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; 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.

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.