Two happy events for plate tectonics

In an era where fears of rising sea level and loss of land are growing it is a great pleasure to announce (albeit several years late) the birth of two new islands. They emerged close to the axis of the Red Sea in Yemeni territory as new members of the volcanic Zubair Islands during episodic eruptions that began on 18 December 2011. First to form was dubbed Sholan (‘One who is Blessed’ in Arabic – a girl’s name), which ceased to be active a month later. Further submarine volcanism began on 28 September 2013, with another island, Jadid (‘New’ in Arabic – a boy’s name), breaking surface in October 2013. The double event has been described in great detail by geoscientists based at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, Saudi Arabia (Xu, W. 2015. Birth of two volcanic islands in the southern Red Sea. Nature Communications, DOI: 10.1038/ncomms8104. After rapid growth during their initial eruptive phases both islands underwent significant marine erosion once quiescent, but seem set to remain as part of the Zubair archipelago.

'Before and after' images of the Zubair archipelago in the southern Red Sea. (Left from Bing maps, right (February 2014) from Google Earth)
‘Before and after’ images of the Zubair archipelago in the southern Red Sea. (Left from Bing maps, right (February 2014) from Google Earth)

Analysis of small earthquakes that happened during the islands’ growth together with Interferometric iradar surveys that showed coincident ground movements among the islands suggest that both eruptions took place along an active north-south fracture system, probably part of axial rifting system of the Red Sea. In more detail, magma seems to have moved upwards along N-S fissures similar to those that now show up as dykes cutting lavas on the older islands in the area. The local fracture patterns are oblique to the main Red Sea Rift that trends NNW-SSE, possibly as a result of non-linear stress trajectories in the Arabia-Africa rifting. In almost all respects the volcanism and mechanism of intrusion and effusion closely resemble that reported recently from a terrestrial setting in the nearby Afar Depression. The slow spreading Red Sea Rift rarely manifests itself by volcanism, so these events reveal a previous unsuspected zone of active melting in the mantle beneath the Zubair archipelago.

Could volcanism have spread organisms?

Recently there have been worrying accounts about pathogens, for instance the viruses that cause foot and mouth disease in livestock, flu in humans and other animals and the sheep disease bluetongue carried by tiny midges, being transported for thousands of kilometres in dust storms.  They raise the question of whether or not in the past organisms small enough to be carried by winds in aerosol suspension might have helped colonise regions distant from where they evolved.

The Taupo eruption's three main vents ran para...
The 600 square kilometre caldera lake of Taupo on New Zealand’s North Island. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Studies of volcanic ash thought to have been transported at high latitudes in the Southern Hemisphere from a 25 thousand-year old major volcanic eruption on the North Island of New Zealand add volcanic activity to violent meteorological phenomena as a possible means of transport (Van Eaton, A.R. et al. 2013. High-flying diatoms: Widespread dispersal of microorganisms in an explosive volcanic eruption. Geology, v. 41, p. 1187-1190). Ash from as far as 850 km from the volcano turns out to incorporate abundant remains of diatoms – species of algae that secrete distinctively intricate skeletons made from silica. The volcano, Taupo, erupted from beneath a lake bed, explaining the diatoms’ origin from lake muds and the water column itself. Even details of the organisms’ soft parts and pigmentation are preserved in the ash, suggesting that at least some of them might have been transported alive. Astonishingly, the New Zealand authors’ counts of organic material in the ash suggest that as much as 0.6 km3 of diatom remains were dispersed during the eruption.

English: Circle of diatoms on a slide
Assorted species of diatoms on a microscope slide (credit: Wikipedia)

Violent sub-aqueous eruptions can entrain liquid water as spray as well as water vapour and glassy magma shards, carrying the mixture into the stratosphere, far above wind belts in the lower atmosphere. At such altitudes transport can spread fine aerosols through an entire hemisphere because they remain in suspension for long periods.

Different species of diatom live in subtly different environments, so that their relative proportions and presence or absence in ash provide a ‘fingerprint’ for the volcano responsible. So the discovery by the team from the Victoria University of Wellington (a ‘first’) presents a new tool for identifying the source of ash layers in the volcanic record that came from  other volcanoes associated with caldera lakes – common for those capable of launching huge volumes of material aloft, such as Toba that erupted in Sumatra at around 74 ka and may have influenced the first modern human migrants from Africa. But could minute organisms survive both the volcanic heat and blast and a traverse through the dry stratosphere to result in colonisation? If that were possible it would have significant implications for the spread of early life forms during the far more volcanically active Hadean and Archaean Eons of Earth’s history.

Commenting on the article, Jennifer Pike of Cardiff University, UK (Pike, J. 2013. Of volcanoes and diatoms. Geology, v. 41, p. 1199-2000) surmises that diatoms might survive drying out in the stratosphere, provided they were in the form of spores encased in silica. Such spores were not found in the Taupo ash, but who is to say that they will not be discovered in other ancient volcanic ash layers? Spores are extremely durable and other micro-organisms than diatoms produce them and have done in the past.

Afar: the field lab for continental break-up

The Afar Depression of Ethiopia and Eritrea is a feature of tectonic serendipity. It is unique in showing on land the extensional processes and related volcanism that presage sea-floor spreading. Indeed it hosts three rift systems and a triple junction between the existing Red Sea and Gulf of Aden spreading centres and the East African Rift System that shows signs of future spalling of Somalia from Africa. Afar has been a focus of geoscientific attention since the earliest days of plate theory but practical interest has grown rapidly over the last decade or so when the area has become significantly more secure and safe to visit. Two recent studies seem to have overturned one of the most enduring assumptions about what drives this epitome of continental break-up.

Perspective view of the Afar depression and en...
Simulated perspective view of the Afar depression from the south (credit: Wikipedia)

From the obvious thermal activity deep below Afar, linked with volcanism and high heat flow, a mantle host spot and rising plume of deep mantle has been central to ideas on the tectonics of the area. A means of testing this hypothesis is the use of seismic data to assess the ductility and temperature structure of deep mantle through a form of tomography. The closer the spacing of seismic recording stations and the more sensitive the seismometers are the better the resolution of mantle structure. Afar now boasts one of the densest seismometer networks, rivalling the Earthscope USArray. and it is paying dividends (Hammond, J.O.S. and 10 others 2013. Mantle upwelling and initiation of rift segmentation beneath the Afar Depression. Geology, v. 41, p. 635-638). The study  brought together geoscientists from Britain, the US, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Botswana, who used data from 244 seismic stations in the Horn of Africa to probe depths down to 400 km with a resolution of about 50 km.

The tomographic images show no clear sign of the kind of narrow plume generally aasociated with the notion of a ‘hot spot’. Instead they pick out shallow (~75 km depth) P- and S-wave  low-velocity features that follow the axes of the three active rift systems. The features coalesce at depth; in some respects the opposite of a classic plume that has a narrow ‘stem’ that swells upwards to form a broad ‘head’. If there ever was an Afar Plume it no longer functions. Instead, the rifts and associated lithospheric thinning are associated with a mantle upwelling that is being emplaced passively in the space made available by extensional tectonics. This is closely similar to what goes on beneath active and well-established mid-ocean spreading centres where de-pressuring of the rising mantle results in partial melting and basaltic magmatism along the rift system. Perhaps this is a sign that full sea-floor spreading in Afar is imminent, at least on geological timescales.

Simplified geologic map of the Afar Depression.
Simplified geologic map of the Afar Depression. (credit: Wikipedia after Beyene and Abdelsalam (2005))

For once, mantle geochemists and geophysicists have data that support a common hypothesis (Ferguson, D.J. and 8 others 2013. Melting during late-stage rifting in Afar is hot and deep. Nature, v. 499, p. 70-73). This US-British-Ethiopian team compares the trace element geochemistry of Recent basaltic lavas erupted along the axis of the Afar rift that links with the Red Sea spreading centre with equally young lavas from volcanoes some 20 km from the axis. Both sets of lavas are a great deal more enriched in incompatible trace elements that are generally enriched in melt compare with source than are ocean-floor basalts sampled from the mid-Red Sea rift.  Modelling rare-earth element patterns in particular suggests that partial melting is going on at depths where garnet is stable in the mantle instead of spinel. This suggests that a strong layer, about 85 km down in the upper mantle is beginning to melt – magmas formed by small degrees of partial melting generally contain higher amounts of incompatible trace elements than do the products of more extensive melting. Estimates of the temperature of melting from lavas extruded at the rift axis than off-axis are significantly higher than expected at this depth suggesting that deeper mantle is rising faster than it can lose heat.

The depth of melting tallies with the thermal feature picked out by seismic tomography. The two teams converge on passively induced upwelling of hot asthenosphere while the Afar lithosphere is slowly being extended. The degree of melting beneath Afar is low at present, so that to become like mid-ocean ridge basalts a surge in the fraction of melting is needed. That would happen if the strong mantle layer fails plastically so that more asthenosphere can rise higher by passive means. The geochemists persist in an appeal to an Afar Plume for the 30 Ma old flood basalts that plaster much of the continental crust outside Afar. Those plateau-forming lavas, however, are little different in their trace element geochemistry from off-axis Afar basalts. Yet they are not obviously associated with an earlier episode of lithospheric extension and passive mantle upwelling.  Most geologists who have studied the flood basalts would agree that they preceded the onset of rifting but have little idea of the actual processes that went on during that mid-Oligocene volcanic cataclysm.