Study hints that ancient Earth made its own water — geologically

A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University– and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

“When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water–in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell–a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser–to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface–a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found–a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”–as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier–a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said–an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

“One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

“If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

First harvest of research based on the final GOCE gravity model

This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. -  TUM IAPG
This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. – TUM IAPG

Just four months after the final data package from the GOCE satellite mission was delivered, researchers are laying out a rich harvest of scientific results, with the promise of more to come. A mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) provided the most accurate measurements yet of Earth’s gravitational field. The GOCE Gravity Consortium, coordinated by the Technische Universität München (TUM), produced all of the mission’s data products including the fifth and final GOCE gravity model. On this basis, studies in geophysics, geology, ocean circulation, climate change, and civil engineering are sharpening the picture of our dynamic planet – as can be seen in the program of the 5th International GOCE User Workshop, taking place Nov. 25-28 in Paris.

The GOCE satellite made 27,000 orbits between its launch in March 2009 and re-entry in November 2013, measuring tiny variations in the gravitational field that correspond to uneven distributions of mass in Earth’s oceans, continents, and deep interior. Some 800 million observations went into the computation of the final model, which is composed of more than 75,000 parameters representing the global gravitational field with a spatial resolution of around 70 kilometers. The precision of the model improved over time, as each release incorporated more data. Centimeter accuracy has now been achieved for variations of the geoid – a gravity-derived figure of Earth’s surface that serves as a global reference for sea level and heights – in a model based solely on GOCE data.

The fifth and last data release benefited from two special phases of observation. After its first three years of operation, the satellite’s orbit was lowered from 255 to 225 kilometers, increasing the sensitivity of gravity measurements to reveal even more detailed structures of the gravity field. And through most of the satellite’s final plunge through the atmosphere, some instruments continued to report measurements that have sparked intense interest far beyond the “gravity community” – for example, among researchers concerned with aerospace engineering, atmospheric sciences, and space debris.

Moving on: new science, future missions

Through the lens of Earth’s gravitational field, scientists can image our planet in a way that is complementary to approaches that rely on light, magnetism, or seismic waves. They can determine the speed of ocean currents from space, monitor rising sea level and melting ice sheets, uncover hidden features of continental geology, even peer into the convection machine that drives plate tectonics. Topics like these dominate the more than 100 talks scheduled for the 5th GOCE User Workshop, with technical talks on measurements and models playing a smaller role. “I see this as a sign of success, that the emphasis has shifted decisively to the user community,” says Prof. Roland Pail, director of the Institute for Astronomical and Physical Geodesy at TUM.

This shift can be seen as well among the topics covered by TUM researchers, such as estimates of the elastic thickness of the continents from GOCE gravity models, mass trends in Antarctica from global gravity fields, and a scientific roadmap toward worldwide unification of height systems. For his part Pail – who was responsible for delivery of the data products – chose to speak about consolidating science requirements for a next-generation gravity field mission.

TUM has organized a public symposium on “Seeing Earth in the ‘light’ of gravity” for the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. This session, featuring speakers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Italy, takes place on Feb. 14, 2015. (See

This research was supported in part by the European Space Agency.


“EGM_TIM_RL05: An Independent Geoid with Centimeter Accuracy Purely Based on the GOCE Mission,” Jan Martin Brockmann, Norbert Zehentner, Eduard Höck, Roland Pail, Ina Loth, Torsten Mayer-Gürr, and Wolf-Dieter Shuh. Geophysical Research Letters 2014, doi:10.1002/2014GL061904.

Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime

Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. -  Paul Renne, UC Berkeley
Left to right, Biaggio Giaccio, Gianluca Sotilli, Courtney Sprain and Sebastien Nomade sitting next to an outcrop in the Sulmona basin of the Apennines that contains the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic reversal. A layer of volcanic ash interbedded with the lake sediments can be seen above their heads. – Paul Renne, UC Berkeley

Imagine the world waking up one morning to discover that all compasses pointed south instead of north.

It’s not as bizarre as it sounds. Earth’s magnetic field has flipped – though not overnight – many times throughout the planet’s history. Its dipole magnetic field, like that of a bar magnet, remains about the same intensity for thousands to millions of years, but for incompletely known reasons it occasionally weakens and, presumably over a few thousand years, reverses direction.

Now, a new study by a team of scientists from Italy, France, Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, demonstrates that the last magnetic reversal 786,000 years ago actually happened very quickly, in less than 100 years – roughly a human lifetime.

“It’s amazing how rapidly we see that reversal,” said UC Berkeley graduate student Courtney Sprain. “The paleomagnetic data are very well done. This is one of the best records we have so far of what happens during a reversal and how quickly these reversals can happen.”

Sprain and Paul Renne, director of the Berkeley Geochronology Center and a UC Berkeley professor-in- residence of earth and planetary science, are coauthors of the study, which will be published in the November issue of Geophysical Journal International and is now available online.

Flip could affect electrical grid, cancer rates

The discovery comes as new evidence indicates that the intensity of Earth’s magnetic field is decreasing 10 times faster than normal, leading some geophysicists to predict a reversal within a few thousand years.

Though a magnetic reversal is a major planet-wide event driven by convection in Earth’s iron core, there are no documented catastrophes associated with past reversals, despite much searching in the geologic and biologic record. Today, however, such a reversal could potentially wreak havoc with our electrical grid, generating currents that might take it down.

And since Earth’s magnetic field protects life from energetic particles from the sun and cosmic rays, both of which can cause genetic mutations, a weakening or temporary loss of the field before a permanent reversal could increase cancer rates. The danger to life would be even greater if flips were preceded by long periods of unstable magnetic behavior.

“We should be thinking more about what the biologic effects would be,” Renne said.

Dating ash deposits from windward volcanoes

The new finding is based on measurements of the magnetic field alignment in layers of ancient lake sediments now exposed in the Sulmona basin of the Apennine Mountains east of Rome, Italy. The lake sediments are interbedded with ash layers erupted from the Roman volcanic province, a large area of volcanoes upwind of the former lake that includes periodically erupting volcanoes near Sabatini, Vesuvius and the Alban Hills. Italian researchers led by Leonardo Sagnotti of Rome’s National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology measured the magnetic field directions frozen into the sediments as they accumulated at the bottom of the ancient lake.

Sprain and Renne used argon-argon dating, a method widely used to determine the ages of rocks, whether they’re thousands or billions of years old, to determine the age of ash layers above and below the sediment layer recording the last reversal. These dates were confirmed by their colleague and former UC Berkeley postdoctoral fellow Sebastien Nomade of the Laboratory of Environmental and Climate Sciences in Gif-Sur-Yvette, France.

Because the lake sediments were deposited at a high and steady rate over a 10,000-year period, the team was able to interpolate the date of the layer showing the magnetic reversal, called the Matuyama-Brunhes transition, at approximately 786,000 years ago. This date is far more precise than that from previous studies, which placed the reversal between 770,000 and 795,000 years ago.

“What’s incredible is that you go from reverse polarity to a field that is normal with essentially nothing in between, which means it had to have happened very quickly, probably in less than 100 years,” said Renne. “We don’t know whether the next reversal will occur as suddenly as this one did, but we also don’t know that it won’t.”

Unstable magnetic field preceded 180-degree flip

Whether or not the new finding spells trouble for modern civilization, it likely will help researchers understand how and why Earth’s magnetic field episodically reverses polarity, Renne said.

The magnetic record the Italian-led team obtained shows that the sudden 180-degree flip of the field was preceded by a period of instability that spanned more than 6,000 years. The instability included two intervals of low magnetic field strength that lasted about 2,000 years each. Rapid changes in field orientations may have occurred within the first interval of low strength. The full magnetic polarity reversal – that is, the final and very rapid flip to what the field is today – happened toward the end of the most recent interval of low field strength.

Renne is continuing his collaboration with the Italian-French team to correlate the lake record with past climate change.

Renne and Sprain’s work at the Berkeley Geochronology Center was supported by the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.

Textbook theory behind volcanoes may be wrong

In the typical textbook picture, volcanoes, such as those that are forming the Hawaiian islands, erupt when magma gushes out as narrow jets from deep inside Earth. But that picture is wrong, according to a new study from researchers at Caltech and the University of Miami in Florida.

New seismology data are now confirming that such narrow jets don’t actually exist, says Don Anderson, the Eleanor and John R. McMillian Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, at Caltech. In fact, he adds, basic physics doesn’t support the presence of these jets, called mantle plumes, and the new results corroborate those fundamental ideas.

“Mantle plumes have never had a sound physical or logical basis,” Anderson says. “They are akin to Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Just So Stories’ about how giraffes got their long necks.”

Anderson and James Natland, a professor emeritus of marine geology and geophysics at the University of Miami, describe their analysis online in the September 8 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to current mantle-plume theory, Anderson explains, heat from Earth’s core somehow generates narrow jets of hot magma that gush through the mantle and to the surface. The jets act as pipes that transfer heat from the core, and how exactly they’re created isn’t clear, he says. But they have been assumed to exist, originating near where the Earth’s core meets the mantle, almost 3,000 kilometers underground-nearly halfway to the planet’s center. The jets are theorized to be no more than about 300 kilometers wide, and when they reach the surface, they produce hot spots.

While the top of the mantle is a sort of fluid sludge, the uppermost layer is rigid rock, broken up into plates that float on the magma-bearing layers. Magma from the mantle beneath the plates bursts through the plate to create volcanoes. As the plates drift across the hot spots, a chain of volcanoes forms-such as the island chains of Hawaii and Samoa.

“Much of solid-Earth science for the past 20 years-and large amounts of money-have been spent looking for elusive narrow mantle plumes that wind their way upward through the mantle,” Anderson says.

To look for the hypothetical plumes, researchers analyze global seismic activity. Everything from big quakes to tiny tremors sends seismic waves echoing through Earth’s interior. The type of material that the waves pass through influences the properties of those waves, such as their speeds. By measuring those waves using hundreds of seismic stations installed on the surface, near places such as Hawaii, Iceland, and Yellowstone National Park, researchers can deduce whether there are narrow mantle plumes or whether volcanoes are simply created from magma that’s absorbed in the sponge-like shallower mantle.

No one has been able to detect the predicted narrow plumes, although the evidence has not been conclusive. The jets could have simply been too thin to be seen, Anderson says. Very broad features beneath the surface have been interpreted as plumes or super-plumes, but, still, they’re far too wide to be considered narrow jets.

But now, thanks in part to more seismic stations spaced closer together and improved theory, analysis of the planet’s seismology is good enough to confirm that there are no narrow mantle plumes, Anderson and Natland say. Instead, data reveal that there are large, slow, upward-moving chunks of mantle a thousand kilometers wide.

In the mantle-plume theory, Anderson explains, the heat that is transferred upward via jets is balanced by the slower downward motion of cooled, broad, uniform chunks of mantle. The behavior is similar to that of a lava lamp, in which blobs of wax are heated from below and then rise before cooling and falling. But a fundamental problem with this picture is that lava lamps require electricity, he says, and that is an outside energy source that an isolated planet like Earth does not have.

The new measurements suggest that what is really happening is just the opposite: Instead of narrow jets, there are broad upwellings, which are balanced by narrow channels of sinking material called slabs. What is driving this motion is not heat from the core, but cooling at Earth’s surface. In fact, Anderson says, the behavior is the regular mantle convection first proposed more than a century ago by Lord Kelvin. When material in the planet’s crust cools, it sinks, displacing material deeper in the mantle and forcing it upward.

“What’s new is incredibly simple: upwellings in the mantle are thousands of kilometers across,” Anderson says. The formation of volcanoes then follows from plate tectonics-the theory of how Earth’s plates move and behave. Magma, which is less dense than the surrounding mantle, rises until it reaches the bottom of the plates or fissures that run through them. Stresses in the plates, cracks, and other tectonic forces can squeeze the magma out, like how water is squeezed out of a sponge. That magma then erupts out of the surface as volcanoes. The magma comes from within the upper 200 kilometers of the mantle and not thousands of kilometers deep, as the mantle-plume theory suggests.

“This is a simple demonstration that volcanoes are the result of normal broad-scale convection and plate tectonics,” Anderson says. He calls this theory “top-down tectonics,” based on Kelvin’s initial principles of mantle convection. In this picture, the engine behind Earth’s interior processes is not heat from the core but cooling at the planet’s surface. This cooling and plate tectonics drives mantle convection, the cooling of the core, and Earth’s magnetic field. Volcanoes and cracks in the plate are simply side effects.

The results also have an important consequence for rock compositions-notably the ratios of certain isotopes, Natland says. According to the mantle-plume idea, the measured compositions derive from the mixing of material from reservoirs separated by thousands of kilometers in the upper and lower mantle. But if there are no mantle plumes, then all of that mixing must have happened within the upwellings and nearby mantle in Earth’s top 1,000 kilometers.

The paper is titled “Mantle updrafts and mechanisms of oceanic volcanism.”

Resolving apparent inconsistencies in optimality principles for flow processes in geosystems

Optimality principles have been used, in a holistic approach, to describe flow processes in several important geosystems. Optimality principles refer to the state of a physical system that is controlled by an optimal condition subject to physical and/or resource constraints.

While significant successes have been achieved in applying them, some principles appear to contradict each other.

For example, scientists have found that the formation of channel networks in a river basin follows the minimization of energy expenditure (MEE) rate, while the Earth-atmosphere system can be described by the maximum entropy production (MEP) principle.

Under isothermal conditions the energy expenditure rate is proportional to the entropy production rate; therefore, MEE and MEP do not appear to be consistent.

The physical origin of these optimality principles is an issue of active research. They cannot be directly deduced from existing thermodynamic laws that deal largely with processes within black-boxes (systems) and were not developed to describe flow structures for flow processes within these boxes.

The apparent inconsistency between different optimality principles calls for the development of a more precise understanding of fundamental physical laws within the context of thermodynamics.

In a recent article published in the Chinese Science Bulletin, Hui-Hai Liu, a scientist in the Earth Sciences Division at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of the University of California, proposed a new thermodynamic hypothesis.

In order to resolve the seemingly inconsistent optimality principles for flow processes in geosystems, this hypothesis states that a nonlinear natural system that is not isolated and involves positive feedback mechanisms tends to minimize its resistance to the flow process through it that are imposed by its environment.

The key discovery of this research is that a system does not tend to provide minimum resistance to all the involved flow processes, but only to the driving process imposed by its environment. The optimality principle corresponding to minimizing flow resistance applies solely to the driving process. This is a significant refinement of traditional optimality principles that do not single out the driving process.

This hypothesis resolves the seeming inconsistency between minimization of energy expenditure for a river basin and the maximum entropy production principle for the Earth-atmosphere system.

Water flow is the driving process in forming the channel network of a river basin; without water flow, there would not be a soil erosion process to generate river patterns.

On the other hand, the Earth receives radiation from the hot Sun and transfers this heat into space. The atmosphere and oceans act as a fluid system that transports heat from hot regions to cold ones with general circulation, and the convection process is more efficient in transferring heat than the conduction process. In this system, the driving flow process is the heat flow, which is also the initiator for other flow processes.

Under steady-state flow conditions, the average heat flow rate is closely related to entropy production in the Earth-atmosphere system, and the MEP corresponds to the maximum convective heat transport. In this case, maximum entropy production happens to be a byproduct of this heat-flow optimization process.

Observed and understood this way, the maximum entropy production principle in the Earth-atmosphere system and the minimization of energy expenditure in a river basin are consistent and can be unified in terms of minimizing resistance to the “flow process imposed by its environment”, or the driving process.

This research also outlines the conditions under which the corresponding optimality principle can apply, in a nonlinear system that is not isolated and involves positive feedback mechanisms.

Examples in subsurface liquid flow processes were used to demonstrate that the minimization of flow resistance does not hold when these conditions are not met.

This new hypothesis has important applications in practice.

Hui-Hai Liu posits that this new understanding can serve as the physical basis for successfully developing subsurface flow laws in hydrogeology, including the base-case theory for modeling unsaturated flow and transport in the well-known Yucca Mountain Project related to the US high-level nuclear waste repository site.

“I can see some direct applications of the theory in areas including fingering flow in the subsurface, hydraulic fracturing process, and rock damage mechanics,” said Hui-Hai Liu.

Hot mantle drives elevation, volcanism along mid-ocean ridges

Scientists have found that temperature deep in Earth's mantle controls the expression of mid-ocean ridges, mountain ranges that line the ocean floor. Higher mantle temperatures are associated with higher elevations. The findings help scientists understand how mantle temperature influences the contours of Earth's crust. -  Dalton Lab / Brown University
Scientists have found that temperature deep in Earth’s mantle controls the expression of mid-ocean ridges, mountain ranges that line the ocean floor. Higher mantle temperatures are associated with higher elevations. The findings help scientists understand how mantle temperature influences the contours of Earth’s crust. – Dalton Lab / Brown University

Scientists have shown that temperature differences deep within Earth’s mantle control the elevation and volcanic activity along mid-ocean ridges, the colossal mountain ranges that line the ocean floor. The findings, published April 4 in the journal Science, shed new light on how temperature in the depths of the mantle influences the contours of the Earth’s crust.

Mid-ocean ridges form at the boundaries between tectonic plates, circling the globe like seams on a baseball. As the plates move apart, magma from deep within the Earth rises up to fill the void, creating fresh crust as it cools. The crust formed at these seams is thicker in some places than others, resulting in ridges with widely varying elevations. In some places, the peaks are submerged miles below the ocean surface. In other places – Iceland, for example – the ridge tops are exposed above the water’s surface.

“These variations in ridge depth require an explanation,” said Colleen Dalton, assistant professor of geological sciences at Brown and lead author of the new research. “Something is keeping them either sitting high or sitting low.”

That something, the study found, is the temperature of rocks deep below Earth’s surface.

By analyzing the speeds of seismic waves generated by earthquakes, the researchers show that mantle temperature along the ridges at depths extending below 400 kilometers varies by as much as 250 degrees Celsius. High points on the ridges tend to be associated with higher mantle temperatures, while low points are associated with a cooler mantle. The study also showed that volcanic hot spots along the ridge – volcanoes near Iceland as well as the islands of Ascension, Tristan da Cunha, and elsewhere – all sit above warm spots in Earth’s mantle.

“It is clear from our results that what’s being erupted at the ridges is controlled by temperature deep in the mantle,” Dalton said. “It resolves a long-standing controversy and has not been shown definitively before.”

A CAT scan of the Earth

The mid-ocean ridges provide geologists with a window to the interior of the Earth. The ridges form when mantle material melts, rises into the cracks between tectonic plates, and solidifies again. The characteristics of the ridges provide clues about the properties of the mantle below.

For example, a higher ridge elevation suggests a thicker crust, which in turn suggests that a larger volume of magma was erupted at the surface. This excess molten rock can be caused by very hot temperatures in the mantle. The problem is that hot mantle is not the only way to produce excess magma. The chemical composition of the rocks in Earth’s mantle also controls how much melt is produced. For certain rock compositions, it is possible to generate large volumes of molten rock under cooler conditions. For many decades it has not been clear whether mid-ocean ridge elevations are caused by variations in the temperature of the mantle or variations in the rock composition of the mantle.

To distinguish between these two possibilities, Dalton and her colleagues introduced two additional data sets. One was the chemistry of basalts, the rock that forms from solidification of magma at the mid-ocean ridge. The chemical composition of basalts differs depending upon the temperature and composition of the mantle material from which they’re derived. The authors analyzed the chemistry of nearly 17,000 basalts formed along mid-ocean ridges around the globe.

The other data set was seismic wave tomography. During earthquakes, seismic waves are sent pulsing through the rocks in the crust and mantle. By measuring the velocity of those waves, scientists can gather data about the characteristics of the rocks through which they traveled. “It’s like performing a CAT scan of the inside of the Earth,” Dalton said.

Seismic wave speeds are especially sensitive to the temperature of rocks. In general, waves propagate more quickly in cooler rocks and more slowly in hotter rocks.

Dalton and her colleagues combined the seismic data from hundreds of earthquakes with data on elevation and rock chemistry from the ridges. Correlations among the three data sets revealed that temperature deep in the mantle varied between around 1,300 and 1,550 degrees Celsius underneath about 61,000 kilometers of ridge terrain. “It turned out,” said Dalton, “that seismic tomography was the smoking gun. The only plausible explanation for the seismic wave speeds is a very large temperature range.”

The study showed that as ridge elevation falls, so does mantle temperature. The coolest point beneath the ridges was found near the lowest point, an area of very deep and rugged seafloor known as the Australian-Antarctic discordance in the Indian Ocean. The hottest spot was near Iceland, which is also the ridges’ highest elevation point.

Iceland is also where scientists have long debated whether a mantle plume – a vertical jet of hot rock originating from deep in the Earth – intersects the mid-ocean ridge. This study provides strong support for a mantle plume located beneath Iceland. In fact, this study showed that all regions with above-average temperature are located near volcanic hot spots, which points to mantle plumes as the culprit for the excess volume of magma in these areas.

Understanding a churning planet

Despite being made of solid rock, Earth’s mantle doesn’t sit still. It undergoes convection, a slow churning of material from the depths of the Earth toward the surface and back again.

“Convection is why we have plate tectonics and earthquakes,” Dalton said. “It’s also responsible for almost all volcanism at the surface. So understanding mantle convection is crucial to understanding many fundamental questions about the Earth.”

Two factors influence how that convection works: variations in the composition of the mantle and variations in its temperature. This work, says Dalton, points to temperature as a primary factor in how convection is expressed on the surface.

“We get consistent and coherent temperature measurements from the mantle from three independent datasets,” Dalton said. “All of them suggest that what we see at the surface is due to temperature, and that composition is only a secondary factor. What is surprising is that the data require the temperature variations to exist not only near the surface but also many hundreds of kilometers deep inside the Earth.”

The findings from this study will also be useful in future research using seismic waves, Dalton says. Because the temperature readings as indicated by seismology were backed up by the other datasets, they can be used to calibrate seismic readings for places where geochemical samples aren’t available. This makes it possible to estimate temperature deep in Earth’s mantle all over the globe.

That will help geologists gain a new insights into how processes deep within the Earth mold the ground beneath our feet.

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.

Researchers describe unusual Mars rock

The first rock that scientists analyzed on Mars with a pair of chemical instruments aboard the Curiosity rover turned out to be a doozy – a pyramid-shaped volcanic rock called a “mugearite” that is unlike any other Martian igneous rock ever found.

Dubbed “Jake_M” – after Jet Propulsion Laboratory engineer Jake Matijevic – the rock is similar to mugearites found on Earth, typically on ocean islands and in continental rifts. The process through which these rocks form often suggests the presence of water deep below the surface, according to Martin Fisk, an Oregon State University marine geologist and member of the Mars Science Laboratory team.

Results of the analysis were published this week in the journal Science, along with two other papers on Mars’ soils.

“On Earth, we have a pretty good idea how mugearites and rocks like them are formed,” said Fisk, who is a co-author on all three Science articles. “It starts with magma deep within the Earth that crystallizes in the presence of 1-2 percent water. The crystals settle out of the magma and what doesn’t crystallize is the mugearite magma, which can eventually make its way to the surface as a volcanic eruption.”

Fisk, who is a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, said the most common volcanic rocks typically crystallize in a specific order as they cool, beginning with olivine and feldspar. In the presence of water, however, feldspar crystallizes later and the magma will have a composition such as mugearite.

Although this potential evidence for water deep beneath the surface of Mars isn’t ironclad, the scientists say, it adds to the growing body of studies pointing to the presence of water on the Red Planet – an ingredient necessary for life.

“The rock is significant in another way,” Fisk pointed out. “It implies that the interior of Mars is composed of areas with different compositions; it is not well mixed. Perhaps Mars never got homogenized the way Earth has through its plate tectonics and convection processes.”

In another study, scientists examined the soil diversity and hydration of Gale Crater using a ChemCam laser instrument. They found hydrogen in all of the sites sampled, suggesting water, as well as the likely presence of sulphates. Mars was thought to have three stages – an early phase with lots of water, an evaporation phase when the water disappeared leaving behind sulphate salts, and a third phase when the surface soils dried out and oxidized – creating the planet’s red hue.

“ChemCam found hydrogen in almost every place we found iron,” Fisk said.

The third study compared grains of rock on the surface with a darker soil beneath at a site called the Rocknest Sand Shadow. Some of the sand grains are almost perfectly round and may have come from space, Fisk said.

Beneath Earth’s surface, scientists find long ‘fingers’ of heat

Slow-moving seismic waves, hotter than surrounding material, interact with plumes rising from the mantle to affect the formation of hotspot volcanic islands. -  Illustration: Scott French
Slow-moving seismic waves, hotter than surrounding material, interact with plumes rising from the mantle to affect the formation of hotspot volcanic islands. – Illustration: Scott French

Scientists seeking to understand the forces at work beneath the surface of the Earth have used seismic waves to detect previously unknown “fingers” of heat, some of them thousands of miles long, in Earth’s upper mantle. Their discovery, published Sept. 5 in Science Express, helps explain the “hotspot volcanoes” that give birth to island chains such as Hawai’i and Tahiti.

Many volcanoes arise at collision zones between the tectonic plates, but hotspot volcanoes form in the middle of the plates. Geologists have hypothesized that upwellings of hot, buoyant rock rise as plumes from deep within Earth’s mantle – the layer between the crust and the core that makes up most of Earth’s volume – and supply the heat that feeds these mid-plate volcanoes.

But some hotspot volcano chains are not easily explained by this simple model, a fact which suggests there are more complex interactions between these hot plumes and the upper mantle. Now, a computer modeling approach, developed by University of Maryland seismologist Vedran Lekic and colleagues at the University of California Berkeley, has produced new seismic wave imagery which reveals that the rising plumes are, in fact, influenced by a pattern of finger-like structures carrying heat deep beneath Earth’s oceanic plates.

Seismic waves are waves of energy produced by earthquakes, explosions and volcanic eruptions, which can travel long distances below Earth’s surface. As they travel through layers of different density and elasticity, their shape changes. A global network of seismographs records these changing waveforms. By comparing the waveforms from hundreds of earthquakes recorded at locations around the world, scientists can make inferences about the structures through which the seismic waves have traveled.

The process, known as seismic tomography, works in much the same way that CT scans (computed tomography) reveal structures hidden beneath the surface of the human body. But since we know much less about the structures below Earth’s surface, seismic tomography isn’t easy to interpret. “The Earth’s crust varies a lot, and being able to represent that variation is difficult, much less the structure deeper below” said Lekic, an assistant professor of geology at the College Park campus.

Until recently, analyses like the one in the study would have taken up to 19 years of computer time. While studying for his doctorate with the study’s senior author, UC Berkeley Prof. Barbara Romanowicz, Lekic developed a method to more accurately model waveform data while still keeping computer time manageable, which resulted in higher-resolution images of the interaction between the layers of Earth’s mantle.

By refining this method, a research team led by UC Berkeley graduate student Scott French found finger-like channels of low-speed seismic waves flowing about 120 to 220 miles below the sea floor, and stretching out in bands about 700 miles wide and 1,400 miles apart. The researchers also discovered a subtle but important difference in speed: at this depth, seismic waves typically travel about 2.5 to 3 miles per second, but the average seismic velocity in the channels was 4 percent slower. Because higher temperatures slow down seismic waves, the researchers infer that the channels are hotter than the surrounding material.

“We estimate that the slowdown we’re seeing could represent a temperature increase of up to 200 degrees Celsius,” or about 390 degrees Fahrenheit, said French, the study’s study lead author. At these depths, absolute temperatures in the mantle are about 1,300 degrees Celsius, or 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers said.

Geophysicists have long theorized that channels akin to those revealed in the computer model exist, and are interacting with the plumes in Earth’s mantle that feed hotspot volcanoes. But the new images reveal for the first time the extent, depth and shape of these channels. And they also show that the fingers align with the motion of the overlying tectonic plate. The researchers hypothesize that these channels may be interacting in complex ways with both the tectonic plates above them and the hot plumes rising from below.

“This global pattern of finger-like structures that we’re seeing, which has not been documented before, appears to reflect interactions between the upwelling plumes and the motion of the overlying plates,” Lekic said. “The deflection of the plumes into these finger-like channels represents an intermediate scale of convection in the mantle, between the large-scale circulation that drives plate motions and the smaller scale plumes, which we are now starting to image.”

“The exact nature of those interactions will need further study,” said French, “but we now have a clearer picture that can help us understand the ‘plumbing’ of Earth’s mantle responsible for hotspot volcano islands like Tahiti, Reunion and Samoa.”

Sea level influenced tropical climate during the last ice age

The exposed Sunda Shelf during glacial times greatly affected the atmospheric circulation. The shelf is shown on the left for present-day as the light-blue submerged areas between Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Thailand, and on the right for the last ice age as the green exposed area. -  Pedro DiNezio
The exposed Sunda Shelf during glacial times greatly affected the atmospheric circulation. The shelf is shown on the left for present-day as the light-blue submerged areas between Java, Sumatra, Borneo, and Thailand, and on the right for the last ice age as the green exposed area. – Pedro DiNezio

Scientists look at past climates to learn about climate change and the ability to simulate it with computer models. One region that has received a great deal of attention is the Indo-Pacific warm pool, the vast pool of warm water stretching along the equator from Africa to the western Pacific Ocean.

In a new study, Pedro DiNezio of the International Pacific Research Center, University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Jessica Tierney of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution investigated preserved geological clues (called “proxies”) of rainfall patterns during the last ice age when the planet was dramatically colder than today. They compared these patterns with computer model simulations in order to find a physical explanation for the patterns inferred from the proxies.

Their study, which appears in the May 19, online edition of Nature Geoscience, not only reveals unique patterns of rainfall change over the Indo-Pacific warm pool, but also shows that they were caused by the effect of lowered sea level on the configuration of the Indonesian archipelago.

“For our research,” explains lead-author Pedro DiNezio at the International Pacific Research Center, “we compared the climate of the ice age with our recent warmer climate. We analyzed about 100 proxy records of rainfall and salinity stretching from the tropical western Pacific to the western Indian Ocean and eastern Africa. Rainfall and salinity signals recorded in geological sediments can tell us much about past changes in atmospheric circulation over land and the ocean respectively.”

“Our comparisons show that, as many scientists expected, much of the Indo-Pacific warm pool was drier during this glacial period compared with today. But, counter to some theories, several regions, such as the western Pacific and the western Indian Ocean, especially eastern Africa, were wetter,” adds co-author Jessica Tierney from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

In the second step, the scientists matched these rainfall and salinity patterns with simulations from 12 state-of-the-art climate models that are used to also predict future climate change. For this matching they applied a method of categorical data comparison called the ‘Cohen’s kappa’ statistic. Though widely used in the medical field, this method has not yet been used to match geological climate signals with climate model simulations.

“We were taken aback that only one model out of the 12 showed statistical agreement with the proxy-inferred patterns of the rainfall changes. This model, though, agrees well with both the rainfall and salinity indicators – two entirely independent sets of proxy data covering distinct areas of the tropics,” says DiNezio.

The model reveals that the dry climate during the glacial period was driven by reduced convection over a region of the warm pool called the Sunda Shelf. Today the shelf is submerged beneath the Gulf of Thailand, but was above sea level during the glacial period, when sea level was about 120 m lower.

“The exposure of the Sunda Shelf greatly weakened convection over the warm pool, with far-reaching impacts on the large-scale circulation and on rainfall patterns from Africa to the western Pacific and northern Australia,” explains DiNezio.

The main weakness of the other models, according to the authors, is their limited ability to simulate convection, the vertical air motions that lift humid air into the atmosphere. Differences in the way each model simulates convection may explain why the results for the glacial period are so different.

“Our research resolves a decades-old question of what the response of tropical climate was to glaciation,” concludes DiNezio. “The study, moreover, presents a fine benchmark for assessing the ability of climate models to simulate the response of tropical convection to altered land masses and global temperatures.