Scientists observe the Earth grow a new layer under an Icelandic volcano

New research into an Icelandic eruption has shed light on how the Earth’s crust forms, according to a paper published today in Nature.

When the Bárðarbunga volcano, which is buried beneath Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap, reawakened in August 2014, scientists had a rare opportunity to monitor how the magma flowed through cracks in the rock away from the volcano. The molten rock forms vertical sheet-like features known as dykes, which force the surrounding rock apart.

Study co-author Professor Andy Hooper from the Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) at the University of Leeds explained: “New crust forms where two tectonic plates are moving away from each other. Mostly this happens beneath the oceans, where it is difficult to observe.

“However, in Iceland this happens beneath dry land. The events leading to the eruption in August 2014 are the first time that such a rifting episode has occurred there and been observed with modern tools, like GPS and satellite radar.”

Although it has a long history of eruptions, Bárðarbunga has been increasingly restless since 2005. There was a particularly dynamic period in August and September this year, when more than 22,000 earthquakes were recorded in or around the volcano in just four weeks, due to stress being released as magma forced its way through the rock.

Using GPS and satellite measurements, the team were able to track the path of the magma for over 45km before it reached a point where it began to erupt, and continues to do so to this day. The rate of dyke propagation was variable and slowed as the magma reached natural barriers, which were overcome by the build-up of pressure, creating a new segment.

The dyke grows in segments, breaking through from one to the next by the build up of pressure. This explains how focused upwelling of magma under central volcanoes is effectively redistributed over large distances to create new upper crust at divergent plate boundaries, the authors conclude.

As well as the dyke, the team found ‘ice cauldrons’ – shallow depressions in the ice with circular crevasses, where the base of the glacier had been melted by magma. In addition, radar measurements showed that the ice inside Bárðarbunga’s crater had sunk by 16m, as the volcano floor collapsed.

COMET PhD student Karsten Spaans from the University of Leeds, a co-author of the study, added: “Using radar measurements from space, we can form an image of caldera movement occurring in one day. Usually we expect to see just noise in the image, but we were amazed to see up to 55cm of subsidence.”

Like other liquids, magma flows along the path of least resistance, which explains why the dyke at Bárðarbunga changed direction as it progressed. Magma flow was influenced mostly by the lie of the land to start with, but as it moved away from the steeper slopes, the influence of plate movements became more important.

Summarising the findings, Professor Hooper said: “Our observations of this event showed that the magma injected into the crust took an incredibly roundabout path and proceeded in fits and starts.

“Initially we were surprised at this complexity, but it turns out we can explain all the twists and turns with a relatively simple model, which considers just the pressure of rock and ice above, and the pull exerted by the plates moving apart.”

The paper ‘Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland’ is published in Nature on 15 December 2014.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under Grant Agreement No. 308377 (Project FUTUREVOLC)

Geophysicists challenge traditional theory underlying the origin of mid-plate volcanoes

Traditional thought holds that hot updrafts from the Earth's core cause volcanoes, but researchers say eruptions may stem from the asthenosphere, a layer closer to the surface. -  Virginia Tech
Traditional thought holds that hot updrafts from the Earth’s core cause volcanoes, but researchers say eruptions may stem from the asthenosphere, a layer closer to the surface. – Virginia Tech

A long-held assumption about the Earth is discussed in today’s edition of Science, as Don L. Anderson, an emeritus professor with the Seismological Laboratory of the California Institute of Technology, and Scott King, a professor of geophysics in the College of Science at Virginia Tech, look at how a layer beneath the Earth’s crust may be responsible for volcanic eruptions.

The discovery challenges conventional thought that volcanoes are caused when plates that make up the planet’s crust shift and release heat.

Instead of coming from deep within the interior of the planet, the responsibility is closer to the surface, about 80 kilometers to 200 kilometers deep — a layer above the Earth’s mantle, known as the as the asthenosphere.

“For nearly 40 years there has been a debate over a theory that volcanic island chains, such as Hawaii, have been formed by the interaction between plates at the surface and plumes of hot material that rise from the core-mantle boundary nearly 1,800 miles below the Earth’s surface,” King said. “Our paper shows that a hot layer beneath the plates may explain the origin of mid-plate volcanoes without resorting to deep conduits from halfway to the center of the Earth.”

Traditionally, the asthenosphere has been viewed as a passive structure that separates the moving tectonic plates from the mantle.

As tectonic plates move several inches every year, the boundaries between the plates spawn most of the planet’s volcanoes and earthquakes.

“As the Earth cools, the tectonic plates sink and displace warmer material deep within the interior of the Earth,” explained King. “This material rises as two broad, passive updrafts that seismologists have long recognized in their imaging of the interior of the Earth.”

The work of Anderson and King, however, shows that the hot, weak region beneath the plates acts as a lubricating layer, preventing the plates from dragging the material below along with them as they move.

The researchers show this lubricating layer is also the hottest part of the mantle, so there is no need for heat to be carried up to explain mid-plate volcanoes.

“We’re taking the position that plate tectonics and mid-plate volcanoes are the natural results of processes in the plates and the layer beneath them,” King said.

UW team explores large, restless volcanic field in Chile

If Brad Singer knew for sure what was happening three miles under an odd-shaped lake in the Andes, he might be less eager to spend a good part of his career investigating a volcanic field that has erupted 36 times during the last 25,000 years. As he leads a large scientific team exploring a region in the Andes called Laguna del Maule, Singer hopes the area remains quiet.

But the primary reason to expend so much effort on this area boils down to one fact: The rate of uplift is among the highest ever observed by satellite measurement for a volcano that is not actively erupting.

That uplift is almost definitely due to a large intrusion of magma — molten rock — beneath the volcanic complex. For seven years, an area larger than the city of Madison has been rising by 10 inches per year.

That rapid rise provides a major scientific opportunity: to explore a mega-volcano before it erupts. That effort, and the hazard posed by the restless magma reservoir beneath Laguna del Maule, are described in a major research article in the December issue of the Geological Society of America’s GSA Today.

“We’ve always been looking at these mega-eruptions in the rear-view mirror,” says Singer. “We look at the lava, dust and ash, and try to understand what happened before the eruption. Since these huge eruptions are rare, that’s usually our only option. But we look at the steady uplift at Laguna del Maule, which has a history of regular eruptions, combined with changes in gravity, electrical conductivity and swarms of earthquakes, and we suspect that conditions necessary to trigger another eruption are gathering force.”

Laguna del Maule looks nothing like a classic, cone-shaped volcano, since the high-intensity erosion caused by heavy rain and snow has carried most of the evidence to the nearby Pacific Ocean. But the overpowering reason for the absence of “typical volcano cones” is the nature of the molten rock underground. It’s called rhyolite, and it’s the most explosive type of magma on the planet.

The eruption of a rhyolite volcano is too quick and violent to build up a cone. Instead, this viscous, water-rich magma often explodes into vast quantities of ash that can form deposits hundreds of yards deep, followed by a slower flow of glassy magma that can be tens of yards tall and measure more than a mile in length.

The next eruption could be in the size range of Mount St. Helens — or it could be vastly bigger, Singer says. “We know that over the past million years or so, several eruptions at Laguna del Maule or nearby volcanoes have been more than 100 times larger than Mount St. Helens,” he says. “Those are rare, but they are possible.” Such a mega-eruption could change the weather, disrupt the ecosystem and damage the economy.

Trying to anticipate what Laguna del Maule holds in store, Singer is heading a new $3 million, five-year effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation to document its behavior before an eruption. With colleagues from Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, and Cornell and Georgia Tech universities, he is masterminding an effort to build a scientific model of the underground forces that could lead to eruption. “This model should capture how this system has evolved in the crust at all scales, from the microscopic to basinwide, over the last 100,000 years,” Singer says. “It’s like a movie from the past to the present and into the future.”

Over the next five years, Singer says he and 30 colleagues will “throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the problem — geology, geochemistry, geochronology and geophysics — to help measure, and then model, what’s going on.”

One key source of information on volcanoes is seismic waves. Ground shaking triggered by the movement of magma can signal an impending eruption. Team member Clifford Thurber, a seismologist and professor of geoscience at UW-Madison, wants to use distant earthquakes to locate the underground magma body.

As many as 50 seismometers will eventually be emplaced above and around the magma at Laguna del Maule, in the effort to create a 3-D image of Earth’s crust in the area.

By tracking multiple earthquakes over several years, Thurber and his colleagues want to pinpoint the size and location of the magma body — roughly estimated as an oval measuring five kilometers (3.1 miles) by 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

Each seismometer will record the travel time of earthquake waves originating within a few thousand kilometers, Thurber explains. Since soft rock transmits sound less efficiently than hard rock, “we expect that waves that pass through the presumed magma body will be delayed,” Thurber says. “It’s very simple. It’s like a CT scan, except instead of density we are looking at seismic wave velocity.”

As Singer, who has been visiting Laguna del Maule since 1998, notes, “The rate of uplift — among the highest ever observed — has been sustained for seven years, and we have discovered a large, fluid-rich zone in the crust under the lake using electrical resistivity methods. Thus, there are not many possible explanations other than a big, active body of magma at a shallow depth.”

The expanding body of magma could freeze in place — or blow its top, he says. “One thing we know for sure is that the surface cannot continue rising indefinitely.”

Magma pancakes beneath Lake Toba

The tremendous amounts of lava that are emitted during super-eruptions accumulate over millions of years prior to the event in the Earth’s crust. These reservoirs consist of magma that intrudes into the crust in the form of numerous horizontally oriented sheets resting on top of each other like a pile of pancakes.

A team of geoscientists from Novosibirsk, Paris and Potsdam presents these results in the current issue of Science (2014/10/31). The scientists investigate the question on where the tremendous amounts of material that are ejected to from huge calderas during super-eruptions actually originate. Here we are not dealing with large volcanic eruptions of the size of Pinatubo of Mount St. Helens, here we are talking about extreme events: The Toba-caldera in the Sumatra subduction zone in Indonesia originated from one of the largest volcanic eruption in recent Earth history, about 74,000 years ago. It emitted the enormous amount of 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material with a dramatic global impact on climate and environment. Hereby, the 80 km long Lake Toba was formed.

Geoscientists were interested in finding out: How can the gigantic amounts of eruptible material required to form such a super volcano accumulate in the Earth’s crust. Was this a singular event thousands of years ago or can it happen again?

Researchers from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences successfully installed a seismometer network in the Toba area to investigate these questions and provided the data to all participating scientists via the GEOFON data archive. GFZ scientist, Christoph Sens-Schönfelder, a co-author of the study explains: “With a new seismological method we were able to investigate the internal structure of the magma reservoir beneath the Toba-caldera. We found that the middle crust below the Toba supervolcano is horizontally layered.” The answer thus lies in the structure of the magma reservoir. Here, below 7 kilometers the crust consists of many, mostly horizontal, magmatic intrusions still containing molten material.

New seismological technique

It was already suspected that the large volume of magma ejected during the supervolcanic eruption had slowly accumulated over the last few millions of years in the form of consequently emplaced intrusions. This could now be confirmed with the results of field measurements. The GFZ scientists used a novel seismological method for this purpose. Over a six-month period they recorded the ambient seismic noise, the natural vibrations which usually are regarded as disturbing signals. With a statistical approach they analyzed the data and discovered that the velocity of seismic waves beneath Toba depends on the direction in which the waves shear the Earth’s crust. Above 7 kilometers depth the deposits of the last eruption formed a zone of low velocities. Below this depth the seismic anisotropy is caused by horizontally layered intrusions that structure the reservoir like a pile of pancakes. This is reflected in the seismic data.

Supervolcanoes

Not only in Indonesia, but also in other parts of the world there are such supervoclcanoes, which erupt only every couple of hundred thousand years but then in gigantic eruptions. Because of their size those volcanoes do not build up mountains but manifest themselves with their huge carter formed during the eruption – the caldera. Other known supervolcanoes include the area of the Yellow-Stone-Park, volcanoes in the Andes, and the caldera of Lake-Taupo in New Zealand. The present study helps to better understand the processes that lead to such super-eruptions.

Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”

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This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1256211

James Farquhar home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=13

Alan J. Kaufman home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=15

Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=66

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, abbyr@umd.edu

Writer: Heather Dewar

Earth’s magnetic field could flip within a human lifetime

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flip could affect electrical grid, cancer rates

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

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

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

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

Dating ash deposits from windward volcanoes

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

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

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

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

Unstable magnetic field preceded 180-degree flip

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

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

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

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

Early Earth less hellish than previously thought

Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. -  Tamara Carley
Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. – Tamara Carley

Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have been surprisingly similar to the present day, complete with oceans, continents and active crustal plates.

This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, which has been proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.

The study was conducted by a team of geologists directed by Calvin Miller, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, and published online this weekend by the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters in a paper titled, “Iceland is not a magmatic analog for the Hadean: Evidence from the zircon record.”

From the early 20th century up through the 1980’s, geologists generally agreed that conditions during the Hadean period were utterly hostile to life. Inability to find rock formations from the period led them to conclude that early Earth was hellishly hot, either entirely molten or subject to such intense asteroid bombardment that any rocks that formed were rapidly remelted. As a result, they pictured the surface of the Earth as covered by a giant “magma ocean.”

This perception began to change about 30 years ago when geologists discovered zircon crystals (a mineral typically associated with granite) with ages exceeding 4 billion years old preserved in younger sandstones. These ancient zircons opened the door for exploration of the Earth’s earliest crust. In addition to the radiometric dating techniques that revealed the ages of these ancient zircons, geologists used other analytical techniques to extract information about the environment in which the crystals formed, including the temperature and whether water was present.

Since then zircon studies have revealed that the Hadean Earth was not the uniformly hellish place previously imagined, but during some periods possessed an established crust cool enough so that surface water could form – possibly on the scale of oceans.

Accepting that the early Earth had a solid crust and liquid water (at least at times), scientists have continued to debate the nature of that crust and the processes that were active at that time: How similar was the Hadean Earth to what we see today?

Two schools of thought have emerged: One argues that Hadean Earth was surprisingly similar to the present day. The other maintains that, although it was less hostile than formerly believed, early Earth was nonetheless a foreign-seeming and formidable place, similar to the hottest, most extreme, geologic environments of today. A popular analog is Iceland, where substantial amounts of crust are forming from basaltic magma that is much hotter than the magmas that built most of Earth’s current continental crust.

“We reasoned that the only concrete evidence for what the Hadean was like came from the only known survivors: zircon crystals – and yet no one had investigated Icelandic zircon to compare their telltale compositions to those that are more than 4 billion years old, or with zircon from other modern environments,” said Miller.

In 2009, Vanderbilt doctoral student Tamara Carley, who has just accepted the position of assistant professor at Layfayette College, began collecting samples from volcanoes and sands derived from erosion of Icelandic volcanoes. She separated thousands of zircon crystals from the samples, which cover the island’s regional diversity and represent its 18 million year history.

Working with Miller and doctoral student Abraham Padilla at Vanderbilt, Joe Wooden at Stanford University, Axel Schmitt and Rita Economos from UCLA, Ilya Bindeman at the University of Oregon and Brennan Jordan at the University of South Dakota, Carley analyzed about 1,000 zircon crystals for their age and elemental and isotopic compositions. She then searched the literature for all comparable analyses of Hadean zircon and for representative analyses of zircon from other modern environments.

“We discovered that Icelandic zircons are quite distinctive from crystals formed in other locations on modern Earth. We also found that they formed in magmas that are remarkably different from those in which the Hadean zircons grew,” said Carley.

Most importantly, their analysis found that Icelandic zircons grew from much hotter magmas than Hadean zircons. Although surface water played an important role in the generation of both Icelandic and Hadean crystals, in the Icelandic case the water was extremely hot when it interacted with the source rocks while the Hadean water-rock interactions were at significantly lower temperatures.

“Our conclusion is counterintuitive,” said Miller. “Hadean zircons grew from magmas rather similar to those formed in modern subduction zones, but apparently even ‘cooler’ and ‘wetter’ than those being produced today.”

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.”

Mantle plumes crack continents

In some parts of the Earth, material rises upwards like a column from the boundary layer of the Earth’s core and the lower mantel to just below the Earth’s crust hundreds of kilometres above. Halted by the resistance of the hard crust and lithospheric mantle, the flow of material becomes wider, taking on a mushroom-like shape. Specialists call these magma columns “mantle plumes” or simply “plumes”.

Are mantel plumes responsible for the African rift system?


Geologists believe that plumes are not just responsible for creating volcanoes outside of tectonically active areas – they can also break up continents. The scientists offer the Danakil Depression (the lowlands in the Ethiopia-Eritrea-Djibouti triangle) as an example of this. This “triple junction” is extremely tectonically and volcanically active. Geologists believe that the so-called Afar plume is rising up below it and has created a rift system that forks into the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden and Africa’s Great Rift Valley. However, the sheer length of time required, geologically speaking, for this process to take place, means that nobody is able to confirm or disprove with absolute certainty that the force of a plume causes continental breakup.

Simulations becoming more realistic


Evgueni Burov, a Professor at the University of Paris VI, and Taras Gerya, Professor of Geophysics at ETH Zurich, have now taken a step closer to solving this geological mystery with a new computer model. Their paper has recently been published in the journal Nature. The two researchers conducted numerical experiments to reproduce the Earth’s surface in high-resolution 3D.

These simulations show that the rising flow of material is strong enough to cause continental breakup if the tectonic plate is under (weak) tensile stress. “The force exerted by a plume on a plate is actually too weak to break it up,” says Gerya. In experiments using simple models, the researchers allowed the plumes to hit an unstressed plate, which did not cause it to break, but merely formed a round hump. However, when the geophysicists modelled the same process with a plate under weak tensile stress, it broke apart, forming a crevice and rift system like the ones found around the world.

“The process can be compared to a taut piece of plastic film. Weak, pointed force is enough to tear the film, but if the film is not pulled taut, it is extremely difficult to tear.” This mechanism has already been proposed in the past as a possible model for explaining continental breakup, but had never been outlined in plausible terms before now.

First high-resolution simulations

“We are the first to create such a high-resolution model which demonstrates how a plume interacts with a plate under tensile stress,” says Gerya. Fast and powerful computers and stable algorithms programmed by the scientists themselves were required for the simulations. The researchers benefited from technical advances made and experience accumulated by the ETH professor in this field over the past ten years.

In the model, the deformations are created quickly from a geological point of view. Rift systems several kilometres deep and more than a thousand kilometres long can form after “just” two million years. The processes are therefore up to ten times faster than tectonic processes such as subduction and 50 times faster than the Alpine orogeny, for example.

Disputed idea


The idea of mantel plumes is widely disputed, with some researchers denying that they even exist. “I think it is much more likely that they do exist,” says Gerya. As is often the case in geology, especially when researching the Earth’s interior, such processes and phenomena like the existence of plumes cannot be observed directly. Furthermore, the periods over which geological processes take place are far too long for humans to experience first-hand. “So far, we have only been able to observe the effects that plumes have on the Earth’s surface and on the propagation of seismic waves in the Earth’s interior.”

The scientists are therefore reliant on good, realistic models that show the processes in a geological time lapse. How realistic the calculated simulations are depends on the parameters used. The plume-plate interaction model incorporated physical laws, the characteristics of materials in the Earth’s crust and mantle, and temperature and pressure conditions. “We know the rules, but humans generally lack the intuition to identify how they interact on geological timescales.”

Yellowstone supereruption would send ash across North America

An example of the possible distribution of ash from a month-long Yellowstone supereruption. The distribution map was generated by a new model developed by the US Geological Survey using wind information from January 2001. The improved computer model, detailed in a new study published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, finds that the hypothetical, large eruption would create a distinctive kind of ash cloud known as an umbrella, which expands evenly in all directions, sending ash across North America. Ash distribution will vary depending on cloud height, eruption duration, diameter of volcanic particles in the cloud, and wind conditions, according to the new study. -  Credit: USGS
An example of the possible distribution of ash from a month-long Yellowstone supereruption. The distribution map was generated by a new model developed by the US Geological Survey using wind information from January 2001. The improved computer model, detailed in a new study published in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, finds that the hypothetical, large eruption would create a distinctive kind of ash cloud known as an umbrella, which expands evenly in all directions, sending ash across North America. Ash distribution will vary depending on cloud height, eruption duration, diameter of volcanic particles in the cloud, and wind conditions, according to the new study. – Credit: USGS

In the unlikely event of a volcanic supereruption at Yellowstone National Park, the northern Rocky Mountains would be blanketed in meters of ash, and millimeters would be deposited as far away as New York City, Los Angeles and Miami, according to a new study.

An improved computer model developed by the study’s authors finds that the hypothetical, large eruption would create a distinctive kind of ash cloud known as an umbrella, which expands evenly in all directions, sending ash across North America.

A supereruption is the largest class of volcanic eruption, during which more than 1,000 cubic kilometers (240 cubic miles) of material is ejected. If such a supereruption were to occur, which is extremely unlikely, it could shut down electronic communications and air travel throughout the continent, and alter the climate, the study notes.

A giant underground reservoir of hot and partly molten rock feeds the volcano at Yellowstone National Park. It has produced three huge eruptions about 2.1 million, 1.3 million and 640,000 years ago. Geological activity at Yellowstone shows no signs that volcanic eruptions, large or small, will occur in the near future. The most recent volcanic activity at Yellowstone-a relatively non-explosive lava flow at the Pitchstone Plateau in the southern section of the park-occurred 70,000 years ago.

Researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey used a hypothetical Yellowstone supereruption as a case study to run their new model that calculates ash distribution for eruptions of all sizes. The model, Ash3D, incorporates data on historical wind patterns to calculate the thickness of ash fall for a supereruption like the one that occurred at Yellowstone 640,000 years ago.

The new study provides the first quantitative estimates of the thickness and distribution of ash in cities around the U.S. if the Yellowstone volcanic system were to experience this type of huge, yet unlikely, eruption.

Cities close to the modeled Yellowstone supereruption could be covered by more than a meter (a few feet) of ash. There would be centimeters (a few inches) of ash in the Midwest, while cities on both coasts would see millimeters (a fraction of an inch) of accumulation, according to the new study that was published online today in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, a journal of the American Geophysical Union. The paper has been made available at no charge at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2014GC005469/abstract.

The model results help scientists understand the extremely widespread distribution of ash deposits from previous large eruptions at Yellowstone. Other USGS scientists are using the Ash3D model to forecast possible ash hazards at currently restless volcanoes in Alaska.

Unlike smaller eruptions, whose ash deposition looks roughly like a fan when viewed from above, the spreading umbrella cloud from a supereruption deposits ash in a pattern more like a bull’s eye – heavy in the center and diminishing in all directions – and is less affected by prevailing winds, according to the new model.

“In essence, the eruption makes its own winds that can overcome the prevailing westerlies, which normally dominate weather patterns in the United States,” said Larry Mastin, a geologist at the USGS Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Washington, and the lead author of the new paper. Westerly winds blow from the west.

“This helps explain the distribution from large Yellowstone eruptions of the past, where considerable amounts of ash reached the west coast,” he added.

The three large past eruptions at Yellowstone sent ash over many tens of thousands of square kilometers (thousands of square miles). Ash deposits from these eruptions have been found throughout the central and western United States and Canada.

Erosion has made it difficult for scientists to accurately estimate ash distribution from these deposits. Previous computer models also lacked the ability to accurately determine how the ash would be transported.

Using their new model, the study’s authors found that during very large volcanic eruptions, the expansion rate of the ash cloud’s leading edge can exceed the average ambient wind speed for hours or days depending on the length of the eruption. This outward expansion is capable of driving ash more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles) upwind – westward — and crosswind – north to south — producing a bull’s eye-like pattern centered on the eruption site.

In the simulated modern-day eruption scenario, cities within 500 kilometers (311 miles) of Yellowstone like Billings, Montana, and Casper, Wyoming, would be covered by centimeters (inches) to more than a meter (more than three feet) of ash. Upper Midwestern cities, like Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Des Moines, Iowa, would receive centimeters (inches), and those on the East and Gulf coasts, like New York and Washington, D.C. would receive millimeters or less (fractions of an inch). California cities would receive millimeters to centimeters (less than an inch to less than two inches) of ash while Pacific Northwest cities like Portland, Oregon, and Seattle, Washington, would receive up to a few centimeters (more than an inch).

Even small accumulations only millimeters or centimeters (less than an inch to an inch) thick could cause major effects around the country, including reduced traction on roads, shorted-out electrical transformers and respiratory problems, according to previous research cited in the new study. Prior research has also found that multiple inches of ash can damage buildings, block sewer and water lines, and disrupt livestock and crop production, the study notes.

The study also found that other eruptions – powerful but much smaller than a Yellowstone supereruption — might also generate an umbrella cloud.

“These model developments have greatly enhanced our ability to anticipate possible effects from both large and small eruptions, wherever they occur,” said Jacob Lowenstern, USGS Scientist-in-Charge of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory in Menlo Park, California, and a co-author on the new paper.