Bulges that move

In 2008 a team of geophysicists from Cambridge University, UK published an astonishingly detailed picture of about 500 km2 of a land surface complete with drainage systems (Figure 3 in Rudge, J.F. et al. 2008. A plume model of transient diachronous uplift at the Earth’s surface. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 267, p. 146-160). The surprise was not its Palaeogene age (~55  Ma), but that it is buried beneath the Atlantic continental shelf about 200 km west of the Shetland Isles and had been revealed by detailed, 3-D seismic reflection surveys during oil exploration. Technically it is buried landscape unconformity that resulted from uplift (by almost 500 m) and erosion (for ~1.3 Ma) that interrupted Palaeocene to Eocene marine sedimentation and was suddenly buried to preserve the details of river channels: uplift rapidly gave way to subsidence and conditions returned to marine about 0.6 Ma later. The timing and the location of such a transient crustal bulge, during the early part of opening of the North Atlantic, suggests that it stemmed from a thermal source, probably the Iceland hot spot straddled by the mid-Atlantic Ridge. The model favoured by the authors is radially horizontal spreading of a pulse of especially hot mantle outwards from the plume beneath the Iceland hot spot; a ‘plume head’. Volumetric expansion of the lithosphere causes the uplift, and movement away from the plume of the hot mantle results in an annular, outward moving ripple. Cooling once the thermal source has passed produces subsidence.

The idea clearly has ‘legs’ for a whole number of reasons, not the least being the sheer number of long-lived hot spots above mantle plumes that affect the ocean basins and parts of the continents, Africa and North America especially. Now it has been publicised more widely than in a specialised journal (Williams, C. 2011. Pulsating planet. New Scientist, v. 209 (12 March 2011), p. 41-43). One of the original authors is reported to have suggested that the ~55 Ma thermal ripple beneath the nascent North Atlantic may have destabilised gas hydrates in the sediments causing methane to belch out in its wake. That is a possible mechanism for the Palaeocene-Eocene thermal maximum and its huge associated carbon isotope ‘spike’ likely stemming from boosted atmospheric methane.

Grand Canyon

The Grand Canyon from the South Rim. Image via Wikipedia

Probably the most famous extant bulge is the one through which the Colorado River has carved the USA’s 1.8 km deep Grand Canyon: the Colorado Plateau. Long believed to have formed above hot, low-density lithosphere too, this uplift is the subject of completely new ideas that also have stemmed in part from seismic data, though not produced by artificial reflectance methods. Geophysicists in the US have developed a system that uses hundreds of transportable seismometers that are being ‘marched’ from west to east as an array that uses seismographs from natural earthquakes world-wide to perform seismic tomography –3-D mapping of varying seismic velocities and thereby rigidity and density in the mantle – with improved resolution because of the close spacing of the recording stations. Publications from the Earthscope USarray are beginning to appear from the western USA, one of which concerns the Colorado Plateau (Levander, A.et al, 2011. Continuing Colorado plateau uplift by delamination-stylee convective lithospheric downwelling. Nature, v. 472, p. 461-465). The western part of the plateau is associated with a high-velocity anomaly that extends to around 90m km beneath, which the authors ascribe to a large blob of rigid mantle that has detached from the lithosphere and is slowly sinking. This ‘drip’ is an example of delamination where mantle that becomes detached from the lithosphere causes it to thin and reduces its overall density. The overlying crust rises in response. There is a thermal effect, as warmer, less rigid asthenosphere convects upwards to fill the gap left by the drip, but it is an effect rather than a cause of the uplift.

See also: Zandt, G. & Reiners, P. 2011. Lithosphere today… Nature, v. 472, p. 420-421.

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