Pacific plate shrinking as it cools

A map produced by scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Rice University shows predicted velocities for sectors of the Pacific tectonic plate relative to points near the Pacific-Antarctic ridge, which lies in the South Pacific ocean. The researchers show the Pacific plate is contracting as younger sections of the lithosphere cool. -  Corné Kreemer and Richard Gordon
A map produced by scientists at the University of Nevada, Reno, and Rice University shows predicted velocities for sectors of the Pacific tectonic plate relative to points near the Pacific-Antarctic ridge, which lies in the South Pacific ocean. The researchers show the Pacific plate is contracting as younger sections of the lithosphere cool. – Corné Kreemer and Richard Gordon

The tectonic plate that dominates the Pacific “Ring of Fire” is not as rigid as many scientists assume, according to researchers at Rice University and the University of Nevada.

Rice geophysicist Richard Gordon and his colleague, Corné Kreemer, an associate professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, have determined that cooling of the lithosphere — the outermost layer of Earth — makes some sections of the Pacific plate contract horizontally at faster rates than others and cause the plate to deform.

Gordon said the effect detailed this month in Geology is most pronounced in the youngest parts of the lithosphere — about 2 million years old or less — that make up some the Pacific Ocean’s floor. They predict the rate of contraction to be 10 times faster than older parts of the plate that were created about 20 million years ago and 80 times faster than very old parts of the plate that were created about 160 million years ago.

The tectonic plates that cover Earth’s surface, including both land and seafloor, are in constant motion; they imperceptibly surf the viscous mantle below. Over time, the plates scrape against and collide into each other, forming mountains, trenches and other geological features.

On the local scale, these movements cover only inches per year and are hard to see. The same goes for deformations of the type described in the new paper, but when summed over an area the size of the Pacific plate, they become statistically significant, Gordon said.

The new calculations showed the Pacific plate is pulling away from the North American plate a little more — approximately 2 millimeters a year — than the rigid-plate theory would account for, he said. Overall, the plate is moving northwest about 50 millimeters a year.

“The central assumption in plate tectonics is that the plates are rigid, but the studies that my colleagues and I have been doing for the past few decades show that this central assumption is merely an approximation — that is, the plates are not rigid,” Gordon said. “Our latest contribution is to specify or predict the nature and rate of deformation over the entire Pacific plate.”

The researchers already suspected cooling had a role from their observation that the 25 large and small plates that make up Earth’s shell do not fit together as well as the “rigid model” assumption would have it. They also knew that lithosphere as young as 2 million years was more malleable than hardened lithosphere as old as 170 million years.

“We first showed five years ago that the rate of horizontal contraction is inversely proportional to the age of the seafloor,” he said. “So it’s in the youngest lithosphere (toward the east side of the Pacific plate) where you get the biggest effects.”

The researchers saw hints of deformation in a metric called plate circuit closure, which describes the relative motions where at least three plates meet. If the plates were rigid, their angular velocities at the triple junction would have a sum of zero. But where the Pacific, Nazca and Cocos plates meet west of the Galápagos Islands, the nonclosure velocity is 14 millimeters a year, enough to suggest that all three plates are deforming.

“When we did our first global model in 1990, we said to ourselves that maybe when we get new data, this issue will go away,” Gordon said. “But when we updated our model a few years ago, all the places that didn’t have plate circuit closure 20 years ago still didn’t have it.”

There had to be a reason, and it began to become clear when Gordon and his colleagues looked beneath the seafloor. “It’s long been understood that the ocean floor increases in depth with age due to cooling and thermal contraction. But if something cools, it doesn’t just cool in one direction. It’s going to be at least approximately isotropic. It should shrink the same in all directions, not just vertically,” he said.

A previous study by Gordon and former Rice graduate student Ravi Kumar calculated the effect of thermal contraction on vertical columns of oceanic lithosphere and determined its impact on the horizontal plane, but viewing the plate as a whole demanded a different approach. “We thought about the vertically integrated properties of the lithosphere, but once we did that, we realized Earth’s surface is still a two-dimensional problem,” he said.

For the new study, Gordon and Kreemer started by determining how much the contractions would, on average, strain the horizontal surface. They divided the Pacific plate into a grid and calculated the strain on each of the nearly 198,000 squares based on their age, as determined by the seafloor age model published by the National Geophysical Data Center.

“That we could calculate on a laptop,” Gordon said. “If we tried to do it in three dimensions, it would take a high-powered computer cluster.”

The surface calculations were enough to show likely strain fields across the Pacific plate that, when summed, accounted for the deformation. As further proof, the distribution of recent earthquakes in the Pacific plate, which also relieve the strain, showed a greater number occurring in the plate’s younger lithosphere. “In the Earth, those strains are either accommodated by elastic deformation or by little earthquakes that adjust it,” he said.

“The central assumption of plate tectonics assumes the plates are rigid, and this is what we make predictions from,” said Gordon, who was recently honored by the American Geophysical Union for writing two papers about plate movements that are among the top 40 papers ever to appear in one of the organization’s top journals. “Up until now, it’s worked really well.”

“The big picture is that we now have, subject to experimental and observational tests, the first realistic, quantitative estimate of how the biggest oceanic plate departs from that rigid-plate assumption.”

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.

Atlas Mountains in Morocco are buoyed up by superhot rock, study finds

<IMG SRC="/Images/187660813.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="206" BORDER="0" ALT="This is a profile depicting the height and depth of the Atlas Mountains. The blue bars indicate the boundary between the crust and the superhot rock below, about 15 km shallower than predicted by previous models. – Figure 2 from the Geology paper, courtesy of Meghan Miller and Thorsten Becker”>
This is a profile depicting the height and depth of the Atlas Mountains. The blue bars indicate the boundary between the crust and the superhot rock below, about 15 km shallower than predicted by previous models. – Figure 2 from the Geology paper, courtesy of Meghan Miller and Thorsten Becker

The Atlas Mountains defy the standard model for mountain structure in which high topography must have deep roots for support, according to a new study from Earth scientists at USC.

In a new model, the researchers show that the mountains are floating on a layer of hot molten rock that flows beneath the region’s lithosphere, perhaps all the way from the volcanic Canary Islands, just offshore northwestern Africa.

“Our findings confirm that mountain structures and their formation are far more complex than previously believed,” said lead author Meghan Miller, assistant professor of Earth sciences at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The study, coauthored by Thorsten Becker, professor of Earth sciences at USC Dornsife, was published by Geology on Jan. 1, 2014 and highlighted by Nature Geoscience.

A well-established model for the Earth’s lithosphere suggests that the height of the Earth’s crust must be supported by a commensurate depth, much like how a tall iceberg doesn’t simply float on the surface of the water but instead rests on a large submerged mass of ice. This property is known as “istostacy.”

“The Atlas Mountains are at present out of balance, likely due to a confluence of existing lithospheric strength anomalies and deep mantle dynamics,” Becker said.

Miller and Becker used seismometers to measure the thickness of the lithosphere – that is, the Earth’s rigid outermost layer – beneath the Altas Mountains in Morocco. By analyzing 67 distant seismic events with 15 seismometers, the team was able to use the Earth’s vibrations to “see” into the deep subsurface.

They found that the crust beneath the Atlas Mountains, which rise to an elevation of more than 4,000 meters, reaches a depth of only about 35 km – about 15 km shy of what the traditional model predicts.

“This study shows that deformation can be observed through the entire lithosphere and contributes to mountain building even far away from plate boundaries” Miller said.

Miller’s lab is currently conducting further research into the timing and effects of the mountain building on other geological processes.

Earth’s crust was unstable in the Archean eon and dripped down into the mantle

Earth’s mantle temperatures during the Archean eon, which commenced some 4 billion years ago, were significantly higher than they are today. According to recent model calculations, the Archean crust that formed under these conditions was so dense that large portions of it were recycled back into the mantle. This is the conclusion reached by Dr. Tim Johnson who is currently studying the evolution of the Earth’s crust as a member of the research team led by Professor Richard White of the Institute of Geosciences at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU). According to the calculations, this dense primary crust would have descended vertically in drip form. In contrast, the movements of today’s tectonic plates involve largely lateral movements with oceanic lithosphere recycled in subduction zones. The findings add to our understanding of how cratons and plate tectonics, and thus also the Earth’s current continents, came into being.

Because mantle temperatures were higher during the Archean eon, the Earth’s primary crust that formed at the time must have been very thick and also very rich in magnesium. However, as Johnson and his co-authors explain in their article recently published in Nature Geoscience, very little of this original crust is preserved, indicating that most must have been recycled into the Earth’s mantle. Moreover, the Archean crust that has survived in some areas such as, for example, Northwest Scotland and Greenland, is largely made of tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite complexes and these are likely to have originated from a hydrated, low-magnesium basalt source. The conclusion is that these pieces of crust cannot be the direct products of an originally magnesium-rich primary crust. These TTG complexes are among the oldest features of our Earth’s crust. They are most commonly present in cratons, the oldest and most stable cores of the current continents.

With the help of thermodynamic calculations, Dr. Tim Johnson and his collaborators at the US-American universities of Maryland, Southern California, and Yale have established that the mineral assemblages that formed at the base of a 45-kilometer-thick magnesium-rich crust were denser than the underlying mantle layer. In order to better explore the physics of this process, Professor Boris Kaus of the Geophysics work group at Mainz University developed new computer models that simulate the conditions when the Earth was still relatively young and take into account Johnson’s calculations.

These geodynamic computer models show that the base of a magmatically over-thickened and magnesium-rich crust would have been gravitationally unstable at mantle temperatures greater than 1,500 to 1,550 degrees Celsius and this would have caused it to sink in a process called ‘delamination’. The dense crust would have dripped down into the mantle, triggering a return flow of mantle material from the asthenosphere that would have melted to form new primary crust. Continued melting of over-thickened and dripping magnesium-rich crust, combined with fractionation of primary magmas, may have produced the hydrated magnesium-poor basalts necessary to provide a source of the tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite complexes. The dense residues of these processes, which would have a high content of mafic minerals, must now reside in the mantle.

The biggest mass extinction and Pangea integration

Relationships between geosphere disturbances and mass extinction during the Late Permian and Early Triassic are shown. -  ©Science China Press
Relationships between geosphere disturbances and mass extinction during the Late Permian and Early Triassic are shown. – ©Science China Press

The mysterious relationship between Pangea integration and the biggest mass extinction happened 250 million years ago was tackled by Professor YIN Hongfu and Dr. SONG Haijun from State Key Laboratory of Geobiology and Environmental Geology, China University of Geosciences (Wuhan). Their study shows that Pangea integration resulted in environmental deterioration which further caused that extinction. Their work, entitled “Mass extinction and Pangea integration during the Paleozoic-Mesozoic transition”, was published in SCIENCE CHINA Earth Sciences.2013, Vol 56(7).

The Pangea was integrated at about the beginning of Permian, and reached its acme during Late Permian to Early Triassic. Formation of the Pangea means that the scattered continents of the world gathered into one integrated continent with an area of nearly 200 million km2. Average thickness of such a giant continental lithosphere should be remarkably greater than that of each scattered continent. Equilibrium principle implies that the thicker the lithosphere, the higher its portion over the equilibrium level, hence the average altitude of the Pangea should be much higher than the separated modern continents. Correspondingly, all oceans gathered to form the Panthalassa, which should be much deeper than modern oceans. The acme of Pangea and Panthalassa was thus a period of high continent and deep ocean, which should inevitably induce great regression and influence the earth’s surface system, especially climate.

The Tunguss Trap of Siberia, the Emeishan Basalt erupted during the Pangea integration. Such global-scale volcanism should be evoked by mantle plume and related with integration of the Pangea. Volcanic activities would result in a series of extinction effects, including emission of large volume of CO2, CH4, NO2 and cyanides which would have caused green house effects, pollution by poisonous gases, damage of the ozone layer in the stratosphere, and enhancement the ultra-violet radiation.

Increase of CO2 concentration and other green house gases would have led to global warming, oxygen depletion and carbon cycle anomaly; physical and chemical anomalies in ocean (acidification, euxinia, low sulfate concentration, isotopic anomaly of organic nitrogen) and great regression would have caused marine extinction due to unadaptable environments, selective death and hypercapnia; continental aridity, disappearance of monsoon system and wild fire would have devastated the land vegetation, esp. the tropical rain forest.

The great global changes and mass extinction were the results of interaction among earth’s spheres. Deteriorated relations among lithosphere, atmosphere, hydrosphere, and biosphere (including internal factors of organism evolution itself) accumulated until they exceeded the threshold, and exploded at the Permian-Triassic transition time. Interaction among bio- and geospheres is an important theme. However, the processes from inner geospheres to earth’s surface system and further to organism evolution necessitate retardation in time and yields many uncertainties in causation. Most of the processes are now at a hypothetic stage and need more scientific examinations.

Subduction channel processes: New progress in plate tectonic theory

Two processes occur at the slab-mantle interface in continental subduction channel, with (a) physical mixing to produce the tectonic mélange of metamorphic rocks, and (b) chemical reaction of the overlying subcontinental lithospheric mantle (SCLM) wedge with aqueous fluid and hydrous melt from subducting continental crust. -  ©Science China Press
Two processes occur at the slab-mantle interface in continental subduction channel, with (a) physical mixing to produce the tectonic mélange of metamorphic rocks, and (b) chemical reaction of the overlying subcontinental lithospheric mantle (SCLM) wedge with aqueous fluid and hydrous melt from subducting continental crust. – ©Science China Press

The plate tectonic theory has been primarily developed in three stages. (1) From continental drift and seafloor spreading to oceanic subduction, laying a physical foundation of the plate tectonic theory. This was achieved by the recognitions that continents would be assembled to build a supercontinent Pangea with subsequent breakup to yield the present configuration, lithospheric plates buoyantly move on the asthenospheric mantle, and oceanic crust is subducted along trenches into the mantle. (2) From oceanic subduction to continental subduction and collision orogeny, with the first round of revolution to the plate tectonic theory due to the recognition of continental deep subduction to mantle depths. While deeply subducted oceanic crust was processed in the mantle and the returned to the surface by mafic magmatism, deeply subducted continental crust underwent ultrahigh pressure metamorphism at mantle depths and then exhumed to the surface as coherent mélanges. This provides a geodynamic framework of tectonic processes for continental accretion and assemblage through arc-continent and continent-continent collision orogenies. (3) From continental collision and marginal orogeny to intracontinental reworking, emphasizing the inheritance of orogenic materials in postcollisional stages. While continental collision results in continental accretion through marginal orogeny, intercontinental orogens are converted to intracontinental orogens. The deeply subducted continental crust is processed in subduction channel underlying the mantle wedge, with partial return to the surface. These have thrown new lights on developing the plate tectonic theory to encompass the continental tectonics, and thus directed further study toward solution to such questions as how thinning of the orogenic lithosphere and upwelling of the asthenospheric mantle affect postcollisional reworking of the intracontinental materials.

Finding of ultrahigh pressure index minerals such as coesite and diamond in metamorphic rocks of continental supercrustal protolith demonstrate that these rock were subducted to mantle depths for ultrahigh pressure metamorphism and then returned back to the surface. The recognition of continental deep subduction by Earth scientists has not only developed the plate tectonic theory, but also expanded the chemical geodynamics focusing on the recycling of crustal material. The study of ultrahigh pressure metamorphic rocks has made prominent progress in many aspects, achieving the recognitions that the processes of continental seduction and exhumation have caused not only various types of structural deformation and mineralogical reaction but also different extents of metamorphic dehydration and partial melting (Fig. 1). By means of studying various rocks in continental collision orogens, Earth scientists have set the geodynamic link between the subduction and exhumation of continental crust and the building of collision orogens. Furthermore, it is established that bulk melting of the deeply subducted continental crust gives rise to granitic rocks whereas partial melting of the subducting supracrustal rocks produces felsic melt that reacts with the overlying mantle wedge peridotite to generate fertile and enriched mantle sources for mafic magmatism after their storage in different periods.

A research team at School of Earth and Space Sciences in University of Science and Technology of China has taken the rocks of continental collision orogens as the object, and performed a great deal of investigations from field observations and laboratory analyses. This leads to a tectonic analysis of geological processes in continental subduction factory, which is published in Chinese Science Bulletin 2013 (26) in the title “Continental subduction channel processes: Plate interface interaction during continental collision”. Leader of this team is Professor ZHENG Yongfei, Academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences at Key Laboratory of Crust-Mantle Materials and Environments. Major participants are Prof. ZHAO Zifu and Dr. CHEN Yixiang. Earth scientists of China have made a series of prominent progresses in the forefront and hotspot field of subduction channel, and their studies have exemplified successful applications of new techniques, new methods and new ideas to development of the plate tectonic theory.

The recognition of continental deep subduction and ultrahigh pressure metamorphism has provided not only a turning point in developing the plate tectonic theory, but also an excellent opportunity to study the time and mechanism of reworking continental lithosphere. It is intriguing to ask the following questions: (1) how are crustal slices detached at different depths and exhumed during continental subduction? (2) how do physical mixing and chemical reaction proceed between the deeply subducted crust and the overlying mantle wedge? (3) how are energy exchange and matter transfer realized at the plate interface of subduction zone? Prof. Zheng said, to study subduction channel processes, to determine the physical mixing and chemical reaction between the deeply subducted crust and the overlying mantle wedge under ultrahigh pressure conditions, and to understand the interaction at the plate interface of continental subduction zone and its associated fluid action and element transport, are a key to unravel such mysteries of Earth.

Greenland ice is melting — also from below

The Greenland ice sheet is melting from below, caused by a high heat flow from the mantle into the lithosphere. This influence is very variable spatially and has its origin in an exceptionally thin lithosphere. Consequently, there is an increased heat flow from the mantle and a complex interplay between this geothermal heating and the Greenland ice sheet. The international research initiative IceGeoHeat led by the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences establishes in the current online issue of Nature Geoscience (Vol 6, August 11, 2013) that this effect cannot be neglected when modeling the ice sheet as part of a climate study.

The continental ice sheets play a central role in climate. Interactions and feedback processes between ice and temperature rise are complex and still a current research topic. The Greenland ice sheet loses about 227 gigatonnes of ice per year and contributes about 0.7 millimeters to the currently observed mean sea level change of about 3 mm per year. Existing model calculations, however, were based on a consideration of the ice cap and considered the effect of the lithosphere, i.e. the earth’s crust and upper mantle, too simplistic and primarily mechanical: the ice presses the crust down due to its weight. GFZ scientists Alexey Petrunin and Irina Rogozhina have now coupled an ice/climate model with a thermo-mechanical model for the Greenland lithosphere. “We have run the model over a simulated period of three million years, and taken into account measurements from ice cores and independent magnetic and seismic data”, says Petrunin. “Our model calculations are in good agreement with the measurements. Both the thickness of the ice sheet as well as the temperature at its base are depicted very accurately. “

The model can even explain the difference in temperature measured at two adjacent drill holes: the thickness of the Greenland lithosphere and thus the geothermal heat flow varies greatly in narrow confines.

What does this mean for climate modeling? “The temperature at the base of the ice, and therefore the current dynamics of the Greenland ice sheet is the result of the interaction between the heat flow from the earth’s interior and the temperature changes associated with glacial cycles,” explains corresponding author Irina Rogozhina (GFZ) who initiated IceGeoHeat. “We found areas where the ice melts at the base next to other areas where the base is extremely cold.”

The current climate is influenced by processes that go far back into the history of Earth: the Greenland lithosphere is 2.8 to 1.7 billion years old and is only about 70 to 80 kilometers thick under Central Greenland. It remains to be explored why it is so exceptionally thin. It turns out, however, that the coupling of models of ice dynamics with thermo-mechanical models of the solid earth allows a more accurate view of the processes that are melting the Greenland ice.

A hidden drip, drip, drip beneath Earth’s surface

There are very few places in the world where dynamic activity taking place beneath Earth’s surface goes undetected.

Volcanoes, earthquakes, and even the sudden uplifting or sinking of the ground are all visible results of restlessness far below, but according to research by Arizona State University (ASU) seismologists, dynamic activity deep beneath us isn’t always expressed on the surface.

The Great Basin in the western United States is a desert region largely devoid of major surface changes. The area consists of small mountain ranges separated by valleys and includes most of Nevada, the western half of Utah and portions of other nearby states.

For tens of millions of years, the Great Basin has been undergoing extension–the stretching of Earth’s crust.

While studying the extension of the region, geologist John West of ASU was surprised to find that something unusual existed beneath this area’s surface.

West and colleagues found that portions of the lithosphere–the crust and uppermost mantle of the Earth–had sunk into the more fluid upper mantle beneath the Great Basin and formed a large cylindrical blob of cold material far below the surface of central Nevada.

It was an extremely unexpected finding in a location that showed no corresponding changes in surface topography or volcanic activity, West says.

West compared his unusual results of the area with tomography models–CAT scans of the inside of Earth–done by geologist Jeff Roth, also of ASU. West and Roth are graduate students; working with their advisor, Matthew Fouch, the team concluded that they had found a lithospheric drip.

Results of their research, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), were published in the May 24 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

“The results provide important insights into fine-scale mantle convection processes, and their possible connections with volcanism and mountain-building on Earth’s surface,” said Greg Anderson, program director in NSF’s Division of Earth Sciences.

A lithospheric drip can be envisioned as honey dripping off a spoon, where an initial lithospheric blob is followed by a long tail of material.

When a small, high-density mass is embedded near the base of the crust and the area is warmed up, the high-density piece will be heavier than the area around it and it will start sinking. As it drops, material in the lithosphere starts flowing into the newly created conduit.

Seismic images of mantle structure beneath the region provided additional evidence, showing a large cylindrical mass 100 km wide and at least 500 km tall (about 60 by 300 miles).

“As a general rule, I have been anti-drip since my early days as a scientist,” admits Fouch. “The idea of a lithospheric drip has been used many times over the years to explain things like volcanism, surface uplift, surface subsidence, but you could never really confirm it–and until now no one has caught a drip in the act, so to speak.”

Originally, the team didn’t think any visible signs appeared on the surface.

“We wondered how you could have something like a drip that is drawing material into its center when the surface of the whole area is stretching apart,” says Fouch.

“But it turns out that there is an area right above the drip, in fact the only area in the Great Basin, that is currently undergoing contraction. John’s finding of a drip is therefore informing geologists to develop a new paradigm of Great Basin evolution.”

Scientists have known about the contraction for some time, but have been arguing about its cause.

As a drip forms, surrounding material is drawn in behind it; this means that the surface should be contracting toward the center of the basin. Since contraction is an expected consequence of a drip, a lithospheric drip could well be the answer to what is being observed in the Great Basin.

“Many in the scientific community thought it couldn’t be a drip because there wasn’t any elevation change or surface manifestation, and a drip has historically always been connected with major surface changes,” says West.

“But those features aren’t required to have the drip. Under certain conditions, like in the Great Basin, drips can form with little or no corresponding changes in surface topography or volcanic activity.”

All the numerical models computed by the team suggest that the drip isn’t going to cause things to sink down or pop up quickly, or cause lots of earthquakes.

There would likely be little or no impact on the people living above the drip. The team believes that the drip is a transient process that started some 15-20 million years ago, and probably recently detached from the overlying plate.

“This finding would not have been possible without the incredible wealth of seismic data captured by EarthScope’s Transportable Array (TA) as it moved across the western United States,” says West.

“We had access to data from a few long-term stations in the region, but the excellent data and 75-km grid spacing of the TA is what made these results possible.”

This is a great example “of science in action,” says Fouch.

“We went in not expecting to find this. Instead, we came up with a hypothesis that was not what anyone had proposed previously for the area, and then we tested the hypothesis with as many different types of data as we could find.

“In all cases so far it has held up. We’re excited to see how this discovery plays a role in the development of new ideas about the geologic history of the western U.S.”

The Dead Sea: Tectonic concurrence below ten kilometers of sediments

The Dead Sea lies in a basin structure situated below the sea level. This deep subsidence is a result of a tectonic concurrence between processes in the upper lithosphere that led to subsiding and a compensating upward flow of rocks in the deeper layers of the lithosphere.

This is a result presented by A. Petrunin and A. Sobolev from the GFZ – German Research Centre for Geosciences in the current issue of ?PHYSICS OF THE EARTH AND PLANETARY INTERIORS” (Vol. 171, S. 387 – 399). In a series of thermomechanical numerical experiments they were able to show that the brittle layer of the Earth’s crust subsides when the African and the Arabian plate pass each other along a strike-slip fault. Due to the lateral displacement, the Earth’s crust gets thinner at this point and a pull-apart basin develops that in the course of roughly 15 million years has been filled with a layer of sediments that is up to ten kilometres thick. In the upper part of the underlying Earth’s mantle, this basin development leads to a corresponding upward flow of hot and ductile rock material. These concurring tectonic processes thus determine the process of the basin development.

Petrunin and Sobolev demonstrate that the subsidence rate is controlled by four parameters: firstly the thickness of the brittle layer and the basin width, secondly the length of the strike-slip displacement, thirdly the rate of frictional softening of the crust and finally the viscosity of the ductile material in the upper mantle.

The detected mechanisms give insight into the formation and development of such pull-apart basins forming a natural rheology lab in which the history of the lithospheric deformation can be studied.