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Geochemistry, Mineralogy, Petrology & Volcanology

GeoTalk: The anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field which has geophysicists abuzz

GeoTalk: The anomaly in the Earth’s magnetic field which has geophysicists abuzz

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Jay Shah, a PhD student at Imperial College London, who is investigating the South Atlantic Anomaly, a patch over the South Atlantic where the Earth’s magnetic field is weaker than elsewhere on the globe. He presented some of his recent findings at the 2017 General Assembly.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I’m currently coming to the end of my PhD at Imperial College London. For my PhD, I’ve been working with the Natural Magnetism Group at Imperial and the Meteorites group at the Natural History Museum, London to study the origin of magnetism in meteorites, and how meteoritic magnetism can help us understand early Solar System conditions and formation processes.

Before my PhD I studied geology and geophysics, also at Imperial, which is when I studied the rocks that I spoke about at the 2017 EGU General Assembly.

What attracted you to the Earth’s magnetic field?

Jay operates the Vibrating Sample Magnetometer at the lab at Imperial. Credit: Christopher Dean/Jay Shah

My initial interest in magnetism, the ‘initial spark’ if you like, was during my undergraduate, when the topic was introduced in standard courses during my degree.

The field seemed quite magical: palaeomagnetists [scientists who study the Earth’s magnetic field history] are often known as palaeomagicians. But it’s through rigorous application of physics to geology that palaeomagicians can look back at the history of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by rocks around the world. I was attracted to the important role palaeomagnetism has played in major geological discoveries such as plate tectonics and sea-floor spreading.

Then, during my undergraduate I had the opportunity to do some research alongside my degree, via the ‘Undergraduate Research Opportunities Programme’ at Imperial. It was certainly one of the bonuses of studying at a world-class research university where professors are always looking for keen students to help move projects forward.

I was involved in a project which focused on glacial tillites [a type of rock formed from glacial deposits] from Greenland to look into inclination shallowing; which is a feature of the way magnetism is recorded in rocks that can lead to inaccurate calculation of palaeolatitutdes [the past latitude of a place some time in the past]. Accurate interpretation of the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by rocks is essential to reconstructing the positions of continents throughout time.

This was my first taste of palaeomagnetism and opened the doors to the world of research.

So, then you moved onto a MSci where one of your study areas is Tristan da Cunha, a volcanic island in the South Atlantic. The location of the island means that you’ve dedicated some time to studying the South Atlantic Anomaly (SAA). So, what is it and why is it important?

The SAA is a present day feature of the magnetic field and has existed for the past 400 years, at least, based on observations. It is a region in the South Atlantic Ocean where the magnetic field is weaker than it is expected to be at that latitude.

The Earth’s magnetic field protects the planet and satellites orbiting around Earth from charged particles floating around in space, like the ones that cause aurorae. The field in the SAA is so weak that space agencies have to put special measures in place when their spacecraft orbit over the region to account for the increased exposure to radiation. The Hubble telescope, for example, doesn’t take any measurements when it passes through the SAA and the International Space Station has extra shielding added to protect the equipment and astronauts.

If you picture the Earth’s magnetic field:  it radiates from the poles towards the Earth’s equator, like butterfly wings extending out of the planet. In that model, which is what palaeomagnetic theory is based on, it is totally unexpected to have a large area of weakness.

Earth’s magnetic field connects the North Pole (orange lines) with the South Pole (blue lines) in this NASA-created image, a still capture from a 4-minute excerpt of “Dynamic Earth: Exploring Earth’s Climate Engine,” a fulldome, high-resolution movie. Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

We also know that the Earth’s magnetic field reverses (flips its polarity), on average, every 450,000 years. However, it has been almost twice as long since we have had a flip, which means we are ‘overdue’ a reversal. People like to look for signs that the field will reverse soon; could it be that the SAA is a feature of an impending (in geological time!) reversal? So, it becomes important to understand the SAA in that respect too.

So, how do you approach this problem? If the SAA is something you can’t see, simply measure, how do you go about studying it?

Palaeomagnetists can look to the rock record to understand the history of the Earth magnetic field.

Volcanic rocks best capture Earth’s magnetic field because they contain high percentages of iron bearing minerals, which align themselves with the Earth’s magnetic field as the lavas cool down after being erupted. They provide a record of the direction and the strength of the magnetic field at the time they were erupted.

In particular, I’ve been studying lavas from Tristan da Cunha (a hotspot island) in the Atlantic Ocean similar in latitude to South Africa and Brazil. There are about 300 people living on the island, which is still volcanically active. The last eruption on the island was in 1961. In 2004 there was a sub-marine eruption 24 km offshore.

Jürgen Matzka (GFZ Potsdam) collected hundreds and hundreds of rock cores from Tristan da Cunha on sampling campaigns back in 2004 and 2006.

We recently established the age of the lavas we sampled as having erupted some 46 to 90 thousand years ago. Now that we know the rock ages, we can look at the Earth’s magnetic field during this time window.

Why is this time window important?

These lavas erupted are within the region of the present day SAA, so we can look to see whether any similar anomalies to the Earth’s magnetic field existed in this time window.

So, what did you do next?

When Jurgen looked at the samples, he too was trying to find something out about the SAA, but the samples reviled nothing.

Initial analyses of these rocks focused on the direction of the magnetic field recorded by the rocks. The directional data can be used to trace back past locations of the Earth’s magnetic poles.

Then, during my master’s research dissertation I had the opportunity to experiment on the rocks from Tristan da Cunha with the focus on palaeointensity [the ancient intensity of the Earth’s magnetic field recorded by the rocks]. We found that they have the same weak signature we observe today in the SAA but in this really old time window.

The rocks from Tristan da Cunha, 46 to 90 thousand years ago, recorded a weaker magnetic field strength compared to the strength of the magnetic field of the time recorded by other rocks around the world.

Some of the lavas sampled on Tristan da Cunha. Credit: Jürgen Matzka

What does this discovery tell us about the SAA?

I mentioned at the start of the interview that, as far as we thought, the anomaly didn’t extend back more than 400 years ago – it’s supposed to be a recent feature of the field. Our findings suggest that the anomaly is a persistent feature of the magnetic field. Which is important, because researchers who simulate how the Earth’s magnetic field behaved in the past don’t see the SAA in simulations of the older magnetic field.

It may be that the simulations are poorly constrained. There are far fewer studies (and samples) of the Earth’s magnetic directions and strengths from the Southern Hemisphere. This inevitably leads to a sampling bias, meaning that the computer models don’t have enough data to ‘see’ the feature in the past.

However, we are pretty certain that the SAA isn’t as young as the simulations indicate. You can also extract information about the ancient magnetic field from archaeological samples. As clay pots are fired they too have the ability to record the strength and direction of the magnetic field at the time. Data recorded in archaeological samples from southern Africa, dating back to 1250 to 1600 AD also suggest the SAA existed at the time.

Does the fact that the SAA is older than was thought mean it can’t used be to indicate a reversal?

It could still be related to a future reversal – our findings certainly don’t rule that out.

However, they may be more likely to shed some light on how reversals occur, rather than when they will occur.

It’s been suggested that the weak magnetic anomaly may be a result of the Earth’s composition and structure at the boundary between the Earth’s core and the mantle (approximately 3000 km deep, sandwiched between the core and the Earth’s outermost layer known as the crust). Below southern Africa there is something called a large low shear velocity province (LLSVP), which causes the magnetic flux to effectively ‘flow backwards’.

These reversed flux patches are the likely cause of the weak magnetic field strength observed at the surface, and could well indicate an initiating reversal. However, the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field on average at present is stronger than what we’ve seen in the past prior to field reversals.

The important thing is the lack of data in the southern hemisphere. Sampling bias is pervasive throughout science, and it’s been seen here to limit our understanding of past field behaviour. We need more data from around the world to be able to understand past field behaviour and to constrain models as well as possible.

Sampling bias is pervasive throughout science, and it’s been seen here to limit our understanding of past field behaviour. This image highlights the problem (black dots = a sampling location). Modified from an image in the supporting materials of Shah, J., et al. 2016. Credit: Jay Shah.

You are coming towards the end of your PhD – what’s next?

So I moved far away from Tristan da Cunha for my PhD and have been looking at the magnetism recorded by meteorites originating from the early Solar System. I’d certainly like to pursue further research opportunities working with skills I’ve gained during my PhD. I want to continue working in the magical world of magnetism, that’s for sure! But who knows?

Something you said at the start of the interview struck me and is a light-hearted way to round-off our chat. You said that palaeomagnetism are often referred to as ‘paleaomagicians’ by others in the Earth sciences, why is that so?

Over the history of the geosciences, palaeomagntists have contributed to shedding light on big discoveries using data that not very many people work with. It’s not a big field within the geosciences, so it’s shrouded in a bit of mystery. Plus, it’s a bit of a departure from traditional geology, as it draws so heavily from physics. And finally, it’s not as well established as some of the other subdisciplines within geology and geophysics, it’s a pretty young science.  At least, that’s why I think so, anyway!

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

References and further reading

Shah, J., Koppers, A.A., Leitner, M., Leonhardt, R., Muxworthy, A.R., Heunemann, C., Bachtadse, V., Ashley, J.A. and Matzka, J.: Palaeomagnetic evidence for the persistence or recurrence of geomagnetic main field anomalies in the South AtlanticEarth and Planetary Science Letters441, pp.113-124, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2016.02.039, 2016.

Shah, J., Koppers, A.A., Leitner, M., Leonhardt, R., Muxworthy, A.R., Heunemann, C., Bachtadse, V., Ashley, J.A. and Matzka, J.: Paleomagnetic evidence for the persistence or recurrence of the South Atlantic geomagnetic Anomaly. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 19, EGU2017-7555-3, 2017, EGU General Assembly 2017.

Mapping Ancient Oceans

Mapping Ancient Oceans

This guest post is by Dr Grace Shephard, a postdoctoral researcher in tectonics and geodynamics at the Centre of Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo, Norway. This blog entry describes the latest findings of a study that maps deep remnants of past oceans. Her open access study, in collaboration with colleagues at CEED and the University of Oxford, was published this week in the Nature Journal: Scientific Reports. This post is modified from a version that first appeared on the CEED Blog.

Quick summary:

There are several ways of imaging the insides of the Earth by using information from earthquake data. When these different images are viewed at the same time, a new type of map allows geoscientists to identify the most robust features. These deep structures are likely the remains of extinct oceans, known as slabs, that were destroyed hundreds of millions of years ago. The maps are computed at different depths inside the Earth and the resulting slabs can be resurrected back to the surface. Along with a freely available paper and website, the analysis yields new insights into the structure and evolution of our planet in deep time and space.

Earth in constant motion

The surface of the Earth is in constant motion and this is particularly true of the rocks found under the oceans. The crust – the outermost layer of the planet – is continually being formed in the middle of oceans, such as the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. In other places, older crust is being destroyed, such as where the Pacific Ocean is moving under Japan. A third type of locality sees the crust shifted along laterally, such as the San Andreas Fault in San Francisco. These three types of locations are often referred to as plate boundaries, and they connect up to divide the Earth’s surface into tectonic plates of different sizes and motions.

Where plates plunge into the mantle are termed subduction zones (red lines Figure 1, below). The configuration of these subduction zones has changed throughout geological time. Indeed, much of the ocean seafloor (blue area in Figure 1) that existed when the dinosaurs roamed the Earth has long since been lost into the Earth’s mantle and are now known as slabs. The mantle is the domain beneath the outer shell of our planet and extends to around 2800 km depth, to the boundary with the core.

The age and fabric of the seafloor contains some of the most important constraints in understanding the past configuration of Earth. However, the constant recycling of oceans means that the Earth’s surface as it is today can only tell us so much about the deep geological past – the innards of our planet hold much of this information, and we need to access, visualize, and disseminate it.

Figure 1. A reconstruction of the Earth’s surface from 200 Million years ago to present day in jumps of 10 Million years. Red lines show the location of subduction zones, other plate boundaries in black, plate velocities are also shown. Continents are reconstructed with the present-day topography for reference. Based on the model of Matthews et al. (2016; Global and Planetary Change). Credit: G Shephard (CEED/UiO) using GPlates and GMT software.

Imaging the insides

Using information from earthquake data, seismologists can produce images of the Earth’s interior via computer models – this technique is called seismic tomography. Similar to a medical X-ray scan that looks for features within the human body, these models image the internal structure of the Earth. Thus, a given seismic tomography model is a snapshot into the present-day structure, which has been shaped by hundreds of millions to billions of years of Earth’s history.

However, there are different types of data that can be used to generate these models and different ways they can be created, each with varying degrees of resolution and sensitivity to the real Earth structure. This variability has led to dozens of tomographic models available in the scientific arena, which all have slightly different snapshots of the Earth. For example, deep under Canada and the USA is a well-known chunk of subducted ocean seafloor (see ‘slab’ label in Figure 2). A vertical slice through the mantle for three different tomography models shows that while overall the models are similar, there are some slight shifts in its location and shape.

Importantly, seismic waves pass through subducted, old, cold oceanic plates more quickly than they do through the surrounding mantle (in the same way that sound travels faster through solids than air). It follows that these subducted slabs can be ‘imaged’ seismically (usually these slab regions show up as blue in tomography models such as in Figure 2 and as shown in this video by co-author Kasra Hosseini. The red regions might represent thermally hot features like mantle plumes).

Figure 2. Vertical slices through three different seismic tomography models under North America and the Atlantic Ocean (profile running from A to B). The blue region outlined by black dashed line is related to the so-called Farallon slab. While it is imaged in all three models the finer details of the slab geometry and depth are different. Model 1 is S40RTS (Ritsema et al., 2011), 2 is UU-P07 (Amaru, 2007) and 3 is GyPSum-S (Simmons et al., 2010).

For other geoscientists to utilize this critical information, for example to work out how continents and oceans moved through time, requires a spectrum of seismic tomography models to be considered. But several limiting questions arise:

Which tomography model(s) should be used?

Are models based certain data types more likely to pick up a feature?

How many models are sufficient to say that a deep slab can be imaged robustly?

Voting maps of the deep

To facilitate solutions to these questions, a novel yet simple approach was undertaken in the study. Different tomography models were combined to generate counts, or votes, of the agreement between models – a sort of navigational guidebook to the Earth’s interior (Figure 3).

Figure 3. An interactive 360° style image for the vote map at 1000 km depth. The black and red regions highlight the most robust features (high vote count = likely to be a subducted slab of ocean) and the blue regions are the least robust areas (low vote count). Coastlines in black for reference. Image: G Shephard (CEED/UiO) using 360player (https://360player.io/) and GMT software. More depth slices and options can be also imaged at our website.

A high vote count (black-red features in Figure 3) means that an increased number of tomography models agree that there could be a slab at that location. For the study in Scientific Reports the focus was on the oldest and deepest slabs, but the process can be undertaken for shallower and younger slabs, and for other features such as mantle plumes. The maps show the distribution of the most robust slabs at different depths – the challenge is to now try and verify the features and potentially link them to subduction zones at the surface back in time.

One way to achieve this is to assume that a subducted portion of ocean will sink vertically in the mantle, and then to apply a sinking rate to connect depth and time. This enables pictures that link the surface and deep Earth, like the cover image, to be made. A sinking rate of say, 1.2 centimeters per year, means that a feature that existed at the surface around 100 Million years ago might be found at 1200 km depth.

Many studies have started to undertake a similar exercise on both regional and global scales. However, because these vote maps are free to access, showcase a lot of different models and can be remade with a sub-selection of them, they serve as an easy resource for the community to continue this task.

Secrets in depth

A bit like dessert-time discussions about the best way to cut a cake, so too are the ways of imaging and analyzing the Earth (Figure 4). Do you slice it horizontally and see things that might correspond to the same age all over the globe? Or slice vertically from the surface to see a spectrum of ages (depths) at a given location? Or perhaps a 3-D imaging would be most insightful? Whichever choice is made for the vote maps, many interesting features are displayed.

Figure 4. Vote maps visualized using alternative imaging options on a sphere. Credit: G Shephard (CEED/UiO) using GPlates software

By comparing the changes in vote counts with depth, some intriguing results were found. An apparent increase in the amount of the slabs was found around 1000-1400 km depth. This could mean that about 130 Million years ago more oceanic basins were lost into the mantle. Or perhaps there is a specific region in the mantle that has “blocked” the slabs from sinking deeper for some period of time (for example, an increase in viscosity).

The vote maps and their associated depth-dependent changes hold implications on an interdisciplinary stage including through linking plate tectonics, mantle dynamics, and mineral physics.

Of course, the vote maps are only as good as the tomography models that they are comprised of – and by very definition, a model is just one way of representing the true Earth.

A resource for the community

Having accessed a variety of tomography models provided by different research groups or data repositories, this study was facilitated using open-source software (Generic Mapping Tools and GPlates).

An important component of reproducible science and advancing our understanding of Earth is to make datasets and workflows publicly available for further investigations.

An online toolkit to visualize seismic tomography data is being developed by the co-authors and a preliminary vote maps page is already online. Here, vote maps for a sub-selection of tomography models can be generated, including with a choice in colour scales and with overlays of plate reconstruction models. More functionality will soon be available – so watch this space!

By Grace Shephard, a postdoctoral researcher in tectonics and geodynamics at the Centre of Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED)

Contact information for more details: Grace Shephard – g.e.shephard@geo.uio.no

Full reference to the article, freely available to the public:

Amaru, M. L. Global travel time tomography with 3-D reference models,. Geol. Ultraiectina 274, 174 (2007).

Matthews, K.J. K.T. Maloney, S. Zahirovic, S.E. Williams, M. Seton, R.D. Müller. 2016. Global plate boundary evolution and kinematics since the late Paleozoic. Global and Planetary Change. v146. doi: 10.1016/j.gloplacha.2016.10.002

Ritsema, J., Deuss, A., van Heijst, H. J. & Woodhouse, J. H. S40RTS: a degree-40 shear-velocity model for the mantle from new Rayleigh wave dispersion, teleseismic traveltime and normal-mode splitting function measurements. Geophysical Journal International 184, 1223-1236, doi:10.1111/j.1365-246X.2010.04884.x (2011).

Simmons, N. A., Forte, A. M., Boschi, L. & Grand, S. P. GyPSuM: A joint tomographic model of mantle density and seismic wave speeds. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 115, doi:10.1029/2010JB007631 (2010).

 

 

 

August GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

August GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major Stories

On August 25th Hurricane Harvey made landfall along the southern coast of the U.S.A, bringing record breaking rainfall, widespread flooding and a natural disaster on a scale not seen in the country for a long time. In fact, it’s the first time since 2005 a major hurricane has threatened mainland U.S.A. – a record long period.

But Harvey’s story began long before it brought destruction to Texas and Louisiana.

On August 17th,the National Space Agency (NASA) satellite’s first spotted a tropical depression forming off the coast of the Lesser Antilles. From there the storm moved into the eastern Caribbean and was upgraded to Tropical Storm Harvey where it already started dropping very heavy rainfall. By August 21st, it had fragmented into disorganised thunderstorms and was spotted near Honduras, where heavy local rainfall and gusty winds were predicted.

Over the next few days the remnants of the storm travelled westwards towards Nicaragua, Honduras, Belize and the Yucatan Peninsula. Forecasters predicted that, owing to warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico and favorable vertical wind shear, there was a high chance the system could reform once it moved into the Bay of Campeche (in the southern area of the Gulf of Mexico) on August 23rd. By August 24th data acquired with NASA satellites showed Harvey had began to intensify and reorganise. Heavy rainfall was found in the system.

Harvey continued to strengthen as it traveled across the Gulf of Mexico and weather warnings were issued for the central coast of Texas. Citizens were told to expect life-threatening storm surges and freshwater flooding. On August 25th, Harvey was upgraded to a devastating Category 4 hurricane, when sustained wind speeds topped 215 kph.

Since making landfall on Friday and stalling over Texas (Louisiana is also affected) – despite being downgraded to a tropical storm as it weakened – it has broken records of it’s own. “No hurricane, typhoon, or tropical storm, in all of recorded history, has dropped as much water on a single major city as Hurricane Harvey is in the process of doing right now in Houston (Texas)”, reports Forbes. In fact, the National Weather Service had to update the colour charts on their graphics in order to effectively map it. This visualisation maps Harvey’s destructive path through Texas.

A snaptshot from the tweet by the official Twitter account for NOAA’s National Weather Service.

So far the death toll is reported to be between 15 to 23 people, with the Houston Police Chief saying 30,000 people are expected to need temporary shelter and 2,000 people in the city had to be rescued by emergency services (figures correct at time of writing).

Many factors contributed toward making Hurricane Harvey so destructive. “The steering currents that would normally lift it out of that region aren’t there,” J. Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, told the New York Times. The storm surge has blocked much of the drainage which would take rainfall away from inland areas. And while it isn’t possible to say climate change caused the hurricane, “it has contributed to making it worse”, says Michael E Mann. The director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University argues that rising sea levels and ocean water temperatures in the region (brought about by climate change) contributed to greater rainfall and flooding.

A man carries his cattle on his shoulder as he moves to safer ground at Topa village in Saptari. Credit: The Guardian.

While all eyes are on Houston, India, Bangladesh and Nepal are also suffering the consequences of devastating flooding brought about a strong monsoon. The United Nations estimates that 41 million people are affected by the disaster across the three countires. Over 1200 people are reported dead. Authorities are stuggling with the scale of the humanitarian crisis: “Their most urgent concern is to accessing safe water and sanitation facilities,” the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said earlier this week, citing national authorities. And its not only people at risk. Indian authorities reported large swathes of a famous wildlife reserve park have been destroyed. In Mumbai, the downpour caused a building to collapse killing 12 people and up to 25 more are feared trapped.Photo galleries give a sense of the scale of the disaster.

Districts affected by flooding. Credit: Guardian graphic | Source: ReliefWeb. Data as of 29 August 2017

What you might have missed

In fact, it’s highly unlikely you missed the coverage of this month’s total solar eclipse over much of Northern America. But on account of it being the second biggest story this month, we felt it couldn’t be left out of the round-up. We particularly like this photo gallery which boasts some spectacular images of the astronomical event.

This composite image, made from seven frames, shows the International Space Station, with a crew of six onboard, as it transits the Sun at roughly five miles per second during a partial solar eclipse, Monday, Aug. 21, 2017 near Banner, Wyoming. Credit: (NASA/Joel Kowsky)

Since the end of July, wildfires have been raging in southwest Greenland. While small scale fires are not unheard of on the island otherwise known for its thick ice cap and deep fjords, the fires this month are estimated to extend over 1,200 hectares. What started the fires remains unknown, as do the fuel sources and the long-term impacts of the burn.

The U.S.A’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration highlighted that the fires are a source of sooty “black carbon”. As the ash falls on the pristine white ice sheet, it turns the surface black, which can make it melt faster. Greenland police recently reported that unexpected rain haf all but extinguished the massive fires; though the situation continues to be monitored, as smouldering patches run the risk of reigniting the flames.

 

 

 

Links we liked

The EGU story

Do you enjoy the EGU’s annual General Assembly but wish you could play a more active role in shaping the scientific programme? Now is your chance! Help shape the scientific programme of EGU 2018.

From today, until 8 Sep 2017, you can suggest:

  • Sessions (with conveners and description), or;
  • Modifications to the existing skeleton programme sessions
  • NEW! Suggestions for Short courses (SC) will also take place during this period
  • From now until 18 January 2018, propose Townhall and splinter meetings

And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.

 

Volcanic ash layers in Svalbard hold clues to the formation of the North Atlantic

Volcanic ash layers in Svalbard hold clues to the formation of the North Atlantic

This guest post by Dr Morgan Jones (a Researcher in Volcanology at the Centre of Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo, Norway) describes the latest findings of his multidisciplinary research into how the North Atlantic formed. His open access study, in collaboration with colleagues at CEED and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is published in the Nature Journal: Scientific Reports. This post is modified from a version which first appeared on John Stevenson’s blog, Volcan01010. Read the original post.

Summary

The Earth’s tectonic plates have pulled apart and come together multiple times during its long history. These processes leave hallmarks of the past layouts of continents, which allow scientists to reconstruct how the plates have moved through time. While we know from the geological record that these movements took place, it is sometimes difficult to work out when key events occurred and their correct order. One such example is just before the formation of the northeast Atlantic Ocean, around 62-55 million years ago, when there were several changes in the relative motions of North America, Greenland, and Eurasia (the combined landmass of Europe and Asia) in just a few million years.

A technique called radioisotopic dating allows us to determine the exact age of volcanic rocks. This study shows that the Greenland plate began to push against part of the Eurasian plate around 61.8 million years ago, leading to the formation of a mountain belt between Greenland and Svalbard. This precise age of first compression occurred at the same time as other changes around the edge of the Greenland plate. For the first time, this study provides evidence that these events are connected.

This gives scientists who work in plate tectonic reconstructions the ability to refine their models to understand how North America and Eurasia began to break apart.

Plate Tectonics in the Palaeocene

The Palaeocene epoch was between 66-55.8 million years ago, occurring after the Cretaceous period. The between the Cretaceous and the Palaeocene 66 million years ago is marked by the well-known catastrophe that led to the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The Palaeocene was also an important time period for plate tectonic motions in the northern hemisphere. At the time when dinosaurs became extinct, the North Atlantic Ocean was still in its infancy and seafloor spreading did not extend further north than Canada and Portugal. Over the course of the next few million years, North America and Eurasia began to break apart, which eventually resulted in a seaway that connected the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

However, the break up was a complicated process. As the Atlantic Ocean grew northward, branches opened on either side of southern Greenland (between Canada to the west and Scotland/Norway to the east). The western arm pulled apart first, but at some point both of these rift zones were active, and a mountain range was formed in what is now Svalbard. This meant that for a short period (geologically speaking) Greenland was its own tectonic plate, moving independently of both North America and Eurasia.

The aim of our study is to pinpoint exactly when Greenland and Svalbard began to push together, as this compression is directly related to the rifting further south. This means that understanding the geological history of Svalbard can shed light on when and why Greenland became its own tectonic plate.

The Geology of Svalbard

The rock outcrops in western Svalbard are intensely folded and cut by long faults. They were once part of a mountain chain that formed due to Greenland and Svalbard pushing together. This was followed later by sideways movement as the northeast Atlantic Ocean began to open; pulling Greenland and Svalbard apart.

The rocks in south-central Svalbard, adjacent to this ancient mountain range, are sedimentary deposits that were formed in deltas and shallow seas. Mountain ranges often have low-lying regions alongside them (called basins) where sediments accumulate. Modern examples include the Po Valley next to the Alps in Italy and the Ganges Basin next to the Himalayas in India.

Importantly, these basins form at the same time as the mountains grow, which means that techniques to work out the age of rock formations can be used to accurately date when both the basin and the mountains started to form.

Dating First Compression between Svalbard and Greenland

An important tool for working out the age of a rock is radioisotopic dating. Radioactive isotopes of elements are unstable, meaning that over time they will degrade from one form to another. The half-life (the rate at which radioactive decay occurs) of each system varies from milliseconds to billions of years, which means that different isotope systems can be used for dating, depending on how far back in time your interest lies.

This is an edited version of Figure 5 from the paper, created using the open source plate tectonics software GPlates by Grace Shephard and Morgan Jones. It shows a regional reconstruction of how the tectonic plates were 62 million years ago. The blacked dashed lines show where the plate boundaries between North America, Greenland, and Eurasia are predicted to have been. The light blue areas show the approximate extent of seafloor in the Labrador Sea and in Baffin Bay. The orange areas show the rifting zone to the east of Greenland where the northeast Atlantic would later open. The purple areas show the known extent of magma intrusions and volcanic deposits from the first pulse of the North Atlantic Igneous Province (NAIP). The purple star is where the centre of the mantle plume is predicted to be at this time. The red arrows show the onset of compression between Greenland and Svalbard, beginning at 61.8 million years ago. The volcano symbols mark where the ash layers in Svalbard came from.

When considering millions to billions of years in the past, uranium-lead (U-Pb) dating is used as 238U has a half-life of about 4.5 billion years. Zircon crystals are ideal for this method as they form in cooling magma chambers. Zircons can have a high uranium concentration, which means that if they are found in volcanic deposits such as lavas or volcanic ash layers, they can be used to accurately date those rocks.

The sediments in Svalbard have numerous volcanic ash layers preserved within them. These ash layers are likely to have originated from volcanoes in northern Greenland and Ellesmere Island, now over 1000 km away across the ocean.

Based on the dating of these ash layers it is possible to calculate when sedimentation first began in central Svalbard. This age of valley formation, and therefore the initiation of compression between Greenland and Svalbard, is predicted to be start around 61.8 million years ago.

This age is significant because it overlaps with key events further south. Around 61.6 million years ago there was a dramatic change in the sedimentation in the North Sea from limestone to sandstone and siltstone. The speed of seafloor spreading increased between Canada and Greenland, and many faults were active along the edges of eastern Greenland.

The synchronicity of these events strongly indicates a common driving force affecting all margins of Greenland.

Potential Causes

A remaining mystery is what caused Greenland to change direction.

There are several possible candidates that could have caused the shift, either individually or together.

The acceleration of seafloor spreading in the Labrador Sea has the potential to drive changes in relative plate motions. It is also plausible that events further afield may be important. Greenland was in between the North American and Eurasian plates, so the change in motion may be a result of forces acting on one of these much larger plates.

Another possibility is the arrival of a mantle plume at the base of the crust. Mantle plumes bring considerable heat from deep in the Earth, resulting in widespread crustal melting and volcanic activity. The North Atlantic Igneous Province (NAIP) is one such example. The first pulse of magma arrived at the surface around 62 million years ago and is still causing enhanced melting today to form Iceland.

The scale of volcanic and magmatic products from the NAIP is truly enormous. Current estimates put the total amount of magma at 6 to 10 million cubic kilometres. Much of this activity is still exposed along the edges of the northeast Atlantic, including the British Isles, Faroe Islands, and East Greenland. There are also considerable deposits found in West Greenland. It is therefore possible that the change in plate motions may be connected to this pulse of magma. However, further work is needed to test this hypothesis.

By Dr Morgan Jones, Researcher in Volcanology at the Centre of Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED) at the University of Oslo, Norway

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