Tag Archives: Seismic tomography

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.


Hotspots and plumes

One of the pioneers of plate tectonics, W. Jason Morgan, recognised in the 1970s that chains of volcanic islands and seamounts that rise from the ocean floor may have formed as the movement of lithospheric plates passed over sources of magma that lay in the mantle beneath the plates. He suggested that such hotspots were fixed relative to plate movements at the surface and likened the formation of chains such as that to the west of the volcanically active of the Hawaiian ‘Big Island’ to linear scorching of a sheet of paper moved over a candle flame. If true, it should be possible to use hotspots as a framework for the absolute motion of lithospheric plates rather than the velocities of individual plates relative to the others. But Morgan’s hypothesis has been debated ever since he formulated it. A test would be to see whether or not plumes of rising hot material in the deep part of the mantle can be detected. This became one of the first objectives of seismic tomography when it was devised in the last decade of the 20th century: a method that uses global earthquakes records to detect parts of the mantle where seismic waves traveled faster or slower than the norm: effectively patches of hot (probably rising) and cold rock. The first such evidence was equally hotly debated, one view being that the magma sources beneath oceanic islands such as Hawaii and Iceland were actually related to plate tectonics and that the hotspot hypothesis had become a kind of belief system.

English: global distribution of 45 identified ...

Global distribution of hotspots ( credit: Wikipedia)

The problem was that mantle plumes supposedly linked to magmatic hotspots in the upper mantle would be so thin that they would be difficult to detect even with seismic tomography. Geophysicists have been trying to sharpen up seismic resolution partly by using supercomputers to analyse more and more seismic records and also by improving the theory about how seismic waves interact with 3-D mantle structure. This has culminated in more believable visualisation of mantle structure (French, S.W. & Romanowicz, B. 2015. Broad plumes rooted at the base of the Earth’s mantle beneath major hotspots). The two researchers from the University of California at Berkeley in fact showed something different, but still robust support for Morgan’s 40-year old ideas. Instead of thin plumes, they have been able to show much broader conduits beneath at least 5 and maybe more active ends of hotspot chains. The zones extend upwards from the core-mantle boundary to about 1000 km below the Earth’s surface, where some bend sideways towards hotspots, perhaps as a result of another kind of upper mantle circulation.

Whole-Earth seismic tomography cross sections beneath a variety of volcanic islands, (Credit French and Romanowicz; http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/nature14876)

Whole-Earth seismic tomography cross sections beneath a variety of volcanic islands, (Credit French and Romanowicz; http://www.nature.com/doifinder/10.1038/nature14876)

The sources of these hot columns at the core-mantle boundary appear to be zones of very low shear-wave velocities; i.e. almost, but not quite molten blobs. French and Romanowicz suggest that the columns are extremely long-lived and may even have a chemical dimension – as in the hypothesis of mantle heterogeneity. Another interesting feature of their results is that the striking vertical linearity of the columns could indicate that the overall motion of the lower mantle is extremely sluggish and punctured by discrete convection.

Mantle structures beneath the central Pacific

Since it first figured in Earth Pages 13 years ago seismic tomography has advanced steadily as regards the detail that can be shown and the level of confidence in its accuracy: in the early days some geoscientists considered the results to be verging on the imaginary. There were indeed deficiencies, one being that a mantle plume which everyone believed to be present beneath Hawaii didn’t show up on the first tomographic section through the central Pacific. Plumes are one of the forms likely to be taken by mantle heat convection, and many now believe that some of them emerge from great depths in the mantle, perhaps at its interface with the outer core.

The improvements in imaging deep structure stem mainly from increasingly sophisticated software and faster computers, the data being fed in being historic seismograph records from around the globe. The approach seeks out deviations in the speed of seismic waves from the mean at different depths beneath the Earth’s surface. Decreases suggest lower strength and therefore hotter rocks while abnormally high speeds signify strong, cool parts of the mantle. The hotter mantle rock is the lower its density and the more likely it is to be rising, and vice versa.

Using state-of-the-art tomography to probe beneath the central Pacific is a natural strategy as the region contains a greater concentration of hot-spot related volcanic island chains than anywhere else and that is the focus of a US-French group of collaborators (French, S. et al. 2013. Waveform tomography reveals channeled flow at the base of the oceanic lithosphere. Science, v. 342, 227-230;  doi 10.1126/science.1241514). The authors first note the appearance on 2-D global maps for a depth of 250 km of elongate zones of low shear-strength mantle that approximately parallel the known directions of local absolute plate movement. The most clear of these occur beneath the Pacific hemisphere, strongly suggesting some kind of channelling of hot material by convection away from the East Pacific Rise.

Seismic tomograhic model of the mantle beneath the central Pacific. Yellow to red colours represent increasing low shear strength. (credit: Global Seismology Group / Berkeley Seismological Laboratory

Seismic tomographic model of the mantle beneath the central Pacific. Yellow to red colours represent increasingly low shear strength. (credit: Global Seismology Group / Berkeley Seismological Laboratory)

Visually it is the three-dimensional models of the Pacific hot-spot ‘swarm’ that grab attention. These show the low velocity zone of the asthenosphere at depths of around 50 to 100 km, as predicted but with odd convolutions. Down to 1000 km is a zone of complexity with limb-like lobes of warm, low-strength mantle concentrated beneath the main island chains. That beneath the Hawaiian hot spot definitely has a plume-like shape but one curiously bent at depth, turning to the NW as it emerges from even deeper mantle then taking a knee-like bend to the east . Those beneath the hot spots of the west Pacific are more irregular but almost vertical. Just what kind of process the peculiarities represent in detail is not known, but it is almost certainly a reflection of complex forms taken by convection in a highly viscous medium.

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 (https://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.