Plate tectonic graveyard

Where do old plates go to die? For the most part, down subduction zones to mix with their original source, the mantle. Earth-Pages has covered evidence for quite a few of the dead plates, which emerges from a geophysical technique known as seismic tomography – analogous to X-ray or magnetic resonance scans of the whole human body. For 20 years geophysicists have been analysing seismograms from many stations across the globe for every digitally recorded earthquake, i.e. virtually all of those since the 1970s. This form of depth sounding goes far beyond early deep-Earth seismometry that discovered the inner and outer core, various transition zones in the mantle and measured the average variation with depth of mantle properties. Tomography relies on complex models of the paths taken by seismic body waves and very powerful computing to assess variations in the speed of P- and S-waves as they travelled through the Earth: the more rigid/cool the mantle is the faster waves travel through it and vice versa. The result is images of deep structure in 2-D slices, but the quality of such sections depends, ironically, on plate tectonics. Most earthquakes occur at plate boundaries. Such linearly distributed, one-dimensional sources inevitably leave the bulk of the mantle as a blur. Around 20 different methodologies have been developed by the many teams working on seismic tomography. So sometimes conflicting images of the deep Earth have been produced.

Results of seismic tomography across Central America showing anomalously fast (in blue) P- (top) and S-wave (bottom) speeds in map view at a fixed mantle depth (1290 km, left) and as vertical sections (right). The blue zones at right are interpreted to show a steeply dipping slab that represents subduction of the eastern Pacific Cocos plate since about 175 Ma ago (credit: van der Meer, D.G et al. ‘Atlas of the Underworld)

The technique has come of age now that superfast computing and use of multiple models have begun to resolve some of tomography’s early problems. The latest outcome is astonishing: ‘The Atlas of the Underworld’ catalogues 94 2-D sections from surface to the core-mantle boundary each of which spans 40° or arc – about a ninth of the Earth’s circumference (see: van der Meer, D.G., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J., and Spakman, W., 2017, Atlas of the Underworld: slab remnants in the mantle, their sinking history, and a new outlook on lower mantle viscosity, Tectonophysics online; doi.org/10.1016/j.tecto.2017.10.004). Specifically, the Atlas locates remnants of relatively cold slabs in the mantle that are suspected to be remnants of former subduction zones, or those that connect to active subduction. The upper parts of active slabs are revealed by the earthquakes generate along them. At deeper levels they are too ductile to have seismicity, so what form they take has long been a mystery. Once subduction stops, so do the telltale earthquakes and the slabs ‘disappear’.

The slabs covered by the ‘Atlas’ only go back as far as the end of the Permian, when the current round of plate tectonics began as Pangaea started to break-up. It takes 250 Ma for slabs to reach the base of the mantle and beyond that time they will have heated up and begun to be mixed into the lower mantle and invisible. Nevertheless, the rich resource allows models of vanished Mesozoic to Recent plates and the tectonics in which they participated, based on geological information, to be evaluated and enriched. Just as important, the project opens up the possibility of finding out how the mantle ‘worked’ since Pangaea broke up, in 3-D; a key to more than plate tectonics, including the mantle’s chemical heterogeneity. Already it has been used to estimate changes in the total length of subduction zones since 250 Ma ago, and thus arc volcanism and CO2 emissions, which correlates with estimates of past atmospheric CO2 levels, climate and even sea levels.

See also:  Voosen, P. 2016. ‘Atlas of the Underworld’ reveals oceans and mountains lost to Earth’s history. Science; doi:10.1126/science.aal0411.

Lee, H. 2017. The Earth’s interior is teeming with dead plates. Ars Technica UK, 18 October 2017.

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