interaction between the zones of the Earth’s mantle.”

Co-authors with Toomey and Geist were: doctoral student Darwin R. Villagomez, now with ID Analytics in San Diego, Calif.; Emilie E.E. Hooft of the UO Department of Geological Sciences; and Sean C. Solomon of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University.

The National Science Foundation (grants OCE-9908695, OCE-0221549 and EAR-0651123 to the UO; OCE-0221634 to the Carnegie Institution of Washington and EAR-11452711 to the University of Idaho) supported the research.

Soil production breaks geologic speed record

This is a photo of the researcher hiking down the ridge at Rapid Creek to collect soil samples.  The dense bush and heavy 10 kilogram soil samples slowed uphill progress to less than 200 meters per hour. -  Andre Eger
This is a photo of the researcher hiking down the ridge at Rapid Creek to collect soil samples. The dense bush and heavy 10 kilogram soil samples slowed uphill progress to less than 200 meters per hour. – Andre Eger

Geologic time is shorthand for slow-paced. But new measurements from steep mountaintops in New Zealand show that rock can transform into soil more than twice as fast as previously believed possible.

The findings were published Jan. 16 in the early online edition of Science.

“Some previous work had argued that there were limits to soil production,” said first author Isaac Larsen, who did the work as part of his doctoral research in Earth sciences at the University of Washington. “But no one had made the measurements.”

The finding is more than just a new speed record. Rapidly eroding mountain ranges account for at least half of the total amount of the planet’s weathering and sediment production, although they occupy just a few percent of the Earth’s surface, researchers said.

So the record-breaking production at the mountaintops has implications for the entire carbon cycle by which the Earth’s crust pushes up to form mountains, crumbles, washes with rivers and rainwater to the sea, and eventually settles to the bottom to form new rock.

“This work takes the trend between soil production rates and chemical weathering rates and extends it to much higher values than had ever been previously observed,” said Larsen, now a postdoctoral researcher at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The study site in New Zealand’s Southern Alps is “an extremely rugged mountain range,” Larsen said, with rainfall of 10 meters (33 feet) per year and slopes of about 35 degrees.

To collect samples Larsen and co-author André Eger, then a graduate student at Lincoln University in New Zealand, were dropped from a helicopter onto remote mountaintops above the tree line. They would hike down to an appropriate test site and collect 20 pounds of dirt apiece, and then trek the samples back up to their base camp. The pair stayed at each of the mountaintop sites for about three days.

“I’ve worked in a lot of places,” Larsen said. “This was the most challenging fieldwork I’ve done.”

Researchers then brought soil samples back to the UW and measured the amount of Beryllium-10, an isotope that forms only at the Earth’s surface by exposure to cosmic rays. Those measurements showed soil production rates on the ridge tops ranging from 0.1 to 2.5 millimeters (1/10 of an inch) per year, and decrease exponentially with increasing soil thickness.

The peak rate is more than twice the proposed speed limit for soil production, in which geologists wondered if in places where soil is lost very quickly, the soil production just can’t keep up. In earlier work Larsen had noticed vegetation on very steep slopes and so he proposed this project to measure soil production rates at some of the steepest, wettest locations on the planet.

The new results show that soil production and weathering rates continue to increase as the landscape gets steeper and erodes faster, and suggest that other very steep locations such as the Himalayas and the mountains in Taiwan may also have very fast soil formation.

“A couple millimeters a year sounds pretty slow to anybody but a geologist,” said co-author David Montgomery, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences. “Isaac measured two millimeters of soil production a year, so it would take just a dozen years to make an inch of soil. That’s shockingly fast for a geologist, because the conventional wisdom is it takes centuries.”

The researchers believe plant roots may be responsible here. The mountain landscape was covered with low, dense vegetation. The roots of those plants reach into cracks in the rocks, helping break them apart and expose them to rainwater and chemical weathering.

“This opens up new questions about how soil production might happen in other locations, climates and environments,” Larsen said.

New study shows: Large landmasses existed 2.7 billion years ago

A Cologne working group involving Prof. Carsten Münker and Dr. Elis Hoffmann and their student Sebastian Viehmann (working with Prof. Michael Bau from the Jacobs University Bremen) have managed for the first time to determine the isotope composition of the rare trace elements Hafnium and Neodymium in 2,700 million year-old seawater by using high purity chemical sediments from Temagami Banded Iron Formation (Canada) as an archive.

Earlier work has shown that these rocks from Canada only contain chemical elements that directly precipitated from ocean water. The Temagami Banded Iron Formation, which was formed 2,700 million years ago during the Neoarchean period, can be used as an archive because the isotopic composition of many chemical elements such as Hafnium and Neodymium directly mirrors the composition of Neoarchean seawater. These two very rare elements allow many valuable conclusions about weathering processes to be drawn.

During their investigations, the research team came to the surprising result that has been published in the renowned journal Geology: 2,700 million years ago, seawater contained an unusually high abundance of the radioactive isotope Hafnium 176 but a comparably low abundance of the radioactive isotope Neodymium 143, similar to what can be observed in present day seawater.

“In present day seawater, this can be explained by weathering and the erosion of the Earth’s exposed surface,” explains Prof. Münker. “If in the Neoarchean period 97% of the Earth’s surface had been, as estimated from computer models, covered by water, these geochemical signals would not have been found for Neoarchean seawater,” adds Dr. Hoffmann.

According to the scientific team, the new findings show that 2,700 million years ago relatively large landmasses emerged from the oceans that were exposed to weathering and erosion by the sun, wind and rain. Dr. Hoffmann: “The isotope Hafnium 176 in contrast to its counterpart Neodymium 143 was transported by means of weathering into the oceans and became part of iron-rich sediments on the sea floor 2,700 million years ago.”

The examinations were carried out in the joint clean laboratory of the Universities of Cologne and Bonn. Prof. Münker: “We are able to carry out these isotope measurements for very rare elements, the concentrations of which are in the ppb range, i.e. only a few parts per billion.”