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.”

New study finds Antarctic Ice Sheet unstable at end of last ice age

This is one of many icebergs that sheared off the continent and ended up in the Scotia Sea. -  Photo courtesy of Michael Weber, University of Cologne
This is one of many icebergs that sheared off the continent and ended up in the Scotia Sea. – Photo courtesy of Michael Weber, University of Cologne

A new study has found that the Antarctic Ice Sheet began melting about 5,000 years earlier than previously thought coming out of the last ice age – and that shrinkage of the vast ice sheet accelerated during eight distinct episodes, causing rapid sea level rise.

The international study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is particularly important coming on the heels of recent studies that suggest destabilization of part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun.

Results of this latest study are being published this week in the journal Nature. It was conducted by researchers at University of Cologne, Oregon State University, the Alfred-Wegener-Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa, University of Lapland, University of New South Wales, and University of Bonn.

The researchers examined two sediment cores from the Scotia Sea between Antarctica and South America that contained “iceberg-rafted debris” that had been scraped off Antarctica by moving ice and deposited via icebergs into the sea. As the icebergs melted, they dropped the minerals into the seafloor sediments, giving scientists a glimpse at the past behavior of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Periods of rapid increases in iceberg-rafted debris suggest that more icebergs were being released by the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The researchers discovered increased amounts of debris during eight separate episodes beginning as early as 20,000 years ago, and continuing until 9,000 years ago.

The melting of the Antarctic Ice Sheet wasn’t thought to have started, however, until 14,000 years ago.

“Conventional thinking based on past research is that the Antarctic Ice Sheet has been relatively stable since the last ice age, that it began to melt relatively late during the deglaciation process, and that its decline was slow and steady until it reached its present size,” said lead author Michael Weber, a scientist from the University of Cologne in Germany.

“The sediment record suggests a different pattern – one that is more episodic and suggests that parts of the ice sheet repeatedly became unstable during the last deglaciation,” Weber added.

The research also provides the first solid evidence that the Antarctic Ice Sheet contributed to what is known as meltwater pulse 1A, a period of very rapid sea level rise that began some 14,500 years ago, according to Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist and co-author on the study.

The largest of the eight episodic pulses outlined in the new Nature study coincides with meltwater pulse 1A.

“During that time, the sea level on a global basis rose about 50 feet in just 350 years – or about 20 times faster than sea level rise over the last century,” noted Clark, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “We don’t yet know what triggered these eight episodes or pulses, but it appears that once the melting of the ice sheet began it was amplified by physical processes.”

The researchers suspect that a feedback mechanism may have accelerated the melting, possibly by changing ocean circulation that brought warmer water to the Antarctic subsurface, according to co-author Axel Timmermann, a climate researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“This positive feedback is a perfect recipe for rapid sea level rise,” Timmermann said.

Some 9,000 years ago, the episodic pulses of melting stopped, the researchers say.

“Just as we are unsure of what triggered these eight pulses,” Clark said, “we don’t know why they stopped. Perhaps the sheet ran out of ice that was vulnerable to the physical changes that were taking place. However, our new results suggest that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is more unstable than previously considered.”

Today, the annual calving of icebergs from Antarctic represents more than half of the annual loss of mass of the Antarctic Ice Sheet – an estimated 1,300 to 2,000 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons). Some of these giant icebergs are longer than 18 kilometers.

Warm US West, cold East: A 4,000-year pattern

<IMG SRC="/Images/485889256.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="262" BORDER="0" ALT="University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.”>
University of Utah geochemist Gabe Bowen led a new study, published in Nature Communications, showing that the curvy jet stream pattern that brought mild weather to western North America and intense cold to the eastern states this past winter has become more dominant during the past 4,000 years than it was from 8,000 to 4,000 years ago. The study suggests global warming may aggravate the pattern, meaning such severe winter weather extremes may be worse in the future. – Lee J. Siegel, University of Utah.

Last winter’s curvy jet stream pattern brought mild temperatures to western North America and harsh cold to the East. A University of Utah-led study shows that pattern became more pronounced 4,000 years ago, and suggests it may worsen as Earth’s climate warms.

“If this trend continues, it could contribute to more extreme winter weather events in North America, as experienced this year with warm conditions in California and Alaska and intrusion of cold Arctic air across the eastern USA,” says geochemist Gabe Bowen, senior author of the study.

The study was published online April 16 by the journal Nature Communications.

“A sinuous or curvy winter jet stream means unusual warmth in the West, drought conditions in part of the West, and abnormally cold winters in the East and Southeast,” adds Bowen, an associate professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah. “We saw a good example of extreme wintertime climate that largely fit that pattern this past winter,” although in the typical pattern California often is wetter.

It is not new for scientists to forecast that the current warming of Earth’s climate due to carbon dioxide, methane and other “greenhouse” gases already has led to increased weather extremes and will continue to do so.

The new study shows the jet stream pattern that brings North American wintertime weather extremes is millennia old – “a longstanding and persistent pattern of climate variability,” Bowen says. Yet it also suggests global warming may enhance the pattern so there will be more frequent or more severe winter weather extremes or both.

“This is one more reason why we may have more winter extremes in North America, as well as something of a model for what those extremes may look like,” Bowen says. Human-caused climate change is reducing equator-to-pole temperature differences; the atmosphere is warming more at the poles than at the equator. Based on what happened in past millennia, that could make a curvy jet stream even more frequent and-or intense than it is now, he says.

Bowen and his co-authors analyzed previously published data on oxygen isotope ratios in lake sediment cores and cave deposits from sites in the eastern and western United States and Canada. Those isotopes were deposited in ancient rainfall and incorporated into calcium carbonate. They reveal jet stream directions during the past 8,000 years, a geological time known as middle and late stages of the Holocene Epoch.

Next, the researchers did computer modeling or simulations of jet stream patterns – both curvy and more direct west to east – to show how changes in those patterns can explain changes in the isotope ratios left by rainfall in the old lake and cave deposits.

They found that the jet stream pattern – known technically as the Pacific North American teleconnection – shifted to a generally more “positive phase” – meaning a curvy jet stream – over a 500-year period starting about 4,000 years ago. In addition to this millennial-scale change in jet stream patterns, they also noted a cycle in which increases in the sun’s intensity every 200 years make the jet stream flatter.

Bowen conducted the study with Zhongfang Liu of Tianjin Normal University in China, Kei Yoshimura of the University of Tokyo, Nikolaus Buenning of the University of Southern California, Camille Risi of the French National Center for Scientific Research, Jeffrey Welker of the University of Alaska at Anchorage, and Fasong Yuan of Cleveland State University.

The study was funded by the National Science Foundation, National Natural Science Foundation of China, Japan Society for the Promotion of Science and a joint program by the society and Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology: the Program for Risk Information on Climate Change.

Sinuous Jet Stream Brings Winter Weather Extremes

The Pacific North American teleconnection, or PNA, “is a pattern of climate variability” with positive and negative phases, Bowen says.

“In periods of positive PNA, the jet stream is very sinuous. As it comes in from Hawaii and the Pacific, it tends to rocket up past British Columbia to the Yukon and Alaska, and then it plunges down over the Canadian plains and into the eastern United States. The main effect in terms of weather is that we tend to have cold winter weather throughout most of the eastern U.S. You have a freight car of arctic air that pushes down there.”

Bowen says that when the jet stream is curvy, “the West tends to have mild, relatively warm winters, and Pacific storms tend to occur farther north. So in Northern California, the Pacific Northwest and parts of western interior, it tends to be relatively dry, but tends to be quite wet and unusually warm in northwest Canada and Alaska.”

This past winter, there were times of a strongly curving jet stream, and times when the Pacific North American teleconnection was in its negative phase, which means “the jet stream is flat, mostly west-to-east oriented,” and sometimes split, Bowen says. In years when the jet stream pattern is more flat than curvy, “we tend to have strong storms in Northern California and Oregon. That moisture makes it into the western interior. The eastern U.S. is not affected by arctic air, so it tends to have milder winter temperatures.”

The jet stream pattern – whether curvy or flat – has its greatest effects in winter and less impact on summer weather, Bowen says. The curvy pattern is enhanced by another climate phenomenon, the El Nino-Southern Oscillation, which sends a pool of warm water eastward to the eastern Pacific and affects climate worldwide.

Traces of Ancient Rains Reveal Which Way the Wind Blew

Over the millennia, oxygen in ancient rain water was incorporated into calcium carbonate deposited in cave and lake sediments. The ratio of rare, heavy oxygen-18 to the common isotope oxygen-16 in the calcium carbonate tells geochemists whether clouds that carried the rain were moving generally north or south during a given time.

Previous research determined the dates and oxygen isotope ratios for sediments in the new study, allowing Bowen and colleagues to use the ratios to tell if the jet stream was curvy or flat at various times during the past 8,000 years.

Bowen says air flowing over the Pacific picks up water from the ocean. As a curvy jet stream carries clouds north toward Alaska, the air cools and some of the water falls out as rain, with greater proportions of heavier oxygen-18 falling, thus raising the oxygen-18-to-16 ratio in rain and certain sediments in western North America. Then the jet stream curves south over the middle of the continent, and the water vapor, already depleted in oxygen-18, falls in the East as rain with lower oxygen-18-to-16 ratios.

When the jet stream is flat and moving east-to-west, oxygen-18 in rain is still elevated in the West and depleted in the East, but the difference is much less than when the jet stream is curvy.

By examining oxygen isotope ratios in lake and cave sediments in the West and East, Bowen and colleagues showed that a flatter jet stream pattern prevailed from about 8,000 to 4,000 years ago in North America, but then, over only 500 years, the pattern shifted so that curvy jet streams became more frequent or severe or both. The method can’t distinguish frequency from severity.

The new study is based mainly on isotope ratios at Buckeye Creek Cave, W. Va.; Lake Grinell, N.J.; Oregon Caves National Monument; and Lake Jellybean, Yukon.

Additional data supporting increasing curviness of the jet stream over recent millennia came from seven other sites: Crawford Lake, Ontario; Castor Lake, Wash.; Little Salt Spring, Fla.; Estancia Lake, N.M.; Crevice Lake, Mont.; and Dog and Felker lakes, British Columbia. Some sites provided oxygen isotope data; others showed changes in weather patterns based on tree ring growth or spring deposits.

Simulating the Jet Stream

As a test of what the cave and lake sediments revealed, Bowen’s team did computer simulations of climate using software that takes isotopes into account.

Simulations of climate and oxygen isotope changes in the Middle Holocene and today resemble, respectively, today’s flat and curvy jet stream patterns, supporting the switch toward increasing jet stream sinuosity 4,000 years ago.

Why did the trend start then?

“It was a when seasonality becomes weaker,” Bowen says. The Northern Hemisphere was closer to the sun during the summer 8,000 years ago than it was 4,000 years ago or is now due to a 20,000-year cycle in Earth’s orbit. He envisions a tipping point 4,000 years ago when weakening summer sunlight reduced the equator-to-pole temperature difference and, along with an intensifying El Nino climate pattern, pushed the jet stream toward greater curviness.

Extrusive volcanism formed the Hawaiian Islands

This is a 3-D perspective view of the topography of the Hawaiian Islands (gray shaded) and seafloor relief viewed from just south of the Hawaii's Big Island. The colors show residual gravity anomaly, measured on land and along ship tracks: red-cyan representing an excess pull of gravity, blue representing a small deficit in the pull of gravity. -  Ashton Flinders, UHM SOEST.
This is a 3-D perspective view of the topography of the Hawaiian Islands (gray shaded) and seafloor relief viewed from just south of the Hawaii’s Big Island. The colors show residual gravity anomaly, measured on land and along ship tracks: red-cyan representing an excess pull of gravity, blue representing a small deficit in the pull of gravity. – Ashton Flinders, UHM SOEST.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Hawaii – Manoa (UHM) School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) and the University of Rhode Island (URI) changes the understanding of how the Hawaiian Islands formed. Scientists have determined that it is the eruptions of lava on the surface, extrusion, which grow Hawaiian volcanoes, rather than internal emplacement of magma, as was previously thought.

Before this work, most scientists thought that Hawaiian volcanoes grew primarily internally – by magma intruding into rock and solidifying before it reaches the surface. While this type of growth does occur, along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone (ERZ), for example, it does not appear to be representative of the overall history of how the Hawaiian Islands formed. Previous estimates of the internal-to-extrusive ratios (internally emplaced magma versus extrusive lava flow) were based on observations over a very short time frame, in the geologic sense.

Ashton Flinders (M.S. from UHM), lead author and graduate student at URI, and colleagues compiled historical land-based gravity surveys with more recent surveys on the Big Island of Hawaii (in partnership with Jim Kauhikaua of the U.S. Geological Survey – Hawaii Volcano Observatory) and Kauai, along with marine surveys from the National Geophysical Data Center and from the UH R/V Kilo Moana. These types of data sets allow scientists to infer processes that have taken place over longer time periods.

“The discrepancy we see between our estimate and these past estimates emphasizes that the short term processes we currently see in Hawaii (which tend to be more intrusive) do not represent the predominant character of their volcanic activity,” said Flinder.

“This could imply that over the long-term, Kilauea’s ERZ will see less seismic activity and more eruptive activity that previously thought. The 3-decade-old eruption along Kilauea’s ERZ could last for many, many more decades to come,” said Dr. Garrett Ito, Professor of Geology and Geophysics at UHM and co-author.

“I think one of the more interesting possible implications is how the intrusive-to-extrusive ratio impacts the stability of the volcano’s flank. Collapses occur over a range of scales from as large as the whole flank of a volcano, to bench collapses on the south coast of Big Island, to small rock falls. ” said Flinders. Intrusive magma is more dense and structurally stronger than lava flows. “If the bulk of the islands are made from these weak extrusive flows then this would account for some of the collapses that have been documented, but this is mainly just speculation as of now.”

The authors hope this new density model can be used as a starting point for further crustal studies in the Hawaiian Islands.

New model of Earth’s interior reveals clues to hotspot volcanoes

This is a map view of seismic shear-wave speed in the earth's upper mantle, highlighting the slow wave-speed channels (warm colors) imaged in this study. Where present, the channels align with the direction of tectonic-plate motion (dashed lines). -  Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, UC Berkeley
This is a map view of seismic shear-wave speed in the earth’s upper mantle, highlighting the slow wave-speed channels (warm colors) imaged in this study. Where present, the channels align with the direction of tectonic-plate motion (dashed lines). – Berkeley Seismological Laboratory, UC Berkeley

Scientists at the University of California, Berkeley, have detected previously unknown channels of slow-moving seismic waves in Earth’s upper mantle, a discovery that helps explain “hotspot volcanoes” that give birth to island chains such as Hawaii and Tahiti.

Unlike volcanoes that emerge from collision zones between tectonic plates, hotspot volcanoes form in the middle of the plates. The prevalent theory for how a mid-plate volcano forms is that a single upwelling of hot, buoyant rock rises vertically as a plume from deep within Earth’s mantle the layer found between the planet’s crust and core and supplies the heat to feed volcanic eruptions.

However, some hotspot volcano chains are not easily explained by this simple model, suggesting that a more complex interaction between plumes and the upper mantle is at play, said the study authors.

The newfound channels of slow-moving seismic waves, described in a paper to be published Thursday, Sept. 5, in Science Express, provide an important piece of the puzzle in the formation of these hotspot volcanoes and other observations of unusually high heat flow from the ocean floor.

The formation of volcanoes at the edges of plates is closely tied to the movement of tectonic plates, which are created as hot magma pushes up through fissures in mid-ocean ridges and solidifies. As the plates move away from the ridges, they cool, harden and get heavier, eventually sinking back down into the mantle at subduction zones.

But scientists have noticed large swaths of the seafloor that are significantly warmer than expected from this tectonic plate-cooling model. It had been suggested that the plumes responsible for hotspot volcanism could also play a role in explaining these observations, but it was not entirely clear how.

“We needed a clearer picture of where the extra heat is coming from and how it behaves in the upper mantle,” said the study’s senior author, Barbara Romanowicz, UC Berkeley professor of earth and planetary sciences and a researcher at the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory. “Our new finding helps bridge the gap between processes deep in the mantle and phenomenon observed on the earth’s surface, such as hotspots.”

The researchers utilized a new technique that takes waveform data from earthquakes around the world, and then analyzed the individual “wiggles” in the seismograms to create a computer model of Earth’s interior. The technology is comparable to a CT scan.

The model revealed channels dubbed “low-velocity fingers” by the researchers where seismic waves traveled unusually slowly. The fingers stretched out in bands measuring about 600 miles wide and 1,200 miles apart, and moved at depths of 120-220 miles below the seafloor.

Seismic waves typically travel at speeds of 2.5 to 3 miles per second at these depths, but the channels exhibited a 4 percent slowdown in average seismic velocity.

“We know that seismic velocity is influenced by temperature, and we estimate that the slowdown we’re seeing could represent a temperature increase of up to 200 degrees Celsius,” said study lead author Scott French, UC Berkeley graduate student in earth and planetary sciences.

The formation of channels, similar to those revealed in the computer model, has been theoretically suggested to affect plumes in Earth’s mantle, but it has never before been imaged on a global scale. The fingers are also observed to align with the motion of the overlying tectonic plate, further evidence of “channeling” of plume material, the researchers said.

“We believe that plumes contribute to the generation of hotspots and high heat flow, accompanied by complex interactions with the shallow upper mantle,” said French. “The exact nature of those interactions will need further study, 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.”

Ice-free Arctic winters could explain amplified warming during Pliocene

Year-round ice-free conditions across the surface of the Arctic Ocean could explain why the Earth was substantially warmer during the Pliocene Epoch than it is today, despite similar concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, according to new research carried out at the University of Colorado Boulder.

In early May, instruments at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii marked a new record: The concentration of carbon dioxide climbed to 400 parts per million for the first time in modern history.

The last time researchers believe the carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere reached 400 ppm-between 3 and 5 million years ago during the Pliocene-the Earth was about 3.5 to 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer (2 to 5 degrees Celsius) than it is today. During that time period, trees overtook the tundra, sprouting right to the edges of the Arctic Ocean, and the seas swelled, pushing ocean levels 65 to 80 feet higher.

Scientists’ understanding of the climate during the Pliocene has largely been pieced together from fossil records preserved in sediments deposited beneath lakes and on the ocean floor.

“When we put 400 ppm carbon dioxide into a model, we don’t get as warm a planet as we see when we look at paleorecords from the Pliocene,” said Jim White, director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research and co-author of the new study published online in the journal Palaeogeography, Paleoclimatology, Palaeoecology. “That tells us that there may be something missing in the climate models.”

Scientists have proposed several hypotheses in the past to explain the warmer Pliocene climate. One idea, for example, was that the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, the narrow strip of land linking North and South America, could have altered ocean circulations during the Pliocene, forcing warmer waters toward the Arctic. But many of those hypotheses, including the Panama possibility, have not proved viable.

For the new study, led by Ashley Ballantyne, a former CU-Boulder doctoral student who is now an assistant professor of bioclimatology at the University of Montana, the research team decided to see what would happen if they forced the model to assume that the Arctic was free of ice in the winter as well as the summer during the Pliocene. Without these additional parameters, climate models set to emulate atmospheric conditions during the Pliocene show ice-free summers followed by a layer of ice reforming during the sunless winters.

“We tried a simple experiment in which we said, ‘We don’t know why sea ice might be gone all year round, but let’s just make it go away,’ ” said White, who also is a professor of geological sciences. “And what we found was that we got the right kind of temperature change and we got a dampened seasonal cycle, both of which are things we think we see in the Pliocene.”

In the model simulation, year-round ice-free conditions caused warmer conditions in the Arctic because the open water surface allowed for evaporation. Evaporation requires energy, and the water vapor then stored that energy as heat in the atmosphere. The water vapor also created clouds, which trapped heat near the planet’s surface.

“Basically, when you take away the sea ice, the Arctic Ocean responds by creating a blanket of water vapor and clouds that keeps the Arctic warmer,” White said.

White and his colleagues are now trying to understand what types of conditions could bridge the standard model simulations with the simulations in which ice-free conditions in the Arctic are imposed. If they’re successful, computer models would be able to model the transition between a time when ice reformed in the winter to a time when the ocean remained devoid of ice throughout the year.

Such a model also would offer insight into what could happen in our future. Currently, about 70 percent of sea ice disappears during the summertime before reforming in the winter.

“We’re trying to understand what happened in the past but with a very keen eye to the future and the present,” White said. “The piece that we’re looking at in the future is what is going to happen as the Arctic Ocean warms up and becomes more ice-free in the summertime.

“Will we continue to return to an ice-covered Arctic in the wintertime? Or will we start to see some of the feedbacks that now aren’t very well represented in our climate models? If we do, that’s a big game changer.”

Location of upwelling in Earth’s mantle discovered to be stable

This is a diagram showing a slice through the Earth's mantle, cutting across major mantle upwelling locations beneath Africa and the Pacific. -  C. Conrad (UH SOEST)
This is a diagram showing a slice through the Earth’s mantle, cutting across major mantle upwelling locations beneath Africa and the Pacific. – C. Conrad (UH SOEST)

A study published in Nature today shares the discovery that large-scale upwelling within Earth’s mantle mostly occurs in only two places: beneath Africa and the Central Pacific. More importantly, Clinton Conrad, Associate Professor of Geology at the University of Hawaii – Manoa’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) and colleagues revealed that these upwelling locations have remained remarkably stable over geologic time, despite dramatic reconfigurations of tectonic plate motions and continental locations on the Earth’s surface. “For example,” said Conrad, “the Pangaea supercontinent formed and broke apart at the surface, but we think that the upwelling locations in the mantle have remained relatively constant despite this activity.”

Conrad has studied patterns of tectonic plates throughout his career, and has long noticed that the plates were, on average, moving northward. “Knowing this,” explained Conrad, “I was curious if I could determine a single location in the Northern Hemisphere toward which all plates are converging, on average.” After locating this point in eastern Asia, Conrad then wondered if other special points on Earth could characterize plate tectonics. “With some mathematical work, I described the plate tectonic ‘quadrupole’, which defines two points of ‘net convergence’ and two points of ‘net divergence’ of tectonic plate motions.”

When the researchers computed the plate tectonic quadruople locations for present-day plate motions, they found that the net divergence locations were consistent with the African and central Pacific locations where scientists think that mantle upwellings are occurring today. “This observation was interesting and important, and it made sense,” said Conrad. “Next, we applied this formula to the time history of plate motions and plotted the points – I was astonished to see that the points have not moved over geologic time!” Because plate motions are merely the surface expression of the underlying dynamics of the Earth’s mantle, Conrad and his colleagues were able to infer that upwelling flow in the mantle must also remain stable over geologic time. “It was as if I was seeing the ‘ghosts’ of ancient mantle flow patterns, recorded in the geologic record of plate motions!”

Earth’s mantle dynamics govern many aspects of geologic change on the Earth’s surface. This recent discovery that mantle upwelling has remained stable and centered on two locations (beneath Africa and the Central Pacific) provides a framework for understanding how mantle dynamics can be linked to surface geology over geologic time. For example, the researchers can now estimate how individual continents have moved relative to these two upwelling locations. This allows them to tie specific events that are observed in the geologic record to the mantle forces that ultimately caused these events.

More broadly, this research opens up a big question for solid earth scientists: What processes cause these two mantle upwelling locations to remain stable within a complex and dynamically evolving system such as the mantle? One notable observation is that the lowermost mantle beneath Africa and the Central Pacific seems to be composed of rock assemblages that are different than the rest of the mantle. Is it possible that these two anomalous regions at the bottom of the mantle are somehow organizing flow patterns for the rest of the mantle? How?

“Answering such questions is important because geologic features such as ocean basins, mountains belts, earthquakes and volcanoes ultimately result from Earth’s interior dynamics,” Conrad described. “Thus, it is important to understand the time-dependent nature of our planet’s interior dynamics in order to better understand the geological forces that affect the planetary surface that is our home.”

The mantle flow framework that can be defined as a result of this study allows geophysicists to predict surface uplift and subsidence patterns as a function of time. These vertical motions of continents and seafloor cause both local and global changes in sea level. In the future, Conrad wants to use this new understanding of mantle flow patterns to predict changes in sea level over geologic time. By comparing these predictions to observations of sea level change, he hopes to develop new constraints on the influence of mantle dynamics on sea level.

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.

Hawaiian hotspot variability attributed to small-scale convection

Three-dimensional image showing predicted mantle temperatures (blue = warm, red = hot, white = hottest) and a plume of hot mantle rising beneath the Hawaiian hotspot. -  Maxim Ballmer, SOEST/ UHM
Three-dimensional image showing predicted mantle temperatures (blue = warm, red = hot, white = hottest) and a plume of hot mantle rising beneath the Hawaiian hotspot. – Maxim Ballmer, SOEST/ UHM

Small scale convection at the base of the Pacific plate has been simulated in a model of mantle plume dynamics, enabling reasearchers to explain the complex set of observations at the Hawaiian hotspot, according to a new study posted online in the June 26th edition of Nature Geoscience. “A range of observations cannot be explained by the classical version of the mantle plume concept,” says Maxim Ballmer, Post Doctoral Researcher in the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) at UHM. These observations include the occurrence of secondary volcanism away from the hotspot (e.g., Diamond Head, Punchbowl, Hanauma Bay), as well as the chemical asymmetry (Mauna Loa compared to Mauna Kea) and temporal variability (over timescales greater than 10,000,000 years) of hotspot volcanism itself.

Ballmer and colleagues, including advisor Garrett Ito, Associate Professor, in the Department of Geology and Geophysics in the SOEST at UHM, designed a geodynamic model of the mantle that successfully predicts a large range of observations thus providing insight into the composition and dynamics of the mantle. Ballmer says the findings of their model, “make an important contribution toward understanding the origin of volcanism away from plate boundaries. This is a long-standing question in our community that potentially provides general insight into the dynamics of our planet, and particularly into the make-up of the deepest mantle, from where mantle plumes originate. For many reasons, understanding the deepest mantle is relevant for questions about the early days of Earth, and the origin of water and life.”

These findings came as a bit of a surprise. Although small-scale convection was one hypothesis for explaining late-stage rejuvenated volcanism on the islands, Ito reports, “this study is the first to qualitatively explore this mechanism and to show that it can explain both rejuvenated as well as arch volcanism, well away from the islands.”

As a next step in understanding mantle dynamics, Ballmer hopes to explain some of the characteristics of the Hawaiian plume that have been revealed by SOEST – UHM colleague Cecily Wolfe using seismic earthquake tomography. To do this, he will simulate a thermochemical mantle plume, which in some ways behaves similarly to the upwellings in lava lamps. A thermochemical plume is a plume that is hot (i.e. thermally buoyant), but compositionally dense. Such a plume typically behaves more complicatedly than a classical plume.

Hot stuff: Magma at shallow depth under Hawaii

Lava erupting from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent
Lava erupting from the Puʻu ʻŌʻō vent

Ohio State University researchers have found a new way to gauge the depth of the magma chamber that forms the Hawaiian Island volcanic chain, and determined that the magma lies much closer to the surface than previously thought.

The finding could help scientists predict when Hawaiian volcanoes are going to erupt. It also suggests that Hawaii holds great potential for thermal energy.

Julie Ditkof, an honors undergraduate student in earth sciences at Ohio State, described the study at the American Geophysical Union Meeting in San Francisco on Tuesday, December 14.

For her honors thesis, Ditkof took a technique that her advisor Michael Barton, professor of earth sciences, developed to study magma in Iceland, and applied it to Hawaii.

She discovered that magma lies an average of 3 to 4 kilometers (about 1.9 to 2.5 miles) beneath the surface of Hawaii.

“Hawaii was already unique among volcanic systems, because it has such an extensive plumbing system, and the magma that erupts has a unique and variable chemical composition,” Ditkof explained. “Now we know the chamber is at a shallow depth not seen anywhere else in the world.”

For example, Barton determined that magma chambers beneath Iceland lie at an average depth of 20 kilometers.

While that means the crust beneath Hawaii is much thinner than the crust beneath Iceland, Hawaiians have nothing to fear.

“The crust in Hawaii has been solidifying from eruptions for more than 300,000 years now. The crust doesn’t get consumed by the magma chamber. It floats on top,” Ditkof explained.

The results could help settle two scientific debates, however.

Researchers have wondered whether more than one magma chamber was responsible for the varying chemical compositions, even though seismological studies indicated only one chamber was present.

Meanwhile, those same seismological studies pegged the depth as shallow, while petrologic studies – studies of rock composition – pegged it deeper.

There has never been a way to prove who was right, until now.

“We suspected that the depth was actually shallow, but we wanted to confirm or deny all those other studies with hard data,” Barton said.

He and Ditkof determined that there is one large magma chamber just beneath the entire island chain that feeds the Hawaiian volcanoes through many different conduits.

They came to this conclusion after Ditkof analyzed the chemical composition of nearly 1,000 magma samples. From the ratio of some elements to others – aluminum to calcium, for example, or calcium to magnesium – she was able to calculate the pressure at which the magma had crystallized.

For his studies of Iceland, Barton created a methodology for converting those pressure calculations to depth. When Ditkof applied that methodology, she obtained an average depth of 3 to 4 kilometers.

Researchers could use this technique to regularly monitor pressures inside the chamber and make more precise estimates of when eruptions are going to occur.

Barton said that, ultimately, the finding might be more important in terms of energy.

“Hawaii has huge geothermal resources that haven’t been tapped fully,” he said, and quickly added that scientists would have to determine whether tapping that energy was practical – or safe.

“You’d have to drill some test bore holes. That’s dangerous on an active volcano, because then the lava could flow down and wipe out your drilling rig.”