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  • richardmitnick 6:26 am on December 3, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Megathrust earthquakes, Plate Tectonics   

    From Eos: “Understanding Tectonic Processes Following Great Earthquakes” 

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    Sarah Witman

    A building torn in two in Concepción, Chile, following a magnitude 8.8 earthquake in 2010. Credit: hdur, CC BY-NC 2.0

    The most powerful and destructive earthquakes (magnitude 8 and higher) happen about once per year. Earthquakes at those magnitudes can do a lot of damage, often causing tsunamis and inflicting devastation across an entire region. The biggest quakes, such as Chile’s 1960 magnitude 9.5 tremor and Japan’s 2011 magnitude 9 event, typically occur in a subduction zone, a section of the Earth’s crust where one massive tectonic plate is sliding beneath another.

    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS.
    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS

    The pent-up energy of these two plates pressing against one another eventually gives way, creating a colossal earthquake known as a megathrust.

    A recent study by Bedford et al. [Journal of Geophysical Research] presents a new approach to analyzing signals detected via satellite in the months following a megathrust earthquake. These signals, related to deformation in the tectonic plates caused by stress and strain, can be used to shed light on the tectonic processes that continue to unfold after disaster has struck.

    In many recent megathrust earthquakes, continuous GPS monitoring has allowed scientists to observe a two-part process following each quake: afterslip (slow, quiet movement along the interface of the two plates) and viscoelastic relaxation (the process of malleable, deforming rock adjusting to its new state of stress). However, when modeling GPS data collected in the 4 years after a magnitude 8.8 earthquake struck Chile in 2010, the team of researchers noticed something odd.

    A schematic showing the straightening process in action. Viscoelastic relaxation and relocking predictions are subtracted from the curved original signal to leave behind a straight signal that is assumed to be the isolated afterslip signal. The color scale shows the time that has elapsed since the great earthquake. Millimeter scales on the x and y axes denote motions in the east and north horizontal directions, respectively. Credit: Jonathan Bedford

    Usually, before an earthquake, the horizontal ground motion of a continental plate is in roughly the same direction as the subducting oceanic plate because the oceanic plate sticks against—and drags along—the continental plate. During the quake, this observed surface motion is reversed when the sticking point between the two plates suddenly slips.

    Instead of this usual pattern of horizontal motion due to afterslip and viscoelastic relaxation, however, the researchers saw a distinct curvature in the surface signals. Almost immediately after the quake, the GPS motions started to curve around, starting from roughly the opposite direction of the downgoing plate and shifting toward a direction more in line with the pre-earthquake motion.

    The researchers thought that maybe, in addition to afterslip and viscoelastic relaxation, some relocking at the interface of the plates (pumping the brakes, so to speak) might be contributing to the observed curvature. After all, the plate interface must eventually relock in preparation for the next large earthquake. The researchers wondered whether relocking could be a dominant process so soon after a great earthquake. And, if so, how big was its impact relative to the other two processes?

    To find out, the researchers applied a novel approach to separating out three different processes: afterslip, viscoelastic relaxation, and plate interface relocking. Their approach, called straightening, assumes that the afterslip motion comes from a nonmigrating afterslip distribution on the plate interface that decays linearly with time. Under these assumptions, the individual contributions of each process can be teased out by finding the combination of relocking and viscoelastic relaxation model predictions that when subtracted from the recorded signal, best reproduces the expected unstraightened afterslip signal features. In other words, they held afterslip to a fixed pattern so that they could vary other parameters to estimate the other components.

    Following this method, the researchers discovered that plate interface relocking was indeed the dominant process causing curvature in the signal. Moreover, they were also able to confirm the results of past lab experiments proposing that relocking occurs rapidly, less than a year after an earthquake takes place.

    Overall, the study helps provide a more accurate picture of the tectonic processes underlying signals detected after a megathrust earthquake. The researchers hope that in the future their method can be tested at the sites of other megathrust earthquakes, especially those that are well observed by GPS networks.

    See the full article here .

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    Eos is the leading source for trustworthy news and perspectives about the Earth and space sciences and their impact. Its namesake is Eos, the Greek goddess of the dawn, who represents the light shed on understanding our planet and its environment in space by the Earth and space sciences.

  • richardmitnick 7:23 am on October 7, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Case of Earth’s missing continental crust solved: It sank, , Plate Tectonics,   

    From U Chicago: “Case of Earth’s missing continental crust solved: It sank” 

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    University of Chicago

    October 4, 2016
    Carla Reiter

    Mantle swallowed massive chunk of Eurasia and India, study finds

    UChicago scientists have concluded that half the original mass of Eurasia and India disappeared into the Earth’s interior before the two continents began their slow-motion collision approximately 60 million years ago. The participating UChicago scientists are (from left) Miquela Ingalls, doctoral student in geophysical sciences; David Rowley, professor in geophysical sciences; and Albert Colman, assistant professor in geophysical sciences. Rowley holds a rock of the type they believe sank into the interior. Photo by Jean Lachat

    How do you make half the mass of two continents disappear? To answer that question, you first need to discover that it’s missing.

    That’s what a trio of University of Chicago geoscientists and their collaborator did, and their explanation for where the mass went significantly changes prevailing ideas about what can happen when continents collide. It also has important implications for our understanding of when the continents grew to their present size and how the chemistry of the Earth’s interior has evolved.

    The study, published online Sept. 19 in Nature Geoscience, examines the collision of Eurasia and India, which began about 60 million years ago, created the Himalayas and is still in (slow) progress. The scientists computed with unprecedented precision the amount of landmass, or “continental crust,” before and after the collision.

    “What we found is that half of the mass that was there 60 million years ago is missing from the earth’s surface today,“ said Miquela Ingalls, a graduate student in geophysical sciences who led the project as part of her doctoral work.

    The result was unexpectedly large. After considering all other ways the mass might be accounted for, the researchers concluded that so huge a mass discrepancy could only be explained if the missing chunk had gone back down into the Earth’s mantle—something geoscientists had considered more or less impossible on such a scale.

    When tectonic plates come together, something has to give.

    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS.
    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS

    According to plate tectonic theory, the surface of the Earth comprises a mosaic of about a dozen rigid plates in relative motion. These plates move atop the upper mantle, and plates topped with thicker, more buoyant continental crust ride higher than those topped with thinner oceanic crust. Oceanic crust can dip and slide into the mantle, where it eventually mixes together with the mantle material. But continental crust like that involved in the Eurasia-India collision is less dense, and geologists have long believed that when it meets the mantle, it is pushed back up like a beach ball in water, never mixing back in.

    Geology 101 miscreant

    “We’re taught in Geology 101 that continental crust is buoyant and can’t descend into the mantle,” Ingalls said. The new results throw that idea out the window.

    “We really have significant amounts of crust that have disappeared from the crustal reservoir, and the only place that it can go is into the mantle,” said David Rowley, a professor in geophysical sciences who is one of Ingalls’ advisors and a collaborator on the project. “It used to be thought that the mantle and the crust interacted only in a relatively minor way. This work suggests that, at least in certain circumstances, that’s not true.”

    The scientists’ conclusion arose out of meticulous calculations of the amount of mass there before and after the collision, and a careful accounting of all possible ways it could have been distributed. Computing the amount of crust “before” is a contentious problem involving careful dating of the ages of strata and reconstructions of past plate positions, Ingalls said. Previous workers have done similar calculations but have often tried to force the “before” and “after” numbers to balance, “trying to make the system match up with what we think we already know about how tectonics works.”

    Ingalls and collaborators made no such assumptions. They used recently revised estimates about plate movements to figure out how large the two plates were at the onset of collision, and synthesized more than 20 years’ worth of data on the geology of various regions of the Earth to calculate how thick the crust would have been.

    “By looking at all of the relevant data sets, we’ve been able to say what the mass of the crust was at the beginning of collision,” Rowley said.

    Limited options

    There were only a few places for the displaced crust to go after the collision: Some was thrust upward, forming the Himalayas, some was eroded and deposited as enormous sedimentary deposits in the oceans, and some was squeezed out the sides of the colliding plates, forming Southeast Asia.

    “But accounting for all of these different types of mass loss, we still find that half of the continental crust involved in this collision is missing today,” Ingalls said. “If we’ve accounted for all possible solutions at the surface, it means the remaining mass must have been recycled wholesale into the mantle.”

    If large areas of continental crust are recycled back into the mantle, scientists can at last explain some previously puzzling geochemistry. Elements including lead and uranium are periodically erupted from the mantle through volcanic activity. Such elements are relatively abundant in continental crust, but scarce in the mantle. Yet the composition of some mantle-derived rocks indicates that they have been contaminated by continental crust. So how did continental material mix back into the mantle?

    “The implication of our work is that, if we’re seeing the India-Asia collision system as an ongoing process over Earth’s history, there has been a continuous mixing of the continental crustal elements back into the mantle,” said Rowley. “And they can then be re-extracted and seen in some of those volcanic materials that come out of the mantle today.”

    Funding: National Science Foundation

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 7:32 am on September 23, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Plate Tectonics, Seismic 'CT scans' reveal deep earth dynamics, Seismic tomography,   

    From Berkeley via phys.org: “Seismic ‘CT scans’ reveal deep earth dynamics” 

    UC Berkeley

    UC Berkeley


    September 23, 2016
    Wallace Ravven

    A new look 100 miles beneath a massive tectonic plate as it dives under North America has helped clarify the subduction process that generates earthquakes, volcanoes and the rise of the Cascade Range in the Pacific Northwest.

    The largest array of seismometers ever deployed on the seafloor, coupled with hundreds of others operating in the continental U.S., has enabled UC Berkeley researchers to essentially create CT scans of the Juan de Fuca plate and part of the earth’s mantle directly below it.

    The plate, about the size of the state of Michigan, is grinding under the continent along an 800-mile swath that runs from Northern California to Vancouver Island, known as the Cascadia subduction zone.

    The 3-D imaging process, known as seismic tomography, has revealed with unprecedented clarity a huge, buoyant, sausage-shaped region of the upper mantle, or asthenosphere, pressing up on the oceanic plate.

    The imaging casts new light on the competing hypotheses about the drivers of plate tectonics, a dynamic earth process that has been studied for more than 50 years but is still poorly understood.

    Different evidence has led to three different plate movement scenarios: either the plates are pushed from mid-ocean ridges; or they are pulled from their subducting slabs; or their movement is driven by the drag of the viscous mantle material that lies directly below.

    The new research suggests that the third scenario does not apply to the Cascadia subduction zone. Rather, it reveals that a distinct, thin—and difficult to observe—layer separates the plate from the mantle beneath, at least in the Cascadia subduction zone. The layer acts as a kind of berm that the plate rolls over before descending beneath the continent, says UC Berkeley seismologist Richard Allen, leader of the research and co-author of a paper appearing in the Sept. 23 edition of the journal Science.

    “What we observe is an accumulation of low-viscosity material between the plate and the mantle. Its composition acts as a lubricant, and decouples the plate’s movement from the mantle below it,” explains Allen, who is director of the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory and professor and chair of Earth and Planetary Science at Berkeley. The plates may move independently of the mantle below, he adds.

    The finding, he says, will help refine models of plate tectonic dynamics, aiding the long-range effort to understand the connection between tectonics and earthquakes.

    “It is the motion of the plates that causes earthquakes,” Allen says. “Models like this help us understand that linkage so we can be better informed of the coastal hazards.

    “First though, we need to learn if what we find here is typical of subduction zones across the planet, or if it is unique for some reason.”

    Japan has recently deployed a massive seafloor seismic network to study subduction and earthquakes. Allen hopes to next apply the tomography strategy there. Alaska also beckons.

    Lead author on the Science paper is William Hawley, a graduate student in Allen’s lab.

    “Plate tectonics is the most fundamental concept explaining the formation of features we see on the earth’s surface,” Hawley says, “but despite the fact that the concept is simple, we still do not know exactly why or how it operates.

    “If the asthenosphere acts as a lubricant for tectonic plate movement throughout the planet, it will really change our long-term models of the process”—dynamic changes that occur over a 100 million years.

    “Modelers will have to take this lubricating layer into account because it changes the way the mantle and the plates talk to each other.”

    Seismic tomography generates 3-D images of the earth’s interior by measuring how differences in shape, density, rock type and temperature affect the path, speed and amplitude of seismic waves traveling through the planet from an earthquake.

    Much as in CT scans, computers process differences in energy measured at the receiving end to infer interior 3-D detail. CT scans use X-rays as the energy source, while seismic tomography measures energy from seismic waves.

    A dense array of seismometers directly over the region of interest yields the best images and provides the highest resolution of the structures, which can then inform models of the process.

    This study used the data from the largest scale ocean-floor deployment to complement the onshore data already available. Together, they generated the best images of the region to date.

    The four-year seafloor research effort was made possible by the National Science Foundation’s ambitious $20 million Cascadia Initiative. The NSF aimed to spur greater understanding of plate structure, subduction processes, earthquakes and volcanism by deploying seismometers at 120 sites on the ocean floor, arrayed throughout the 95,000-square-mile Juan de Fuca plate.

    Over the four years, the offshore and onshore seismometer array measured thousands of earthquakes throughout the planet, ranging from magnitudes of 5 to about 9 on the Richter scale. The study examined a subset of 321 quakes with magnitudes between about 6 and 7.5.

    Grad students and faculty scientists participated in 24 research cruises to deploy the instruments and move them between two swaths of the Juan de Fuca plate. Several of the seismic tomography cruises invited undergraduate students on the two-week trips. On one Berkeley-led cruise aboard the R/V Thomas Thompson, the undergrads dubbed the trip the “Tom Cruise,” and sent daily video blogs.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 11:31 am on May 20, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , Plate Tectonics, Possibility of a subduction zone observatory, ,   

    From Eos: “Planning for a Subduction Zone Observatory” 

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    By Joan Gomberg, Paul Bodin, Jody Bourgeois, Susan Cashman, Darrel Cowan, Ken Creager, Brendan Crowell, Alison Duvall, Arthur Frankel, Frank Gonzalez, Heidi Houston, Paul Johnson, Harvey Kelsey, Una Miller, Emily Roland, David Schmidt, Lydia Staisch, John Vidale, William Wilcock, and Erin Wirth

    The eruption of Alaska’s Augustine Volcano on 27 March 2006, viewed from the M/V Maritime Maid. Credit: Cyrus Read, AVO/USGS

    Subduction zones contain many of Earth’s most remarkable geologic structures, from the deepest oceanic trenches to glacier-covered mountains and steaming volcanoes. These environments formed through spectacular events: Nature’s largest earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanic eruptions are born here.

    A scientist investigates dramatic subsidence—in places up to 2 meters—along the northwest coast of Sumatra in January 2005. Here tsunami waves spawned from the Mw9.1 earthquake that shook on 26 December 2004 snapped off tree tops; roots and lower trunks are now submerged in water. Credit: USGS

    Great subduction zone earthquakes can cause coastal subsidence in minutes that has impacts comparable to a century or more of climatically driven sea level rise. They can radiate shaking waves that trigger widespread landslides and submarine slope failures and can spawn tsunami waves that reach distant lands. Eruptions can produce fast-moving mudflows as well as high-lofted ash clouds complete with their own lightning systems.

    The geologic processes in subduction zones shape surface morphology, couple plate motions to mantle convection, control resource distributions, and even interact with Earth’s climate—volcanic gases can cool the climate, and sediments at subduction margins are important reservoirs for greenhouse gases. In short, the diverse environments in subduction zones are natural laboratories for investigating a wide range of interlinked processes.

    The myriad opportunities for collaborative work among scientific disciplines, institutions, and nations have inspired a grassroots movement to create a subduction zone observatory (SZO), now in a nascent stage of planning. Over the past few years, Earth scientists have been discussing options for its geographic scope and structure. For example, should such an observatory focus on one subduction zone or multiple zones? Should it be managed as a center or an umbrella organization? How should resources be balanced between new facilities and funds needed for research?

    As part of these discussions, we held a series of seminars focused on SZO topics. A more official and much broader workshop will occur in September 2016. Here we share ideas that have emerged from past talks in an effort to grow the movement, advance community discussion, and help shape a vision.

    Why Invest in an SZO Now? Lessons from Tohoku

    Scientific focus on subduction zones has increased dramatically in the past decade, accompanying a recognition that large numbers of people are migrating to urban areas that lie within subduction zones. Scientists recognize the hazards inherent in living near tectonically active margins [Bilham, 2009] and are motivated to understand them so that they may provide the best advice to protect communities.

    Fig. 1. Fault slip from the Mw9 Tohoku, Japan, earthquake in 2011. Seismic and GPS waveform modeling revealed significant slip in patches with varying characteristics (amplitudes color coded), as if it were a composite of smaller earthquakes. The plate interface (fault) dips to the west. A downdip patch radiated the high-frequency waves that damaged buildings (right map), and the largest slip on an updip patch (left map) generated the enormous tsunami. Modified from Frankel [2013].

    Investments in onshore and offshore instrument arrays have enhanced the resolution of our understanding of subduction-related processes. Multifaceted analyses can make monitoring systems and hazard assessments more robust. For example, the Mw9.0 Tohoku earthquake, which shook Japan in 2011, occurred in an area with an abundance of onshore and offshore observations, including geodetic and seismic signals, marine seismic reflection profiles, bathymetry, tsunami wave heights, and novel seafloor acoustic GPS and pressure measurements. Offshore observations provided, for the first time, unambiguous evidence for why the tsunami was so large—they documented several tens of meters of fault slip near the Japan Trench (Figure 1). Rich data sets and multifaceted analyses also revealed that days before the Tohoku earthquake, the plate interface began slipping slowly, with slip propagating toward the initiation point of the Mw9.0 earthquake [Kato et al., 2012].

    The 2011 Tohoku earthquake illustrated the potential of an SZO to significantly advance understanding of the processes at work before, during, and after a major event. It also prompted sobering retrospectives on the difficulty of anticipating its enormous size, even after meticulous paleoseismological studies [Sawai et al., 2012], underscoring the need for further research investments that will make subduction zone populations more resilient.


    Ideally, an SZO would produce research that is transformational, multidisciplinary, amphibious, and international. As illustrated by the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, an SZO would enable transformational research by facilitating acquisition and analysis of disparate data with multiple synergistic applications considered from the start. An SZO must be multidisciplinary to understand linkages between processes within subduction zones and the transitions to adjacent tectonic environments.

    The tremendous diversity of processes and physical characteristics displayed by the world’s subduction zones begs for a global scope. Although the geographic scope of an SZO remains to be determined, we illustrate key features of an SZO with some examples of broad questions addressed in particular regional studies. Two of the three examples come from the Cascadia subduction zone (Figure 2a), only because it is where most of the authors reside and work.

    How do accretionary prism sedimentation, geochemistry, ocean currents, and climate change interact with gas hydrate stability? Subduction margin sediments contain a significant fraction of Earth’s greenhouse gas methane. This methane, derived from sediments of terrestrial origins and organisms at the sea surface, gets bound within the solid crystalline water lattices of gas hydrates. In Cascadia, multichannel seismic reflection profiles reveal a gas hydrate reservoir in a swath along the seafloor where the water depth exceeds 500 meters (depth contour in Figure 2a), above which hydrates decompose. However, seawater warming at these depths threatens to decompose some of this hydrate. This could increase bottom water acidity and lower the water’s oxygen content, which could have dramatic negative effects on organisms and accelerate climate change.

    Fig. 2. The Cascadia subduction zone off the west coast of the United States and Canada provides examples of questions a subduction zone observatory could address. Merged bathymetry and topography (shaded) with superposed boundaries (white lines and arrows) illustrate the diversity of environments. (a) Southern and central Cascadia, from Pacific Ocean depths (dark blues) to high Cascade mountains and volcanoes (browns). Processes include formation of an accretionary prism, formation and dissolution of methane hydrates (wiggly white line), consumption of the Juan de Fuca plate at the deformation front (hatchured), and its descent beneath the North American plate. The plate interface is stuck (locked) at shallow depths and slips slowly at greater depths, generating tremors. Deeper, metamorphic changes lead to volcanic arc formation. (b) In northernmost Cascadia, the tectonic activity transitions from subduction to transform boundaries. The red rectangle outlines the rupture plane of the magnitude 7.8 Haida Gwaii earthquake.

    How do subduction zones transition to other types of tectonic regimes? At the northern end of the Cascadia subduction zone (Figure 2b), the plate motions change from converging toward one other with associated subduction and thrust faulting along shallowly dipping planes to moving parallel to each other, accommodated by steeply dipping strike-slip faulting, in which most of the movement is horizontal. The Queen Charlotte Fault system is this latter “transform” boundary. The 2012 M7.8 Haida Gwaii earthquake in British Columbia occurred on this system and illustrated the complexity of this transition, with surprisingly many of the characteristics of a subduction zone thrust event.

    Recent studies of the Alaska subduction zone demonstrate that during great subduction zone earthquakes, as ruptures approach the seafloor, they sometimes propagate from the plate interface to secondary faults, sometimes also deforming ductile overlying sediments. Uncertainties in seafloor fault displacements remain the most significant unknown in local tsunami hazard assessments [Geist, 2002]. These hazards could be reduced with an SZO monitoring system and seafloor mapping before and after events.

    How do subducting slabs and volcanism affect continental crust creation? Processes that generate magmas in subduction zones are the “factories” that create continents, based on the similarity between the compositions of continental crust and volcanic arcs. Numerous hypotheses exist about the processes by which slab materials accrete, subduct, melt, mix, and emerge at crustal depths or extrude from active volcanoes. Testing these hypotheses requires integrated studies spanning the disciplines of chemistry, petrology, fluid dynamics, geology, and seismology, with four-dimensional imaging.

    An SZO must be amphibious, and this requires new means of collecting and integrating offshore and onshore observations. Scientists need sustained marine geodetic observations to characterize subduction zone deformation processes over many time scales, from plate motions (decades) to earthquake fault slip (seconds). A geodetic component of an SZO could include high-resolution repeat seafloor mapping, pressure gauges, and novel tools like fiber-optic strain meters. These and other frontier offshore measurements are applicable to multiple scientific questions and practical applications.

    A High-Impact, Societally Relevant SZO

    The envisioned SZO would contribute to the scientific understanding needed to build societal resilience in the face of natural hazards. It would also serve as an international educational resource. For example, recording earthquake ground motions using densely spaced networks would enable us to properly calibrate the simulations that underlie seismic hazard assessments and building codes (Figure 1).

    An SZO should be built collaboratively with those responsible for hazard mitigation and response. Perhaps most important, it could offer opportunities to involve citizens in research, through educating the public and making them stakeholders. For example, local scientists, students, and interested citizenry could be engaged to make biological and survey observations before and after events and to document coastal uplift and subsidence, tsunami inundation, or storm surge impacts (Figure 3). Such engagement could extend understanding of the effects of major natural events in places where we lack prior baselines, and it would fit naturally into educational programs that teach by doing.

    Fig. 3. This stray coral boulder was likely transported 230 meters inland by large waves or currents along the Atlantic shore of Anegada, British Virgin Islands. This and other geologic and geomorphic features are being used to assess earthquake and tsunami hazards of the subduction thrust and the adjoining outer rise along the Puerto Rico Trench. Credit: Brian Atwater

    A Path Toward an SZO

    Moving an SZO from concept to reality will require coordination within and among academic and hazards assessment communities. Individually and as members of professional entities, we must lead, advocate for, and contribute to proposals to governmental and private sector institutions to support, design, and build an SZO. If the Earth science community collaboratively pursues creative strategies, developing an SZO may simultaneously serve to enrich observational tools, improve hazard models, and enhance our basic understanding of one of Earth’s most dynamic environments.


    Bilham, R. (2009), The seismic future of cities, Bull. Earthquake Eng., 7, 839–887, doi:10.1007/s10518-009-9147-0.

    Frankel, A. (2013), Rupture history of the 2011 M9 Tohoku Japan earthquake determined from strong-motion and high-rate GPS recordings: Subevents radiating energy in different frequency bands, Bull. Seismol. Soc. Am., 103, 1290–1306.

    Geist, E. L. (2002), Complex earthquake rupture and local tsunamis, J. Geophys. Res., 107(B5), 2086, doi:10.1029/2000JB000139.

    Kato, A., K. Obara, T. Igarishi, H. Tsuruoka, S. Nakagawa, and N. Hirata (2012), Propagation of slow slip leading up to the 2011 Mw 9.0 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, Science, 335, 705–708.

    Sawai, Y., Y. Namegaya, Y. Okamura, K. Satake, and M. Shishikura (2012), Challenges of anticipating the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami using coastal geology, Geophys. Res. Lett., 39, L21309, doi:10.1029/2012GL053692.

    —Joan Gomberg, U.S. Geological Survey, Seattle, Wash.; and Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; email: [email protected]; Paul Bodin and Jody Bourgeois, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; Susan Cashman, Department of Geology, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif.; Darrel Cowan, Ken Creager, Brendan Crowell, and Alison Duvall, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; Arthur Frankel, U.S. Geological Survey, Seattle, Wash.; and Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; Frank Gonzalez and Heidi Houston, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; Paul Johnson, School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle; Harvey Kelsey, Department of Geology, Humboldt State University, Arcata, Calif.; Una Miller and Emily Roland, School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle; David Schmidt, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; Lydia Staisch, U.S. Geological Survey, Seattle, Wash.; and Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; John Vidale, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle; William Wilcock, School of Oceanography, University of Washington, Seattle; and Erin Wirth, Department of Earth and Space Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle

    Citation: Gomberg, J., et al. (2016), Planning for a subduction zone observatory, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO052635. Published on 20 May 2016.
    © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 9:00 pm on May 16, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Plate Tectonics,   

    From Rice: “Oxygen atmosphere recipe = tectonics + continents + life” 

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    Rice University

    Rice-led study offers new answer to why Earth’s atmosphere became oxygenated

    May 16, 2016
    Jade Boyd

    Earth scientists from Rice University, Yale University and the University of Tokyo are offering a new answer to the long-standing question of how our planet acquired its oxygenated atmosphere.

    Based on a new model that draws from research in diverse fields including petrology, geodynamics, volcanology and geochemistry, the team’s findings* were published online this week in Nature Geoscience. They suggest that the rise of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere was an inevitable consequence of the formation of continents in the presence of life and plate tectonics.

    “It’s really a very simple idea, but fully understanding it requires a good bit of background about how the Earth works,” said study lead author Cin-Ty Lee, professor of Earth science at Rice. “The analogy I most often use is the leaky bathtub. The level of water in a bathtub is controlled by the rate of water flowing in through the faucet and the efficiency by which water leaks out through the drain. Plants and certain types of bacteria produce oxygen as a byproduct of photosynthesis. This oxygen production is balanced by the sink: reaction of oxygen with iron and sulfur in the Earth’s crust and by back-reaction with organic carbon. For example, we breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide, essentially removing oxygen from the atmosphere. In short, the story of oxygen in our atmosphere comes down to understanding the sources and sinks, but the 3-billion-year narrative of how this actually unfolded is more complex.”

    Lee co-authored the study with Laurence Yeung and Adrian Lenardic, both of Rice, and with Yale’s Ryan McKenzie and the University of Tokyo’s Yusuke Yokoyama. The authors’ explanations are based on a new model that suggests how atmospheric oxygen was added to Earth’s atmosphere at two key times: one about 2 billion years ago and another about 600 million years ago.

    Today, some 20 percent of Earth’s atmosphere is free molecular oxygen, or O2. Free oxygen is not bound to another element, as are the oxygen atoms in other atmospheric gases like carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. For much of Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, free oxygen was all but nonexistent in the atmosphere.

    “It was not missing because it is rare,” Lee said. “Oxygen is actually one of the most abundant elements on rocky planets like Mars, Venus and Earth. However, it is one of the most chemically reactive elements. It forms strong chemical bonds with many other elements, and as a result, it tends to remain locked away in oxides that are forever entombed in the bowels of the planet — in the form of rocks. In this sense, Earth is no exception to the other planets; almost all of Earth’s oxygen still remains locked away in its deep rocky interior.”

    Lee and colleagues showed that around 2.5 billion years ago, the composition of Earth’s continental crust changed fundamentally. Lee said the period, which coincided with the first rise in atmospheric oxygen, was also marked by the appearance of abundant mineral grains known as zircons.

    “The presence of zircons is telling,” he said. “Zircons crystallize out of molten rocks with special compositions, and their appearance signifies a profound change from silica-poor to silica-rich volcanism. The relevance to atmospheric composition is that silica-rich rocks have far less iron and sulfur than silica-poor rocks, and iron and sulfur react with oxygen and form a sink for oxygen.

    A view of Earth’s atmosphere taken from the International Space Station in 2003. (Photo courtesy of ISS Expedition 7 Crew, EOL, NASA)

    “Based on this, we believe the first rise in oxygen may have been due to a substantial reduction in the efficiency of the oxygen sink,” Lee said. “In the bathtub analogy, this is equivalent to partially plugging the drain.”

    Lee said the study suggests that the second rise in atmospheric oxygen was related to a change in production — analogous to turning up the flow from the faucet.

    “The bathtub analogy is simple and elegant, but there’s an added complication that must be taken into account,” he said. “That is because oxygen production is ultimately tied to the global carbon cycle — the cycling of carbon between the Earth, the biosphere, the atmosphere and oceans.”

    Lee said the model showed that Earth’s carbon cycle has never been at a steady state because carbon slowly leaks out as carbon dioxide from Earth’s deep interior to the surface through volcanic activity. Carbon dioxide is one of the key ingredients for photosynthesis.

    “On long, geologic timescales, carbon is removed from the atmosphere by the production of condensed forms of carbon, such as organic carbon and minerals called carbonate,” he said. “For most of Earth’s history, most of this carbon has been deposited not in the deep ocean but rather on the margins of continents. The implications are profound because carbon deposited on continents does not return to Earth’s deep interior. Instead, it amplifies carbon inputs into the atmosphere when the continents are subsequently perturbed by volcanism.”

    Lee said the team’s model showed that volcanic activity and other geologic inputs of carbon into the atmosphere may have increased with time, and because oxygen production is tied to carbon production, oxygen production also must increase. The model showed that the second rise in atmospheric oxygen had to occur late in Earth’s history.

    “Exactly when is model-dependent, but what is clear is that the formation of continental crust naturally leads to two rises in atmospheric oxygen, just as we see in the fossil record,” Lee said.

    Exactly what caused the composition of the crust to change during the first oxygenation event remains a mystery, but Lee said the team believes it may have been related to the onset of plate tectonics, where the Earth’s surface, for the first time, became mobile enough to sink back down into Earth’s deep interior.

    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS.
    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in 1996, USGS.

    Lee said the team’s new model is not without controversy. For example, the model predicts that production of carbon dioxide must increase with time, a finding that goes against the conventional wisdom that carbon fluxes and atmospheric carbon dioxide levels have steadily decreased over the last 4 billion years.

    “The change in flux described by our model happens over extremely long time periods, and it would be a mistake to think that these processes that are bringing about any of the atmospheric changes are occurring due to anthropomorphic climate change,” he said. “However, our work does suggest that Earth scientists and astrobiologists may need to revisit what we think we know about Earth’s early history.”

    This work is the result of an ongoing study of the global carbon cycle funded by the National Science Foundation and administered by Rice University.

    [Note mentioned in this article, the activity of cyanobacteria which were the creatures which released the oxygen we breathe.]

    *Science paper:
    Two-step rise of atmospheric oxygen linked to the growth of continents

    See the full article here .

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    Rice U campus

    In his 1912 inaugural address, Rice University president Edgar Odell Lovett set forth an ambitious vision for a great research university in Houston, Texas; one dedicated to excellence across the range of human endeavor. With this bold beginning in mind, and with Rice’s centennial approaching, it is time to ask again what we aspire to in a dynamic and shrinking world in which education and the production of knowledge will play an even greater role. What shall our vision be for Rice as we prepare for its second century, and how ought we to advance over the next decade?

    This was the fundamental question posed in the Call to Conversation, a document released to the Rice community in summer 2005. The Call to Conversation asked us to reexamine many aspects of our enterprise, from our fundamental mission and aspirations to the manner in which we define and achieve excellence. It identified the pressures of a constantly changing and increasingly competitive landscape; it asked us to assess honestly Rice’s comparative strengths and weaknesses; and it called on us to define strategic priorities for the future, an effort that will be a focus of the next phase of this process.

  • richardmitnick 12:46 pm on February 6, 2016 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Pangaea, Plate Tectonics   

    From livescience: “What If the Supercontinent Pangaea Had Never Broken Up?” 


    Brought forward 2.6.16
    Original date May 13, 2011

    Adam Hadhazy

    Things would be a little different.

    Pangaea and its breakup

    From about 300 million to 200 million years ago, all seven modern continents were mashed together as one landmass, dubbed Pangaea . The continents have since “drifted” apart because of the movements of the Earth’s crust, known as plate tectonics. Some continents have maintained their puzzle piece-like shapes: Look at how eastern South America tucks into western Africa.

    Techtonic plates
    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in the second half of the 20th century.

    Life would be: Far less diverse. A prime driver of speciation the development of new species from existing ones is geographical isolation, which leads to the evolution of new traits by subjecting creatures to different selective pressures. Consider, for example, the large island of Madagascar, which broke off from Gondwana, Pangaea’s southern half, 160 million years ago. About nine out of 10 of the plant and mammal species that have evolved on the island are not found anywhere else on the planet, according to Conservation International.

    A locked-in Pangaea further constrains life’s possibilities because much of its interior would be arid and hot, said Damian Nance, a professor of geosciences at Ohio University. “Because of Pangaea’s size, moisture-bearing clouds would lose most of their moisture before getting very far inland,” Nance told Life’s Little Mysteries.

    Excess mass on a spinning globe shifts away from the poles, so the supercontinent would also become centered on the equator, the warmest part of the planet. Reptiles could deal with such a climate better than most, which is partly why dinosaurs, which emerged during the time the planet’s surface was one giant chunk, thrived before mammals.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 3:38 pm on November 30, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Plate Tectonics   

    From ANU: “How the Earth’s Pacific plates collapsed” 

    ANU Australian National University Bloc

    Australian National University

    23 November 2015

    Professor Richard Arculus. Image Charles Tambiah and MNF

    Scientists drilling into the ocean floor have for the first time found out what happens when one tectonic plate first gets pushed under another.

    The key principle of plate tectonics is that the lithosphere exists as separate and distinct tectonic plates, which float on the fluid-like (visco-elastic solid) asthenosphere. The relative fluidity of the asthenosphere allows the tectonic plates to undergo motion in different directions. This map shows 15 of the largest plates. Note that the Indo-Australian Plate may be breaking apart into the Indian and Australian plates, which are shown separately on this map.

    The international expedition drilled into the Pacific ocean floor and found distinctive rocks formed when the Pacific tectonic plate changed direction and began to plunge under the Philippine Sea Plate about 50 million years ago.

    “It’s a bit like a rugby scrum, with two rows of forwards pushing on each other. Then one side goes down and the other side goes over the top,” said study leader Professor Richard Arculus, from the Research School of Earth Sciences.

    “But we never knew what started the scrum collapsing,” said Professor Arculus.

    The new knowledge will help scientists understand the huge earthquakes and volcanoes that form where the Earth’s plates collide and one plate gets pushed under the other.

    As part of the International Ocean Discovery Program, the team studied the sea floor in 4,700 metres of water in the Amami Sankaku Basin of the north-western Pacific Ocean, near the Izu-Bonin-Mariana Trench, which forms the deepest parts of the Earth’s oceans.

    Drilling 1,600 metres into the sea floor, the team recovered rock types from the extensive rifts and big volcanoes that were initiated as one plate bored under the other in a process known as subduction.

    “We found rocks low in titanium, but high in scandium and vanadium, so the Earth’s mantle overlying the subducting plate must have been around 1,300 degrees Celsius and perhaps 150 degrees hotter than we expected to find,” Professor Arculus said.

    The team found the tectonic scrum collapsed at the south end first and then the Pacific Plate rapidly collapsed 1,000 kilometres northwards in about one million years.

    “It’s quite complex. There’s a scissoring motion going on. You’d need skycam to see the 3D nature of it,” Professor Arculus said.

    Professor Arculus said that the new knowledge could give insights into the formation of copper and gold deposits that are often formed where plates collide.

    The research is published in Nature Geoscience.


    The International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP) is the world’s largest geoscience research program with 26 countries in its membership.

    ANU hosts the office of the Australian and New Zealand IODP Consortium (ANZIC), which includes 15 universities and two government agencies involved in geoscience. The IODP was awarded $10 million in Australian Research Council over five years in the latest round of ARC funding.

    More information about ANZIC is available at http://iodp.org.au.

    See the full article here .

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    ANU is a world-leading university in Australia’s capital city, Canberra. Our location points to our unique history, ties to the Australian Government and special standing as a resource for the Australian people.

    Our focus on research as an asset, and an approach to education, ensures our graduates are in demand the world-over for their abilities to understand, and apply vision and creativity to addressing complex contemporary challenges.

  • richardmitnick 4:46 pm on November 11, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Plate Tectonics   

    From ETH Zürich: “Plate tectonics thanks to plumes?” 

    ETH Zurich bloc

    ETH Zürich

    Peter Rüegg

    It is common knowledge that the Earth’s rigid upper layer called lithosphere is composed of moving plates. But just what mechanism first set plate tectonics into motion still remains a mystery. A team of researchers led by ETH professor Taras Gerya has now come up with one possible answer by using simulations.

    Venus as a model: Today this planet looks like the Earth might have looked before the onset of plate tectonics. (Image: Nasa/JPL)

    “Knowing what a chicken looks like and what all the chickens before it looked like doesn’t help us to understand the egg,” says Taras Gerya. The ETH Professor of Geophysics uses this metaphor to address plate tectonics and the early history of the Earth. The Earth’s lithosphere is divided into several plates that are in constant motion, and today’s geologists have a good understanding of what drives these plate movements: heavier ocean plates are submerged beneath lighter continental plates along what are known as subduction zones. Once the movement has begun, it is perpetuated due to the weight of the dense subducting plate.

    But just as in the past, earth scientists still do not understand what triggered plate tectonics in the first place, nor how the first subduction zone was formed. A weak spot in the Earth’s lithosphere was necessary in order for parts of the Earth’s crust to begin their descent into the Earth’s mantle. Was this weak spot caused by a gigantic meteorite that effectively smashed a hole in the Earth’s lithosphere? Or did mantle convection forces shatter the lithosphere into moving parts?

    Venus as a model

    Gerya is not satisfied with any of these potential explanations. “It’s not trivial to draw conclusions about what set the tectonic movements in motion,” he says. The ETH professor therefore set out to find a new, plausible explanation.

    The concentric circles of Corona Fotla on Venus. (Image: Nasa/JPL/Magellan)

    Among other things, he found inspiration in studies about the surface of the planet Venus, which has never had plate tectonics. Gerya observed (and modelled) huge, crater-like circles (coronae) on Venus that may also have existed on the Earth’s surface in the early period (Precambrian) of the Earth’s history before plate tectonics even began. These structures could indicate that mantle plumes once rose from Venus’ iron core to the outer layer, thus softening and weakening the planet’s surface. Plumes form in the deep interior of the planet. They rise up to the lithosphere, bringing with them hot partially molten mantle material that causes the lithosphere to weaken and deform. Halted by the resistance of the hard lithosphere, the material begins to spread, taking on a mushroom-like shape.

    Such plumes also likely existed in the Earth’s interior and could have created the weaknesses in the Earth’s lithosphere needed to initiate plate tectonics on Earth.

    Mantle plumes create weaknesses

    The ETH geophysicist worked with his team to develop new computer models that he then used to investigate this idea for the first time in high resolution and in 3D. The corresponding publication has recently been published in Nature.

    The simulations show that mantle plumes and the weaknesses they create could have actually initiated the first subduction zones.

    In the model, a mantle plume initially forms a weak point in the Earth’s crust. The circular structure (l.) bulges outwards, spreads through a constant supply of material from deep inside the planet and finally breaks down. At the edges, the crust plunges into the mantle (r.) and sets the tectonics in motion. (Illustration: from Gerya et al, Nature, 2015)

    In the simulations, the plume weakens the overlying lithosphere and forms a circular, thinning weak point with a diameter of several dozen to hundreds of kilometres. This is stretched over time by the supply of hot material from the deep mantle. “In order to make a ring larger, you have to break it,” explains the researcher. This also applies to the Earth’s surface: the ring-shaped weaknesses can (in the model) only be enlarged and subducted if the margins are torn.

    Water lubricates the plate margin

    The tears spread throughout the lithosphere, large slabs of the heavier rigid lithosphere plunge into the soft mantle, and the first plate margins emerge. The tension created by the plunging slabs ultimately sets the plates in motion. They plunge, well lubricated by the buried seawater of the ocean above. Subduction has begun – and with it, plate tectonics. “Water acts as a lubricant and is an absolute necessity in the initiation of a self-sustaining subduction,” says Gerya.

    In their simulations, the researchers compare different temperature conditions and lithosphere states. They came to the conclusion that plume-induced plate tectonics could plausibly develop under the conditions that prevailed in the Precambrian around three billion years ago. Back then the Earth’s lithosphere was already thick and cool, but the mantle was still very hot, providing enough energy to significantly weaken the lithosphere above the plumes.

    Had the lithosphere instead being thin and warm, and therefore soft, the simulations show that a ring-shaped rapidly descending structure called drip would simply have formed around the plume head. While this would have steadily sunk into the mantle, it would not have caused the soft lithosphere to subduct and tear and therefore would not have produced plate margins. Likewise, the computer simulations showed that under today’s conditions, where there is less temperature difference between lithosphere and plume material, plume-induced subduction is hard to initiate because the lithosphere is already too rigid and the plumes are barely able to weaken it sufficiently.
    Dominant mechanism

    “Our new models explain how plate tectonics came about,” says the geophysicist. Plume activity was enough to give rise to today’s plate mosaic. He calls the power of the plumes the dominant trigger for global plate tectonics.

    The simulations can also explain how so-called triple junctions, i.e. zones in which three plates come together, are nucleated by multi-directional stretching of the lithosphere induced by plumes. One such example of a triple junction can be found in the Horn of Africa where Ethiopia, Eritrea and Djibouti meet.

    A possible plume-weakened zone analogous to a starting point for global plate tectonics likely exists in the modern world: the researchers see such a zone in the Caribbean plate. Its shape, location and spread correspond largely to the new model simulations.

    Indeed it is arguably impossible to prove how global plate tectonics started on Earth based solely on observations: there is no geophysical and only a small amount of geological data from the Earth’s early years, and laboratory experiments are not possible for extremely large-scale and very long-term tectonic processes, says the ETH researcher. “Computer models are therefore the only way we can reproduce and understand the events of the Earth’s early history.”

    The Earth’s lithosphere is divided into several plates. (Graphics: NASA)


    Gerya TV, Stern RJ, Baes M, Sobolev S, Whattam SA. Plate tectonics on the Earth triggered by plume-induced subduction initiation. Nature, published online 11th November 2015, doi: 10.1038/nature15752

    See the full article here .

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    ETH Zurich campus
    ETH Zurich is one of the leading international universities for technology and the natural sciences. It is well known for its excellent education, ground-breaking fundamental research and for implementing its results directly into practice.

    Founded in 1855, ETH Zurich today has more than 18,500 students from over 110 countries, including 4,000 doctoral students. To researchers, it offers an inspiring working environment, to students, a comprehensive education.

    Twenty-one Nobel Laureates have studied, taught or conducted research at ETH Zurich, underlining the excellent reputation of the university.

  • richardmitnick 12:06 pm on March 31, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , Plate Tectonics   

    From Daily Galaxy: “Mystery of Extreme Continent Building Solved –A Key to Life on Earth and Beyond” 

    Daily Galaxy
    The Daily Galaxy

    March 31, 2015
    No Writer Credit


    “We’ve revealed a major unknown in the evolution of our planet,” says Esteban Gazel, an assistant professor of geology with Virginia Tech. An international research team, led geoscientist Gazel, has revealed information about how continents were generated on Earth more than 2.5 billion years ago — and how those processes have continued within the last 70 million years to profoundly affect the planet’s life and climate.

    Published online today in Nature Geoscience, the study details how relatively recent geologic events — volcanic activity 10 million years ago in what is now Panama and Costa Rica — hold the secrets of the extreme continent-building that took place billions of years earlier.

    The discovery provides new understanding about the formation of the Earth’s continental crust — masses of buoyant rock rich with silica, a compound that combines silicon and oxygen.

    “Without continental crust, the whole planet would be covered with water,” said Gazrl. “Most terrestrial planets in the solar system have basaltic crusts similar to Earth’s oceanic crust, but the continental masses — areas of buoyant, thick silicic crust — are a unique characteristic of Earth.”

    The continental mass of the planet formed in the Archaean Eon, about 2.5 billion years ago. The Earth was three times hotter, volcanic activity was considerably higher, and life was probably very limited.

    Many scientists think that all of the planet’s continental crust was generated during this time in Earth’s history, and the material continually recycles through collisions of tectonic plates on the outermost shell of the planet.

    The tectonic plates of the world were mapped in the second half of the 20th century.

    But the new research shows “juvenile” continental crust has been produced throughout Earth’s history.

    “Whether the Earth has been recycling all of its continental crust has always been the big mystery,” Gazel said. “We were able to use the formation of the Central America land bridge as a natural laboratory to understand how continents formed, and we discovered while the massive production of continental crust that took place during the Archaean is no longer the norm, there are exceptions that produce ‘juvenile’ continental crust.”

    The researchers used geochemical and geophysical data to reconstruct the evolution what is now Costa Rica and Panama, which was generated when two oceanic plates collided and melted iron- and magnesium-rich oceanic crust over the past 70 million years, Gazel said.

    Melting of the oceanic crust originally produced what today are the Galapagos islands, reproducing Achaean-like conditions to provide the “missing ingredient” in the generation of continental crust.

    The researchers discovered the geochemical signature of erupted lavas reached continental crust-like composition about 10 million years ago. They tested the material and observed seismic waves traveling through the crust at velocities closer to the ones observed in continental crust worldwide.

    Additionally, the researchers provided a global survey of volcanoes from oceanic arcs, where two oceanic plates interact. The western Aleutian Islands and the Iwo-Jima segment of the Izu-Bonin islands of are some other examples of juvenile continental crust that has formed recently, the researchers said.

    The study raises questions about the global impact newly generated continental crust has had over the ages, and the role it has played in the evolution of not just continents, but life itself.

    “This is an interesting paper that makes the case that andesitic melts inferred to derive ultimately by melting of subducted slabs in some modern arcs are a good match for the composition of the average continental crust,” said Roberta L. Rudnick, a Distinguished University Professor and chair of the Department of Geology at the University of Maryland, who was not involved in conducting the research. “The authors focus primarily on Central America, but incorporate global data to strengthen their case that slab melting is important in unusual conditions of modern continent generation — and probably in the past.”

    For example, the formation of the Central American land bridge resulted in the closure of the seaway, which changed how the ocean circulated, separated marine species, and had a powerful impact on the climate on the planet.

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 1:19 pm on March 24, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Plate Tectonics   

    From AAAS: “Earth’s tectonic plates skitter about” 



    20 March 2015
    Ilima Loomis

    Back when dinosaurs were just starting to skulk, Earth had just one giant land mass, a supercontinent that scientists call Pangea.

    Map of Pangaea with modern continents outlined

    It broke up about 200 million years ago, and since then its fragments—riding on chunks of crust called tectonic plates—have been gliding, merging, and splitting their way into their present—temporary—positions.

    The key principle of plate tectonics is that the lithosphere exists as separate and distinct tectonic plates, which float on the fluid-like (visco-elastic solid) asthenosphere. The relative fluidity of the asthenosphere allows the tectonic plates to undergo motion in different directions. This map shows 15 of the largest plates. Note that the Indo-Australian Plate may be breaking apart into the Indian and Australian plates, which are shown separately on this map.

    Now, geoscientists have unveiled a computer model that maps the details of that tectonic dance in 1-million-year increments—practically a frame-by-frame recap of geologic time. It shows that the plates speed up, slow down, and move around in unexpectedly short bursts of activity. It also suggests that researchers may have to rethink what drives much of that incessant motion.

    “It’s a major achievement, and it’s very impressive that they can now do this analysis at this resolution,” says Thorsten Becker, a geodynamicist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, who was not involved in the study.

    The reconstruction is the work of scientists at the EarthByte program at the University of Sydney in Australia, one of the world’s foremost research groups for plate tectonics and geodynamics, who described it in a paper published online on 12 March in Earth and Planetary Science Letters. Previous work had mapped out tectonic movement in 20-million-year increments, which were then used to analyze plate velocities. But a closer look using the latest plate reconstructions created by the EarthByte group revealed that a lot more can change in 20 million years than scientists had thought.

    “It turns out that plates can change their motion (speed and direction) over geologically short periods of time, about 1 million years,” says the new study’s lead author, Sabin Zahirovic, a tectonics researcher and geodynamicist at the University of Sydney. “Which means that if you have a snapshot over 20 million years, you can easily miss an important regional or global plate reorganization.”

    The researchers achieved the improved time resolution by their modeling techniques and software, performing more detailed analysis of the data used previously, and incorporating more sources of data as well. The new model shows that although plates usually creep along at an average speed of about 4 centimeters per year, some can reach much faster speeds in short sprints. For example, India, which broke off the east coast of Africa about 120 million years and is now plowing into Asia, reached speeds as high as 20 centimeters per year for a relatively brief 10 million years. A rising plume of molten rock in Earth’s mantle probably caused the speedup by “lubricating” the underside of the continent and allowing it to slide smoothly over the mantle, Zahirovic says.

    The model also suggests that a major engine of continental drift—the “pull” of nearby subduction zones, where one plate plunges under another and dives into the mantle—may be less important for setting plate speeds than researchers had thought. Instead, the researchers say, the drag created by the underside of massive continents jutting out under the plate like the keel of a ship may play a bigger role by slowing plates down.

    Becker says it’s notable that the model confirmed that continents have a strong anchoring effect on the plates. But he was more cautious about the group’s finding that “slab pull” from subduction isn’t as important a factor. Subduction zones bordering the plates are much harder to locate and keep track of than continents over a 200-million-year period, he says. Zahirovic acknowledges the challenge but says his team used multiple, independent sources of geologic information to “resurrect and estimate” ancient plate boundaries.

    Next, Zahirovic says, he and his colleagues plan to apply what they’ve learned to try to reconstruct how plates moved before the breakup of Pangea, deep in the geologic past.

    See the full article here.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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