New model reveals multiple compositional components of Earth's deep mantle being carried up to the surface

Mar 30, 2014
Graduate student Mingming Li in collaboration with ASU professors Allen McNamara and Ed Garnero developed new simulations that depict the dynamics of deep Earth. Here, Li stands in front of the massive computer clusters required for running the calculations. Credit: Allen McNamara

Seeking to better understand the composition of the lowermost part of Earth's mantle, located nearly 2,900 kilometers (1,800 miles) below the surface, a team of Arizona State University researchers has developed new simulations that depict the dynamics of deep Earth. A paper published March 30 in Nature Geoscience reports the team's findings, which could be used to explain the complex geochemistry of lava from hotspots such as Hawaii.

Mantle convection is the driving force behind continental drift and causes earthquakes and volcanoes on the surface. Through , material from the lowermost part of Earth's mantle could be carried up to the surface, which offers insight into the composition of the deep Earth. The Earth's core is very hot (~4000 K) and rocks at the core mantle boundary are heated and expand to have a lower density. These hot rocks (also called ) could migrate to the surface because of buoyancy.

Observations, modeling and predictions have indicated that the deepest mantle is compositionally complex and continuously churning and changing.

"The complex chemical signatures of hotspot basalts provide evidence that the composition of the lowermost part of Earth's mantle is different from other parts. The main question driving this research is how mantle plumes and different compositional components in Earth's mantle interact with each other, and how that interaction leads to the complex chemistry of hotspot basalts. The answer to this question is very important for us to understand the nature of mantle convection," explains lead author Mingming Li, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in geological sciences.

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This video shows a numerical simulation of Earth's deep mantle. The top panel is temperature and the bottom panel is composition which includes three components: the more-primitive reservoir at the lowermost mantle (cyan), the subducted oceanic crust (yellow) and the depleted background mantle (black). Notice that as the oceanic crust is subducted to the lowermost mantle, some part of it is directly carried up to the surface by plumes which a large fraction of it episodically enters the more-primitive reservoir. As a result, plumes forming on top of the more-primitive reservoir could simultaneously entrain a combination of compositional components to the surface, including (a) relatively young oceanic crust, (b) ancient more-primitive material stirred with older oceanic crust, and (c) background, depleted mantle. Credit: Mingming Li and Allen McNamara

"Obviously, we cannot go inside of the Earth to see what is happening there. However, the process of mantle convection should comply with fundamental physics laws, such as conservation of mass, momentum and energy. What we have done is to simulate the process of mantle convection by solving the equations which controls the process of mantle convection," says Li.

It has long been suggested that the Earth's mantle contains several different compositional reservoirs, including an ancient more-primitive reservoir at the , recycled oceanic crust and depleted background mantle. The complex geochemistry of lava found at hotspots such as Hawaii are evidence of this. The various compositional components in hotspot lava may be derived from these different mantle reservoirs. The components could become embedded in and carried to the surface by mantle plumes, but it is unclear how individual plumes could successively sample each of these reservoirs.

Joined by his advisor Allen McNamara, geodynamicist and associate professor in Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration, and seismologist and SESE professor Ed Garnero, Li and his collaborators' numerical experiments show that plumes can indeed carry a combination of different materials from several reservoirs.

According to the simulations, some subducted oceanic crust is entrained directly into mantle plumes, but a significant fraction of the crust—up to 10%—enters the more primitive reservoirs. As a result, mantle plumes entrain a variable combination of relatively young oceanic crust directly from the subducting slab, older oceanic crust that has been stirred with ancient more primitive material and background, depleted mantle. Cycling of through reservoirs can therefore explain observations of different recycled oceanic crustal ages and explain the chemical complexity of hotspot lavas.

"Our calculations take a long time – more than one month for one calculation – but the results are worth it," says Li.

Explore further: Is there an ocean beneath our feet?

More information: Chemical complexity of hotspots caused by cycling oceanic crust through mantle reservoirs, DOI: 10.1038/ngeo2120

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dedereu
not rated yet Mar 30, 2014
The video looks similar to ordinary cells convection in a water pan heated from below !!