The start and demise of a tectonic plate

Cross-sectional view of Earth, displaying mantle, convection currents, and plate movement

A number of hundred miles off the Pacific Northwest coast, a small tectonic plate referred to as the Juan de Fuca is slowly sliding underneath the North American continent. This subduction has created a collision zone with the potential to generate large earthquakes and accompanying tsunamis, which occur when faulted rock abruptly shoves the ocean out of its approach.

The truth is, this area represents the only biggest geophysical hazard to the continental United States; quakes centered right here might register as lots of of occasions extra damaging than even an enormous temblor on the San Andreas Fault. Not surprisingly, scientists are excited about understanding as a lot as they will concerning the Juan de Fuca Plate.

This microplate is “born” simply 300 miles off the coast, at an extended vary of underwater volcanoes that produce new crust from soften generated deep under. A part of the worldwide mid-ocean ridge system that encircles the planet, these areas generate 70 % of Earth’s tectonic plates. Nevertheless, as a result of the chains of volcanoes lie greater than a mile beneath the ocean floor, scientists know surprisingly little about them.

UC Santa Barbara geophysicist Zachary Eilon and his co-writer Geoff Abers at Cornell College have carried out new analysis — utilizing a novel measurement method — that has revealed a robust sign of seismic attenuation or power loss on the mid-ocean ridge the place the Juan de Fuca Plate is created. The researchers’ attenuation knowledge suggest that molten rock right here is discovered even deeper inside Earth than scientists had beforehand thought. This in flip helps scientists perceive the processes by which Earth’s tectonic plates are constructed, in addition to the deep plumbing of volcanic techniques. The outcomes of the work seem within the journal Science Advances.

“We have by no means had the power to measure attenuation this manner at a mid-ocean ridge earlier than, and the magnitude of the sign tells us that it could possibly’t be defined by shallow construction,” stated Eilon, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Division of Earth Science. “No matter is down there inflicting all this seismic power to be misplaced extends actually deep, at the least 200 kilometers beneath the floor. That is sudden, as a result of we consider the processes that give rise to this — notably the impact of melting beneath the floor — as being shallow, confined to 60 km or much less.”


Based on Eilon’s calculations, the slender strip beneath the mid-ocean ridge, the place scorching rock wells as much as generate the Juan de Fuca Plate, has very excessive attenuation. Actually, its ranges are as excessive as scientists have seen anyplace on the planet. His findings additionally recommend that the plate is cooling quicker than anticipated, which impacts the friction on the collision zone and the ensuing measurement of any potential megaquake.

Seismic waves start at an earthquake and radiate away from it. As they disperse, they lose power. A few of that loss is just because of spreading out, however one other parameter additionally impacts power loss. Referred to as the standard issue, it primarily describes how squishy Earth is, Eilon stated. He used the analogy of a bell to elucidate how the standard issue works.

“If I have been to provide you a nicely-made bell and also you have been to strike it as soon as, it will ring for a very long time,” he defined. “That is as a result of little or no of the power is definitely being misplaced with every oscillation because the bell rings. That is very low attenuation, very top quality. But when I offer you a poorly made bell and also you strike it as soon as, the oscillations will die out in a short time. That is excessive attenuation, low high quality.”

Eilon seemed on the approach totally different frequencies of seismic waves attenuated at totally different charges. “We appeared not solely at how a lot power is misplaced but in addition on the totally different quantities by which numerous frequencies are delayed,” he defined. “This new, extra strong means of measuring attenuation is a breakthrough that may be utilized in different methods around the globe.

“Attenuation is a really exhausting factor to measure, which is why lots of people ignore it,” Eilon added. “However it provides us an enormous quantity of latest details about Earth’s inside that we would not have in any other case.”

Subsequent yr, Eilon shall be a part of a world effort to instrument giant unexplored swaths of the Pacific with ocean backside seismometers. As soon as that knowledge has been collected, he’ll apply the methods he developed on the Juan de Fuca within the hope of studying extra about what lies beneath the seafloor within the previous oceans, the place mysterious undulations in Earth’s gravity subject have been measured.

“These new ocean backside knowledge, that are actually popping out of technological advances within the instrumentation group, will give us new talents to see by way of the ocean flooring,” Eilon stated. “That is large as a result of 70 % of Earth’s floor is roofed by water and we have largely been blind to it — till now.

“The Pacific Northwest venture was an extremely formidable group experiment,” he stated. “Simply think about the type of issues we’ll discover out as soon as we begin to put these devices somewhere else.”

The above story is predicated on Materials offered by University of California – Santa Barbara. Unique written by Julie Cohen.


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