From University of Houston: “Lost and Found- UH Geologists ‘Resurrect’ Missing Tectonic Plate”

From University of Houston

October 20, 2020
Sara Tubbs
sstubbs2@uh.edu
713-743-4248

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(l-r) Jonny Wu, assistant professor of geology in the UH Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and Spencer Fuston, a third-year geology doctoral student, applied a technique developed by the UH Center for Tectonics and Tomography called slab unfolding to reconstruct what tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean looked like during the early Cenozoic Era.

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A 3D block diagram across North America showing a mantle tomography image reveals the Slab Unfolding method used to flatten the Farallon tectonic plate. By doing this, Fuston and Wu were able to locate the lost Resurrection plate.

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This image shows plate tectonic reconstruction of western North America 60 million years ago showing subduction of three key tectonic plates, Kula, Farallon and Resurrection.


Fuston Wu 2020 Preferred Model.

Long-Debated Plate Located in Northern Canada Using 3D Mapping Technology

The existence of a tectonic plate called Resurrection has long been a topic of debate among geologists, with some arguing it was never real. Others say it subducted – moved sideways and downward – into the earth’s mantle somewhere in the Pacific Margin between 40 and 60 million years ago.

A team of geologists at the University of Houston College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics believes they have found the lost plate in northern Canada by using existing mantle tomography images – similar to a CT scan of the earth’s interior. The findings, published in Geological Society of America Bulletin, could help geologists better predict volcanic hazards as well as mineral and hydrocarbon deposits.

“Volcanoes form at plate boundaries, and the more plates you have, the more volcanoes you have,” said Jonny Wu, assistant professor of geology in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. “Volcanoes also affect climate change. So, when you are trying to model the earth and understand how climate has changed since time, you really want to know how many volcanoes there have been on earth.”

Wu and Spencer Fuston, a third-year geology doctoral student, applied a technique developed by the UH Center for Tectonics and Tomography called slab unfolding to reconstruct what tectonic plates in the Pacific Ocean looked like during the early Cenozoic Era. The rigid outermost shell of Earth, or lithosphere, is broken into tectonic plates and geologists have always known there were two plates in the Pacific Ocean at that time called Kula and Farallon. But there has been discussion about a potential third plate, Resurrection, having formed a special type of volcanic belt along Alaska and Washington State.

“We believe we have direct evidence that the Resurrection plate existed. We are also trying to solve a debate and advocate for which side our data supports,” Fuston said.

Using 3D mapping technology, Fuston applied the slab unfolding technique to the mantle tomography images to pull out the subducted plates before unfolding and stretching them to their original shapes.

“When ‘raised’ back to the earth’s surface and reconstructed, the boundaries of this ancient Resurrection tectonic plate match well with the ancient volcanic belts in Washington State and Alaska, providing a much sought after link between the ancient Pacific Ocean and the North American geologic record,” explained Wu.

This study is funded by a five-year, $568,309 National Science Foundation CAREER Award led by Wu.

See the full article here.

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The University of Houston (UH) is a public research university in Houston, Texas, and the main institution of the University of Houston System. Founded in 1927, UH is the third-largest university in Texas with over 46,000 students. Its campus spans 667 acres (2.70 km2) in southeast Houston, and was known as University of Houston–University Park from 1983 to 1991. The university is classified among “R1: Doctoral Universities – Very high research activity”.

The university offers more than 282 degree programs through its 14 academic colleges on campus—including programs leading to professional degrees in architecture, law, optometry, and pharmacy. The institution conducts $150 million annually in research, and operates more than 40 research centers and institutes on campus. Interdisciplinary research includes superconductivity, space commercialization and exploration, biomedical sciences and engineering, energy and natural resources, and artificial intelligence. Awarding more than 9,000 degrees annually, UH’s alumni base exceeds 260,000. The economic impact of the university contributes over $3 billion annually to the Texas economy, while generating about 24,000 jobs.

The University of Houston hosts a variety of theatrical performances, concerts, lectures, and events. It has more than 400 student organizations and 17 intercollegiate sports teams. Annual UH events and traditions include The Cat’s Back, Homecoming, and Frontier Fiesta. The university’s varsity athletic teams, known as the Houston Cougars, are members of the American Athletic Conference and compete in the NCAA Division I in all sports. The football team regularly makes bowl game appearances, and the men’s basketball team has made 21 appearances in the NCAA Division I Tournament—including five Final Four appearances. The men’s golf team has won 16 national championships—the most in NCAA history.