What’s happening at the core-mantle boundary?

The lithosphere that falls into the mantle at subduction zones must end up somewhere in the deep Earth; the question is, where and what happens to it. There are hints from seismic tomography of the mantle that such slabs penetrate as deep as the boundary between the lowermost mantle and the molten outer core. The lithosphere’s two components, depleted mantle and oceanic crust, are compositionally quite different, being peridotitic and basaltic, so each is likely to be involved different petrological processes. As regards the physics, since seismic activity ceases below a depth of about 700 km neither entity behaves in a brittle fashion in the lower mantle. Such ductile materials might even pile up in the manner of intestines on the lithological equivalent of the abattoir floor; Bowels of the Earth as John Elder had it in his book of the same name.

Sketch of the lower 1000 km of the Earth’s mantle (credit: Williams, Q. 2014. Deep mantle matters. Science, v. 344, p. 800-801)

Pressure would make these recycled components mineralogically different, as indeed a relative light squeeze does in the upper mantle, where cold wet basalts become dry and denser eclogites thereby pulling more lithosphere down Wadati and Benioff’s eponymous zones to drive plate tectonics. Decades old experiments at lower-mantle pressures suggest that mantle minerals recompose from olivine with a dash of pyroxene to a mixture of more pressure-resistant iron-magnesium oxide and perovskite ((Mg,Fe)SiO3). Experiments in the early 21st century, under conditions at depths below 2600 km, revealed that perovskite transforms at the very bottom of the mantle (the D” zone) into layers of magnesium plus iron, silicon and oxygen. This is provisionally known as ‘post-perovskite’. The experiments showed that the transition releases heat. So, should oceanic lithosphere descend to the D” zone, it would receive an energy ‘kick’ and its temperature would increase. Conversely, if D”-zone materials rose to the depth of the perovskite to post-perovskite transition they would become less dense: a possible driver for deep-mantle plumes.

Now a new iron-rich phase stable in the bottom 1000 km of the mantle has emerged from experiments, seeming to result from perovskite undergoing a disproportionation reaction (Zhang, L. And 11 others 2014. Disproportionation of (Mg,Fe)SiO3 perovskite in Earth’s deep mantle. Science, v. 344, p. 877-882). In the same issue of Science other workers using laser-heated diamond anvils have revealed that, despite the huge pressures, basaltic rock may melt at temperatures considerably below the solid mantle’s ambient temperature (Andrault, D. et al. 2014. Melting of subducted basalt at the core-mantle boundary. Science, v. 344, p. 892-895). Both studies help better understand the peculiarities of the deepest mantle that emerge from seismic tomography (Williams, Q. 2014. Deep mantle matters. Science, v. 344, p. 800-801).

Huge blocks with reduced S-wave velocities that rise above the D” zone sit beneath Africa and the Pacific Ocean. There are also smaller zones at the core-mantle boundary (CMB) with shear-wave velocities up to 45% lower than expected. These ultralow-velocity zones (ULVZs) probably coincide with melting of subducted oceanic basalts, but the magma cannot escape by rising as it would soon revert to perovskite. Yet, since ultramafic compositions cannot melt under such high pressures the ULVSs indirectly show that subduction does descend to the CMB. Seismically defined horizontal layering in the D” zone thus may result from basaltic slabs whose ductility has enabled them to fold like sheets of lasagne as the reach the base of the mantle. Development of variants of the laser-heated diamond anvil set-up seem likely to offer insights into our own world’s ‘digestive’ system at a far lower cost and with vastly more relevance than the growing fad for speculating on Earth-like planets that the current ‘laws’ of physics show can never be visited and on ‘exobiology’ that cannot proceed further than the extremes of the Earth’s near-surface environment and the DNA double helix.