New map uncovers thousands of unseen seamounts on ocean floor

This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. -  David Sandwell, SIO
This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. – David Sandwell, SIO

Scientists have created a new map of the world’s seafloor, offering a more vivid picture of the structures that make up the deepest, least-explored parts of the ocean.

The feat was accomplished by accessing two untapped streams of satellite data.

Thousands of previously uncharted mountains rising from the seafloor, called seamounts, have emerged through the map, along with new clues about the formation of the continents.

Combined with existing data and improved remote sensing instruments, the map, described today in the journal Science, gives scientists new tools to investigate ocean spreading centers and little-studied remote ocean basins.

Earthquakes were also mapped. In addition, the researchers discovered that seamounts and earthquakes are often linked. Most seamounts were once active volcanoes, and so are usually found near tectonically active plate boundaries, mid-ocean ridges and subducting zones.

The new map is twice as accurate as the previous version produced nearly 20 years ago, say the researchers, who are affiliated with California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and other institutions.

“The team has developed and proved a powerful new tool for high-resolution exploration of regional seafloor structure and geophysical processes,” says Don Rice, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

“This capability will allow us to revisit unsolved questions and to pinpoint where to focus future exploratory work.”

Developed using a scientific model that captures gravity measurements of the ocean seafloor, the map extracts data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite.

CryoSat-2 primarily captures polar ice data but also operates continuously over the oceans. Data also came from Jason-1, NASA’s satellite that was redirected to map gravity fields during the last year of its 12-year mission.

“The kinds of things you can see very clearly are the abyssal hills, the most common landform on the planet,” says David Sandwell, lead author of the paper and a geophysicist at SIO.

The paper’s co-authors say that the map provides a window into the tectonics of the deep oceans.

The map also provides a foundation for the upcoming new version of Google’s ocean maps; it will fill large voids between shipboard depth profiles.

Previously unseen features include newly exposed continental connections across South America and Africa and new evidence for seafloor spreading ridges in the Gulf of Mexico. The ridges were active 150 million years ago and are now buried by mile-thick layers of sediment.

“One of the most important uses will be to improve the estimates of seafloor depth in the 80 percent of the oceans that remain uncharted or [where the sea floor] is buried beneath thick sediment,” the authors state.


Co-authors of the paper include R. Dietmar Muller of the University of Sydney, Walter Smith of the NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry Emmanuel Garcia of SIO and Richard Francis of ESA.

The study also was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and ConocoPhillips.

Study of Chilean quake shows potential for future earthquake

Near real-time analysis of the April 1 earthquake in Iquique, Chile, showed that the 8.2 event occurred in a gap on the fault unruptured since 1877 and that the April event was not what the scientists had expected, according to an international team of geologists.

“We assumed that the area of the 1877 earthquake would eventually rupture, but all indications are that this 8.2 event was not the 8.8 event we were looking for,” said Kevin P. Furlong, professor of geophysics, Penn State. “We looked at it to see if this was the big one.”

But according to the researchers, it was not. Seismologists expect that areas of faults will react the same way over and over. However, the April earthquake was about nine times less energetic than the one in 1877 and was incapable of releasing all the stress on the fault, leaving open the possibility of another earthquake.

The Iquique earthquake took place on the northern portion of the subduction zone formed when the Nazca tectonic plate slides under the South American plate. This is one of the longest uninterrupted plate boundaries on the planet and the site of many earthquakes and volcanos. The 8.2 earthquake was foreshadowed by a systematic sequence of foreshocks recorded at 6.0, 6.5, 6.7 and 6.2 with each foreshock triggering the next until the main earthquake occurred.

These earthquakes relieved the stresses on some parts of the fault. Then the 8.2 earthquake relieved more stress, followed by a series of aftershocks in the range of 7.7. While the aftershocks did fill in some of the gaps left by the 8.2 earthquake, the large earthquake and aftershocks could not fill in the entire gap where the fault had not ruptured in a very long time. That area is unruptured and still under stress.

The foreshocks eased some of the built up stress on 60 to 100 miles of fault, and the main shock released stress on about 155 miles, but about 155 miles of fault remain unchanged, the researchers report today (Aug. 13) in Nature.

“There can still be a big earthquake there,” said Furlong. “It didn’t release the total hazard, but it told us something about this large earthquake area. That an 8.8 rupture doesn’t always happen.”

The researchers were able to do this analysis in near real time because of the availability of large computing power and previously laid groundwork.

The computing power allowed researchers to model the fault more accurately. In the past, subduction zones were modeled as if they were on a plane, but the plate that is subducting curves underneath the other plate creating a 3-dimensional fault line. The researchers used a model that accounted for this curving and so more accurately recreated the stresses on the real geology at the fault.

“One of the things the U.S. Geological Survey and we have been doing is characterizing the major tectonic settings,” said Furlong. “So when an earthquake is imminent, we don’t need a lot of time for the background.”

In essence, they are creating a library of information about earthquake faults and have completed the first level, a general set of information on areas such as Japan, South America and the Caribbean. Now they are creating the levels of north and south Japan or Chile, Peru and Ecuador.

Knowing where the old earthquake occurred, how large it was and how long ago it happened, the researchers could look at the foreshocks, see how much stress they relieved and anticipate, at least in a small way, what would happen.

“This is what we need to do in the future in near real time for decision makers,” said Furl.

Research provides new theory on cause of ice age 2.6 million years ago

New research published today (Friday 27th June 2014) in the journal Nature Scientific Reports has provided a major new theory on the cause of the ice age that covered large parts of the Northern Hemisphere 2.6 million years ago.

The study, co-authored by Dr Thomas Stevens, from the Department of Geography at Royal Holloway, University of London, found a previously unknown mechanism by which the joining of North and South America changed the salinity of the Pacific Ocean and caused major ice sheet growth across the Northern Hemisphere.

The change in salinity encouraged sea ice to form which in turn created a change in wind patterns, leading to intensified monsoons. These provided moisture that caused an increase in snowfall and the growth of major ice sheets, some of which reached 3km thick.

The team of researchers analysed deposits of wind-blown dust called red clay that accumulated between six million and two and a half million years ago in north central China, adjacent to the Tibetan plateau, and used them to reconstruct changing monsoon precipitation and temperature.

“Until now, the cause of the Quaternary ice age had been a hotly debated topic”, said Dr Stevens. “Our findings suggest a significant link between ice sheet growth, the monsoon and the closing of the Panama Seaway, as North and South America drifted closer together. This provides us with a major new theory on the origins of the ice age, and ultimately our current climate system.”

Surprisingly, the researchers found there was a strengthening of the monsoon during global cooling, instead of the intense rainfall normally associated with warmer climates.

Dr Stevens added: “This led us to discover a previously unknown interaction between plate tectonic movements in the Americas and dramatic changes in global temperature. The intensified monsoons created a positive feedback cycle, promoting more global cooling, more sea ice and even stronger precipitation, culminating in the spread of huge glaciers across the Northern Hemisphere.”

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.

Great earthquakes, water under pressure, high risk

The largest earthquakes occur where oceanic plates move beneath continents. Obviously, water trapped in the boundary between both plates has a dominant influence on the earthquake rupture process. Analyzing the great Chile earthquake of February, 27th, 2010, a group of scientists from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences and from Liverpool University found that the water pressure in the pores of the rocks making up the plate boundary zone takes the key role (Nature Geoscience, 28.03.2014).

The stress build-up before an earthquake and the magnitude of subsequent seismic energy release are substantially controlled by the mechanical coupling between both plates. Studies of recent great earthquakes have revealed that the lateral extent of the rupture and magnitude of these events are fundamentally controlled by the stress build-up along the subduction plate interface. Stress build-up and its lateral distribution in turn are dependent on the distribution and pressure of fluids along the plate interface.

“We combined observations of several geoscience disciplines – geodesy, seismology, petrology. In addition, we have a unique opportunity in Chile that our natural observatory there provides us with long time series of data,” says Onno Oncken, director of the GFZ-Department “Geodynamics and Geomaterials”. Earth observation (Geodesy) using GPS technology and radar interferometry today allows a detailed mapping of mechanical coupling at the plate boundary from the Earth’s surface. A complementary image of the rock properties at depth is provided by seismology. Earthquake data yield a high resolution three-dimensional image of seismic wave speeds and their variations in the plate interface region. Data on fluid pressure and rock properties, on the other hand, are available from laboratory measurements. All these data had been acquired shortly before the great Chile earthquake of February 2010 struck with a magnitude of 8.8.

“For the first time, our results allow us to map the spatial distribution of the fluid pressure with unprecedented resolution showing how they control mechanical locking and subsequent seismic energy release”, explains Professor Oncken. “Zones of changed seismic wave speeds reflect zones of reduced mechanical coupling between plates”. This state supports creep along the plate interface. In turn, high mechanical locking is promoted in lower pore fluid pressure domains. It is these locked domains that subsequently ruptured during the Chile earthquake releasing most seismic energy causing destruction at the Earth’s surface and tsunami waves. The authors suggest the spatial pore fluid pressure variations to be related to oceanic water accumulated in an altered oceanic fracture zone within the Pacific oceanic plate. Upon subduction of the latter beneath South America the fluid volumes are released and trapped along the overlying plate interface, leading to increasing pore fluid pressures. This study provides a powerful tool to monitor the physical state of a plate interface and to forecast its seismic potential.

What sculpted Africa’s margin?

Break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana about 130 Million years ago could have lead to a completely different shape of the African and South American continent with an ocean south of today’s Sahara desert, as geoscientists from the University of Sydney and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences have shown through the use of sophisticated plate tectonic and three-dimensional numerical modelling. The study highlights the importance of rift orientation relative to extension direction as key factor deciding whether an ocean basin opens or an aborted rift basin forms in the continental interior.

For hundreds of millions of years, the southern continents of South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and India were united in the supercontinent Gondwana. While the causes for Gondwana’s fragmentation are still debated, it is clear that the supercontinent first split along along the East African coast in a western and eastern part before separation of South America from Africa took place. Today’s continental margins along the South Atlantic ocean and the subsurface graben structure of the West African Rift system in the African continent, extending from Nigeria northwards to Libya, provide key insights on the processes that shaped present-day Africa and South America. Christian Heine (University of Sydney) and Sascha Brune (GFZ) investigated why the South Atlantic part of this giant rift system evolved into an ocean basin, whereas its northern part along the West African Rift became stuck.

“Extension along the so-called South Atlantic and West African rift systems was about to split the African-South American part of Gondwana North-South into nearly equal halves, generating a South Atlantic and a Saharan Atlantic Ocean”, geoscientist Sascha Brune explains. “In a dramatic plate tectonic twist, however, a competing rift along the present-day Equatorial Atlantic margins, won over the West African rift, causing it to become extinct, avoiding the break-up of the African continent and the formation of a Saharan Atlantic ocean.” The complex numerical models provide a strikingly simple explanation: the larger the angle between rift trend and extensional direction, the more force is required to maintain a rift system. The West African rift featured a nearly orthogonal orientation with respect to westward extension which required distinctly more force than its ultimately successful Equatorial Atlantic opponent.

Undersea mountains provide crucial piece in climate prediction puzzle

A mystery in the ocean near Antarctica has been solved by researchers who have long puzzled over how deep and mid-depth ocean waters are mixed. -  Alan Homer and British Antarctic Survey
A mystery in the ocean near Antarctica has been solved by researchers who have long puzzled over how deep and mid-depth ocean waters are mixed. – Alan Homer and British Antarctic Survey

A mystery in the ocean near Antarctica has been solved by researchers who have long puzzled over how deep and mid-depth ocean waters are mixed. They found that sea water mixes dramatically as it rushes over undersea mountains in Drake Passage – the channel between the southern tip of South America and the Antarctic continent. Mixing of water layers in the oceans is crucial in regulating the Earth’s climate and ocean currents.

The research provides insight for climate models which until now have lacked the detailed information on ocean mixing needed to provide accurate long-term climate projections. The study was carried out by the University of Exeter, the University of East Anglia, the University of Southampton, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the British Antarctic Survey and the Scottish Association for Marine Science and is published in the journal Nature.

Working in some of the wildest waters on the planet, researchers measured mixing in the Southern Ocean by releasing tiny quantities of an inert chemical tracer into the Southeast Pacific. They tracked the tracer for several years as it went through Drake Passage to observe how quickly the ocean mixed.

The tracer showed almost no vertical mixing in the Pacific but as the water passed over the mountainous ocean floor in the relatively narrow continental gap that forms the Drake Passage it began to mix dramatically.

Professor Andrew Watson from the University of Exeter (previously at the University of East Anglia) said: “A thorough understanding of the process of ocean mixing is crucial to our understanding of the overall climate system. Our study indicates that virtually all the mixing in the Southern Ocean occurs in Drake Passage and at a few other undersea mountain locations. Our study will provide climate scientists with the detailed information about the oceans that they currently lack.”

Ocean mixing transfers carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to the deep sea, and ultimately controls the rate at which the ocean takes up carbon dioxide. Over several hundred years this process will remove much of the carbon dioxide that we release into the atmosphere, storing it in the deep ocean. Ocean mixing also affects climate, for example an increase in the rate of deep sea mixing would enable the ocean to transfer more heat towards the poles.

Scientists believe that the lower concentrations of atmospheric carbon dioxide present during the ice ages may have been the result of slower ocean mixing between the surface and the deep sea. Although the reasons for this are not yet clear, this further emphasizes the link between ocean mixing and climate.

3-D Earth model developed at Sandia Labs more accurately pinpoints source of earthquakes, explosions

Sandia National Laboratories researcher Sandy Ballard and colleagues from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed SALSA3D, a 3-D model of the Earth's mantle and crust designed to help pinpoint the location of all types of explosions. -  Photo by Randy Montoya, Sandia National Laboratories
Sandia National Laboratories researcher Sandy Ballard and colleagues from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed SALSA3D, a 3-D model of the Earth’s mantle and crust designed to help pinpoint the location of all types of explosions. – Photo by Randy Montoya, Sandia National Laboratories

During the Cold War, U.S. and international monitoring agencies could spot nuclear tests and focused on measuring their sizes. Today, they’re looking around the globe to pinpoint much smaller explosives tests.

Under the sponsorship of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation R&D, Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory have partnered to develop a 3-D model of the Earth’s mantle and crust called SALSA3D, or Sandia-Los Alamos 3D. The purpose of this model is to assist the US Air Force and the international Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna, Austria, more accurately locate all types of explosions.

The model uses a scalable triangular tessellation and seismic tomography to map the Earth’s “compressional wave seismic velocity,” a property of the rocks and other materials inside the Earth that indicates how quickly compressional waves travel through them and is one way to accurately locate seismic events, Sandia geophysicist Sandy Ballard said. Compressional waves – measured first after seismic events – move the particles in rocks and other materials minute distances backward and forward between the location of the event and the station detecting it.

SALSA3D also reduces the uncertainty in the model’s predictions, an important feature for decision-makers who must take action when suspicious activity is detected, he added.

“When you have an earthquake or nuclear explosion, not only do you need to know where it happened, but also how well you know that. That’s a difficult problem for these big 3-D models. It’s mainly a computational problem,” Ballard said. “The math is not so tough, just getting it done is hard, and we’ve accomplished that.”

A Sandia team has been writing and refining code for the model since 2007 and is now demonstrating SALSA3D is more accurate than current models.

In recent tests, SALSA3D was able to predict the source of seismic events over a geographical area that was 26 percent smaller than the traditional one-dimensional model and 9 percent smaller than a recently developed Regional Seismic Travel Time (RSTT) model used with the one-dimensional model.

GeoTess software release

Sandia recently released SALSA3D’s framework – the triangular tessellated grid on which the model is built – to other Earth scientists, seismologists and the public. By standardizing the framework, the seismological research community can more easily share models of the Earth’s structure and global monitoring agencies can better test different models. Both activities are hampered by the plethora of models available today, Ballard said. (See box.)

“GeoTess makes models compatible and standardizes everything,” he said. “This would really facilitate sharing of different models, if everyone agreed on it.”

Seismologists and researchers worldwide can now download GeoTess, which provides a common model parameterization for multidimensional Earth models and a software support system that addresses the construction, population, storage and interrogation of data stored in the model. GeoTess is not specific to any particular data, so users have considerable flexibility in how they store information in the model. The free package, including source code, is being released under the very liberal BSD Open Source License. The code is available in Java and C++, with interfaces to the C++ version written in C and Fortran90. GeoTess has been tested on multiple platforms, including Linux, SunOS, MacOSX and Windows. GeoTess is available here.

When an explosion goes off, the energy travels through the Earth as waves that are picked up by seismometers at U.S. and international ground monitoring stations associated with nuclear explosion monitoring organizations worldwide. Scientists use these signals to determine the location.

They first predict the time taken for the waves to travel from their source through the Earth to each station. To calculate that, they have to know the seismic velocity of the Earth’s materials from the crust to the inner core, Ballard said.

“If you have material that has very high seismic velocity, the waves travel very quickly, but the energy travels less quickly through other kinds of materials, so it takes the signals longer to travel from the source to the receiver,” he says.

For the past 100 years, seismologists have predicted the travel time of seismic energy from source to receiver using one-dimensional models. These models, which are still widely used today, account only for radial variations in seismic velocity and ignore variations in geographic directions. They yield seismic event locations that are reasonably accurate, but not nearly as precise as locations calculated with high fidelity 3-D models.

Modern 3-D models of the Earth, like SALSA3D, account for distortions of the seismic wavefronts caused by minor lateral differences in the properties of rocks and other materials.

For example, waves are distorted when they move through a geological feature called a subduction zone, such as the one beneath the west coast of South America where one tectonic plate under the Pacific Ocean is diving underneath the Andes Mountains. This happens at about the rate at which fingernails grow, but, geologically speaking, that’s fast, Ballard said.

One-dimensional models, like the widely used ak135 developed in the 1990s, are good at predicting the travel time of waves when the distance from the source to the receiver is large because these waves spend most of their time traveling through the deepest, most homogenous parts of the Earth. They don’t do so well at predicting travel time to nearby events where the waves spend most of their time in the Earth’s crust or the shallowest parts of the mantle, both of which contain a larger variety of materials than the lower mantle and the Earth’s core.

RSTT, a previous model developed jointly by Sandia, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, tried to solve that problem and works best at ranges of about 60-1,200 miles (100-2,000 kilometers).

Still, “the biggest errors we get are close to the surface of the Earth. That’s where the most variability in materials is,” Ballard said.

Seismic tomography gives SALSA3D accuracy

Today, Earth scientists are mapping three dimensions: the radius, latitude and longitude.

Anyone who’s studied a globe or world atlas knows that the traditional grid of longitudinal and latitudinal lines work all right the closer you are to the equator, but at the poles, the lines are too close together. For nuclear explosion monitoring, Earth models must accurately characterize the polar regions even though they are remote because seismic waves travel under them, Ballard said.

Triangular tessellation solves that with nodes, or intersections of the triangles, that can be accurately modeled even at the poles. The triangles can be smaller where more detail is needed and larger in areas that require less detail, like the oceans. Plus the model extends into the Earth like columns of stacked pieces of pie without the rounded crust edges.

The way Sandia calculates the seismic velocities uses the same math that is used to detect a tumor in an MRI, except on a global, rather than a human, scale.

Sandia uses historical data from 118,000 earthquakes and 13,000 current and former monitoring stations worldwide collected by Los Alamos Lab’s Ground Truth catalog.

“We apply a process called seismic tomography where we take millions of observed travel times and invert them for the seismic velocities that would create that data set. It’s mathematically similar to doing linear regression, but on steroids,” Sandy says. Linear regression is a simple mathematical way to model the relationship between a known variable and one or more unknown variables. Because the Sandia team models hundreds of thousands of unknown variables, they apply a mathematical method called least squares to minimize the discrepancies between the data from previous seismic events and the predictions.

With 10 million data points, Sandia uses a distributed computer network with about 400 core processors to characterize the seismic velocity at every node.

Monitoring agencies could use SALSA3D to precompute the travel time from each station in their network to every point on Earth. When it comes time to compute the location of a new seismic event in real-time, source-to-receiver travel times can be computed in a millisecond and pinpoint the energy’s source in about a second, he said.

Uncertainty modeling a SALSA3D feature

But no model is perfect, so Sandia has developed a way to measure the uncertainty in each prediction SALSA3D makes, based on uncertainty in the velocity at each node and how that uncertainty affects the travel time prediction of each wave from a seismic event to each monitoring station.

SALSA3D estimates for the users at monitoring stations the most likely location of a seismic event and the amount of uncertainty in the answer to help inform their decisions.

International test ban treaties require that on-site inspections can only occur within a 1,000-square-kilometer (385-square-mile) area surrounding a suspected nuclear test site. Today, 3-D Earth models like SALSA3D are helping to meet and sometimes significantly exceed this threshold in most parts of the world.

“It’s extremely difficult to do because the problem is so large,” Ballard said. “But we’ve got to know it within 1,000 square kilometers or they might search in the wrong place.”

Molten magma can survive in upper crust for hundreds of millennia

The formations in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, in Yellowstone National Park, are an example of  silica-rich volcanic rock. -  Sarah Gelman/University of Washington
The formations in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, in Yellowstone National Park, are an example of silica-rich volcanic rock. – Sarah Gelman/University of Washington

Reservoirs of silica-rich magma – the kind that causes the most explosive volcanic eruptions – can persist in Earth’s upper crust for hundreds of thousands of years without triggering an eruption, according to new University of Washington modeling research.

That means an area known to have experienced a massive volcanic eruption in the past, such as Yellowstone National Park, could have a large pool of magma festering beneath it and still not be close to going off as it did 600,000 years ago.

“You might expect to see a stewing magma chamber for a long period of time and it doesn’t necessarily mean an eruption is imminent,” said Sarah Gelman, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences.

Recent research models have suggested that reservoirs of silica-rich magma, or molten rock, form on and survive for geologically short time scales – in the tens of thousands of years – in the Earth’s cold upper crust before they solidify. They also suggested that the magma had to be injected into the Earth’s crust at a high rate to reach a large enough volume and pressure to cause an eruption.

But Gelman and her collaborators took the models further, incorporating changes in the crystallization behavior of silica-rich magma in the upper crust and temperature-dependent heat conductivity. They found that the magma could accumulate more slowly and remain molten for a much longer period than the models previously suggested.

Gelman is the lead author of a paper explaining the research published in the July edition of Geology. Co-authors are Francisco GutiƩrrez, a former UW doctoral student now with Universidad de Chile in Santiago, and Olivier Bachmann, a former UW faculty member now with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

There are two different kinds of magma and their relationship to one another is unclear. Plutonic magma freezes in the Earth’s crust and never erupts, but rather becomes a craggy granite formation like those commonly seen in Yosemite National Park. Volcanic magma is associated with eruptions, whether continuous “oozing” types of eruption such as Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano or more explosive eruptions such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines or Mount St. Helens in Washington state.

Some scientists have suggested that plutonic formations are what remain in the crust after major eruptions eject volcanic material. Gelman believes it is possible that magma chambers in the Earth’s crust could consist of a core of partially molten material feeding volcanoes surrounded by more crystalline regions that ultimately turn into plutonic rock. It is also possible the two rock types develop independently, but those questions remain to be answered, she said.

The new work suggests that molten magma reservoirs in the crust can persist for far longer than some scientists believe. Silica content is a way of judging how the magma has been affected by being in the crust, Gelman said. As the magma is forced up a column from lower in the Earth to the crust, it begins to crystallize. Crystals start to drop out as the magma moves higher, leaving the remaining molten rock with higher silica content.

“These time scales are in the hundreds of thousands, even up to a million, years and these chambers can sit there for that long,” she said.

Even if the molten magma begins to solidify before it erupts, that is a long process, she added. As the magma cools, more crystals form giving the rock a kind of mushy consistency. It is still molten and capable of erupting, but it will behave differently than magma that is much hotter and has fewer crystals.

The implications are significant for volcanic “arcs,” found near subduction zones where one of Earth’s tectonic plates is diving beneath another. Arcs are found in various parts of the world, including the Andes Mountains of South America and the Cascades Range of the Pacific Northwest.

Scientists have developed techniques to detect magma pools beneath these arcs, but they cannot determine how long the reservoirs have been there. Because volcanic magma becomes more silica-rich with time, its explosive potential increases.

“If you see melt in an area, it’s important to know how long that melt has been around to determine whether there is eruptive potential or not,” Gelman said. “If you image it today, does that mean it could not have been there 300,000 years ago? Previous models have said it couldn’t have been. Our model says it could. That doesn’t mean it was there, but it could have been there.”

The strange rubbing boulders of the Atacama

These are huge boulders in Chile's Atacama desert which appear to be rubbed very smooth about their midsections, leading University of Arizona geologist Jay Quade to wonder what could cause this in a place where water, Earth's most common agent of erosion, is as almost nonexistent. -  Image courtesy of Jay Quade.
These are huge boulders in Chile’s Atacama desert which appear to be rubbed very smooth about their midsections, leading University of Arizona geologist Jay Quade to wonder what could cause this in a place where water, Earth’s most common agent of erosion, is as almost nonexistent. – Image courtesy of Jay Quade.

A geologist’s sharp eyes and upset stomach has led to the discovery, and almost too-close encounter, with an otherworldly geological process operating in a remote corner of northern Chile’s Atacama Desert.

The sour stomach belonged to University of Arizona geologist Jay Quade. It forced him and his colleagues Peter Reiners and Kendra Murray to stop their truck at a lifeless expanse of boulders which they had passed before without noticing anything unusual.

“I had just crawled underneath the truck to get out of the sun,” Quade said. The others had hiked off to look around, as geologists tend to do. That’s when Quade noticed something very unusual about the half-ton to 8-ton boulders near the truck: they appeared to be rubbed very smooth about their midsections. What could cause this in a place where Earth’s most common agent of erosion — water — is as almost nonexistent?

About the only thing that came to mind was earthquakes, said Quade. Over the approximately two million years that these rocks have been sitting on their sandy plain perhaps they were jostled by seismic waves. They caused them gradually grind against each other and smooth their sides. It made sense, but Quade never thought he’d be able to prove it.

Then, on another trip to the Atacama, Quade was standing on one of these boulders, pondering their histories when a 5.3 magnitude earthquake struck. The whole landscape started moving and the sound of the grinding of rocks was loud and clear.

“It was this tremendous sound, like the chattering of thousands of little hammers,” Quade said. He’d probably have made a lot more observations about the minute-long event, except he was a bit preoccupied by the boulder he was standing on, which he had to ride like a surfboard.”The one I was on rolled like a top and bounced off another boulder. I was afraid I would fall off and get crushed.”

He managed to stay atop his boulder, of course, and became thoroughly convinced that the earlier hypothesis about the boulders was correct.

“I was just astonished when this earthquake came along and showed us how it worked,” Quade said. Quade will explain the phenomenon on Tuesday, 11 Oct. at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America in Minneapolis.

The whole story appears to be that the boulders tumbled down from the hills above — probably dislodged by earthquakes. They accumulated on the sand flat, with no place else to go. Quade compares the situation to a train station where people are crowded together closely, rubbing shoulders as they waiting for a train. In this case the boulders have been stuck at the station for hundreds of millennia and the train never comes. So they just get more crowded and rub shoulders more over time.

Analyses of the boulder top surfaces suggest that they have been there one to two million years. That age, combined with the fact that seismic activity in the area generates a quake like that Quade witnessed on the average of once every four months, suggests that the average boulder has experienced 50,000 to 100,000 hours of bumping and grinding while waiting for that nonexistent train.

“It also answers a mystery that had been eating at me for years: How do the boulders get transported off the hills when there is so little rain,” Quade said. “How do you erode a landscape that is rainless?”

Again the answer is seismic activity.

“It raises the question in my mind of other planets like Mars.” If there is seismic activity, even from meteor impacts, might it also be creating similar landscapes? “I would predict that these kinds of crowds of boulders might be found on Mars as well, if people look for them.”