Probing the Earth’s mantle using noise

sesmic tomography

Artistic impression of a global seismic tomogram – beneath Mercator projection – dividing the mantle into ‘warm’ and ‘cool’ regions (Credit: Cornell University Geology Department – http://www.geo.cornell.edu/geology/classes/Geo101/graphics/s12fsl.jpg)

It goes without saying that it is difficult to sample the mantle. The only direct samples are inclusions found in igneous rocks that formed by partial melting at depth so that the magma incorporated fragments of mantle rock as it rose, or where tectonics has shoved once very deep blocks to the surface. Even if such samples were not contaminated in some way, they are isolated from any context. For 20 years geophysicists have been analysing seismograms from many stations across the globe for every digitally recordable earthquake to use in a form of depth sounding. This seismic tomography assesses variations in the speed of body (P and S) waves according to the path that they travelled through the Earth.

Unusually high speeds at a particular depth suggests more rigid rock and thus cooler temperatures whereas hotter materials slow down body waves. The result is images of deep structure in vertical 2-D slices, but the quality of such sections depends, ironically, on plate tectonics. Earthquakes, by definition mainly occur at plate boundaries, which are lines at the surface. Such a one-dimensional source for seismic tomograms inevitably leaves the bulk of the mantle as a blur. But there are more ways of killing a cat than drowning it in melted butter. All kinds of processes unconnected with tectonics, such as ocean waves hitting the shore and interfering with one another across the ocean basins, plus changes in atmospheric pressure especially associated with storms, also create waves similar in kind to seismic ones that pass through the solid Earth.

Such aseismic energy produces the background noise seen on any seismogram. Even though this noise is way below the energy and amplitude associated with earthquakes, it is continuous and all pervading: the cumulative energy. Given highly sensitive modern detectors and sophisticated processing much the same kind of depth sounding is possible using micro-seismic noise, but for the entire planet and at high resolution. Rather than imaging speed variations this approach can pick up reflections from physical boundaries in the solid Earth. Surface micro-seismic waves exactly the same as Rayleigh and Love waves from earthquakes have already been used to analyse the Mohorovičić discontinuity between crust and upper mantle as well as features in the continental crust; indeed the potential of noise was recognized in the 1960s. But the deep mantle and core are the principle targets, being far out of reach of experimental seismic surveys using artificial energy input. It seems they are now accessible using body-wave noise (Poli, P. et al. 2012. Body-wave imaging of Earth’s mantle discontinuities from ambient seismic noise. Science, v. 338, p. 1063-1065).

Poli and colleagues from the University of Grenoble, France and Finland used a temporary network of 42 seismometers laid out in Arctic Finland to pick up noise, and sophisticated signal processing to separate surface waves from body waves. Their experiment resolved two major mantle discontinuities at ~410 and 660 km depth that define a transition zone between the upper and lower mantle, where the dominant mineral of the upper mantle – olivine – changes its molecular state to a more closely packed configuration akin to that of the mineral perovskite that is thought to characterize the lower mantle. Moreover, they were able to demonstrate that the 2-step shift to perovskite occupies depth changes of about 10-15 km.

Applying the method elsewhere doesn’t need a flurry of new closely-spaced seismic networks. Data are already available from arrays that aimed at conventional seismic tomography, such as USArray that deploys  400 portable stations in area-by-area steps across the United States (http://earth-pages.co.uk/2009/11/01/the-march-of-the-seismometers/)

It is early days, but micro-seismic noise seems very like the dreams of planetary probing foreseen by several science fiction writers, such as Larry Niven who envisaged ‘deep radar’ being deployed for exploration by his piratical hero Louis Wu. Trouble is, radar of that kind would need a stupendous power source and would probably fry any living beings unwise enough to use it. Noise may be a free lunch to the well-equipped geophysicist of the future.

  • Prieto, G.A. 2012. Imaging the deep Earth. Science (Perspectives), v. 338, p. 1037-1038.

One response to “Probing the Earth’s mantle using noise

  1. Pingback: A supervolcano’s plumbing system |

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