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.

In the mantle wet may not imply soft

For half a century the Earth’s planetary dynamism – plate movements, mantle convection and so on – has been ascribed to its abundance of water. Experiments on the ductility of quartz seemed to show that it became much weaker under hydrous conditions, and that was assumed to hold for all common silicates, a view backed up by experiments that deformed minerals under varying conditions. It was widely believed that even a few parts per million in a rock at depth would weaken it by orders of magnitude, a view that increasingly dominated theoretical tectonics on scales up to the whole lithosphere and at different mantle depths. Strangely, the founding assertion was not followed up with more detailed and sophisticated work until the last year or so. Though rarely seen in bulk, the dominant mineral in the mantle is olivine and that is likely to be a major control over ductility at depth, in plumes and other kinds of convection.

Peridotite xenoliths in basalt—olivines are li...
Peridotite xenoliths —olivines are light green crystals, pyroxenes are darker. (credit: Wikipedia)

Experimental work at the temperatures and pressures of the mantle has never been easy, and that becomes worse the more realistic the mineral composition of the materials being investigated. High-T, high-P research tends to focus on as few variables as possible: one mineral and one variable other than P and T is the norm. This applies to the latest research (Fei, H. et al. 2013. Small effect of water on upper mantle rheology based on silicon self-diffusion coefficients. Nature, v. 498, p. 213-215) but the measurements are of the rate at which silicon atoms diffuse through olivine molecules rather than direct measurements of strain. The justification for this approach is that one of the dominant processes involved in plastic deformation is a form of structural creep in which atoms diffuse through molecules in response to stress – the other is ‘dislocation creep’ achieved by the migration of structural defects in the atomic lattice.

Contrary to all expectations, changing the availability of water by 4 to 5 orders of magnitude changed silicon diffusion by no more than one order. If confirmed this presents major puzzles concerning Earth’s mantle and lithosphere dynamics. For instance, the weak zone of the asthenosphere cannot be a response to water and nor can the relative immobility of hotspots. Confirmation is absolutely central, in the sense of repeating Fei et al.’s experiments and also extending the methods to other olivine compositions – magnesium-rich forsterite was used, whereas natural olivines are solid solutions of Mg- and Fe-rich end members – and to materials more representative of the mantle, e.g.  olivine plus pyroxene as a minimum (Brodholt, J. 2013. Water may be a damp squib. Nature, v. 498, p. 18-182)

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 –

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 (

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.

The ultra-deep carbon cycle

A scattering of "brilliant" cut diam...
Image via Wikipedia

The presence of diamonds in the strange, potassium-rich, mafic to ultramafic igneous rocks known as kimberlites clearly demonstrates that there is carbon in the mantle, but it could have come from either biogenic carbon having moved down subduction zones or the original meteoritic matter that accreted to form the Earth. Both are distinct possibilities for which evidence can only be found within diamonds themselves as inclusions. There is a steady flow of publications focussed on diamond inclusions subsidised to some extent by companies that mine them (see Plate tectonics monitored by diamonds in EPN, 2 August 2011). The latest centres on the original source rocks of kimberlites and the depths that they reached (Walter, M.J. and 8 others 2011. Deep mantle cycling of oceanic crust: evidence from diamonds and their mineral inclusions. Science, v. 334, p. 54-57). The British, Brazilian and US team analysed inclusions in diamonds from Brazil, finding assemblages that are consistent with original minerals having formed below the 660 km upper- to lower-mantle seismic boundary and then adjusting to decreasing pressure as the kimberlite’s precursor rose to melt at shallower levels. The minerals – various forms of perovskite stable at deep-mantle pressures – from which the intricate composites of several lower-pressure phases exsolved suggest the diamonds originated around 1000 km below the surface; far deeper than did more common diamonds. Moreover, their geochemistry suggests that the inclusions formed from deeply subducted basalts of former oceanic crust.

Previous work on the carbon isotopes in ‘super-deep’ diamonds seemed to rule out a biogenic origin for the carbon, suggesting that surface carbon does not survive subduction into the lower mantle. In this case, however, the diamonds are made of carbon strongly enriched in light 12C relative to 13C, with δ13C values of around -20 ‰ (per thousand), which is far lower than that found in mantle peridotite and may have been subducted organic carbon. If that proves to be the case it extends the global carbon cycle far deeper than had been imagined, even by the most enthusiastic supporters of the Gaia hypothesis.