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Tomography and plate tectonics

Tomography and plate tectonics

The Geodynamics 101 series serves to showcase the diversity of research topics and methods in the geodynamics community in an understandable manner. We welcome all researchers – PhD students to Professors – to introduce their area of expertise in a lighthearted, entertaining manner and touch upon some of the outstanding questions and problems related to their fields. For our first ‘Geodynamics 101’ post for 2019, Assistant Prof. Jonny Wu from the University of Houston explains how to delve into the subduction record via seismic tomography and presents some fascinating 3D workflow images with which to test an identified oceanic slab. 

Jonny Wu, U. Houston

Tomography… wait, isn’t that what happens in your CAT scan? Although the general public might associate tomography with medical imaging, Earth scientists are well aware that ‘seismic tomography’ has enabled us to peer deeper, and with more clarity, into the Earth’s interior (Fig. 1). What are some of the ways we can download and display tomography to inform our scientific discoveries? Why has seismic tomography been a valuable tool for plate reconstructions? And what are some new approaches for incorporating seismic tomography within plate tectonic models?

Figure 1: Tomographic transect across the East Asian mantle under the Eurasian-South China Sea margin, the Philippine Sea and the western Pacific from Wu and Suppe (2018). The displayed tomography is the MITP08 global P-wave model (Li et al., 2008).

Downloading and displaying seismic tomography

Seismic tomography is a technique for imaging the Earth’s interior in 3-D using seismic waves. For complete beginners, IRIS (Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology) has an excellent introduction that compares seismic tomography to medical CT scans.

A dizzying number of new, high quality seismic tomographic models are being published every year. For example, the IRIS EMC-EarthModels catalogue  currently contains 64 diverse tomographic models that cover most of the Earth, from global to regional scales. From my personal count, at least seven of these models have been added in the past half year – about one new model a month. Aside from the IRIS catalog, a plethora of other tomographic models are also publicly-available from journal data suppositories, personal webpages, or by an e-mail request to the author.

Downloading a tomographic model is just the first step. If one does not have access to custom workflows and scripts to display tomography, consider visiting an online tomography viewer. I have listed a few of these websites at the end of this blog post. Of these websites, a personal favourite of mine is the Hades Underworld Explorer built by Douwe van Hinsbergen and colleagues at Utrecht University, which uses a familiar Google Maps user interface. By simply dragging a left and right pin on the map, a user can display a global tomographic section in real time. The displayed tomographic section can be displayed in either a polar or Cartesian view and exported to a .svg file. Another tool I have found useful are tomographic ‘vote maps’, which provide indications of lower mantle slab imaging robustness by comparison of multiple tomographic models (Shephard et al., 2017). Vote maps can be downloaded from the original paper above or from the SubMachine website (Hosseini et al. (2018); see more in the website list below).

Using tomography for plate tectonic reconstructions

Tomography has played an increasing role in plate tectonic studies over the past decades. A major reason is because classical plate tectonic inputs (e.g. seafloor magnetic anomalies, palaeomagnetism, magmatism, geology) are independent from the seismological inputs for tomographic images. This means that tomography can be used to augment or test classic plate reconstructions in a relatively independent fashion. For example, classical plate tectonic models can be tested by searching tomography for slab-like anomalies below or near predicted subduction zone locations. These ‘conventional’ plate modelling workflows have challenges at convergent margins, however, when the geological record has been significantly destroyed from subduction. In these cases, the plate modeller is forced to describe details of past plate kinematics using an overly sparse geological record.

Figure 2: Tomographic plate modeling workflow proposed by Wu et al. (2016). The final plate model in c) is fully-kinematic and makes testable geological predictions for magmatic histories, terrane paleolatitudes and other geology (e.g. collisions) that can be compared against the remnant geology in d), which are relatively independent.

A ‘tomographic plate modelling’ workflow (Fig. 2) was proposed by Wu et al. (2016) that essentially reversed the conventional plate modelling workflow. In this method, slabs are mapped from tomography and unfolded (i.e. retro-deformed) (Fig. 2a). The unfolded slabs are then populated into a seafloor spreading-based global plate model. Plate motions are assigned in a hierarchical fashion depending on available kinematic constraints (Fig. 2b). The plate modelling will result in either a single unique plate reconstruction, or several families of possible plate models (Fig. 2c). The final plate models (Fig. 2c) are fully-kinematic and make testable geological predictions for magmatic histories, palaeolatitudes and other geological events (e.g. collisions). These predictions can then be systematically compared against remnant geology (Fig. 2d), which are independent from the tomographic inputs (Fig. 2a).

The proposed 3D slab mapping workflow of Wu et al. (2016) assumed that the most robust feature of tomographic slabs is likely the slab center. The slab mapping workflow involved manual picking of a mid-slab ‘curve’ along hundreds (and sometimes thousands!) of variably oriented 2D cross-sections using software GOCAD (Figs. 3a, b). A 3-D triangulated mid-slab surface is then constructed from the mid-slab curves (Fig. 3c). Inspired by 3D seismic interpretation techniques from petroleum geoscience, the tomographic velocities can be extracted along the mid-slab surface for further tectonic analysis (Fig. 3d).


Figure 3: Slab unfolding workflow proposed by Wu et al. (2016) shown for the subducted Ryukyu slab along the northern Philippine Sea plate. The displayed tomography in a), d) and e) is from the MITP08 global P-wave model (Li et al., 2008).

For relatively undeformed upper mantle slabs, a pre-subduction slab size and shape can be estimated by unfolding the mid-slab surface to a spherical Earth model, minimizing distortions and changes to surface area (Fig. 3e). Interestingly, the slab unfolding algorithm can also be applied to shoe design, where there is a need to flatten shoe materials to build cut patterns (Bennis et al., 1991).  The three-dimensional slab mapping within GOCAD allows a self-consistent 3-D Earth model of the mapped slabs to be developed and maintained. This had advantages for East Asia (Wu et al., 2016), where many slabs have apparently subducted in close proximity to each other (Fig. 1).

Web resources for displaying tomography

Hades Underworld Explorer : http://www.atlas-of-the-underworld.org/hades-underworld-explorer/

Seismic Tomography Globe : http://dagik.org/misc/gst/user-guide/index.html

SubMachine : https://www.earth.ox.ac.uk/~smachine/cgi/index.php

 

References

Bennis, C., Vezien, J.-M., Iglesias, G., 1991. Piecewise surface flattening for non-distorted texture mapping. Proceedings of the 18th annual conference on Computer graphics and interactive techniques 25, 237-246.

Hosseini, K. , Matthews, K. J., Sigloch, K. , Shephard, G. E., Domeier, M. and Tsekhmistrenko, M., 2018. SubMachine: Web-Based tools for exploring seismic tomography and other models of Earth's deep interior. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 19. 

Li, C., van der Hilst, R.D., Engdahl, E.R., Burdick, S., 2008. A new global model for P wave speed variations in Earth's mantle. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 9, Q05018.

Shephard, G.E., Matthews, K.J., Hosseini, K., Domeier, M., 2017. On the consistency of seismically imaged lower mantle slabs. Scientific Reports 7, 10976.

Wu, J., Suppe, J., 2018. Proto-South China Sea Plate Tectonics Using Subducted Slab Constraints from Tomography. Journal of Earth Science 29, 1304-1318.

Wu, J., Suppe, J., Lu, R., Kanda, R., 2016. Philippine Sea and East Asian plate tectonics since 52 Ma constrained by new subducted slab reconstruction methods. Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth 121, 4670-4741

A belated happy new year!

A belated happy new year!

It was that time of the year again: holidays! Time to take a break from work, relax, and see all your friends and family again. The blog team is no different: we took a break from blogging for a little while as well, so you had to survive the holidays without us! Did you survive Christmas day without one of our blogposts? It must’ve been dreadful, I know, but that’s life! Luckily, we have some good news: we are back with some belated happy new year wishes and wintersport recommendations. We also tried to write limericks. Also also, we discuss chocolate and peppermint. Because we can. Cheers to a good blog year in 2019! 

Iris van Zelst

I once tried to ski down a slope
as friends thought there might be hope
I was covered in snow
from my head to my toe
If they invite me again it’s a ‘nope’

So, as many of you might have guessed, winter sports (or any sports, really) are not entirely my thing. Particularly skiing did not go down well for me. However, as a true Dutch girl, I do really enjoy ice skating and can recommend it thoroughly! However, this year no winter sports at all for me: I flew towards the sun in an effort to actually destress from work (feeble attempt as I brought my laptop, but still, kudos for trying, right?). I hope everyone had a very nice holiday and relaxing break. May all your (academic) wishes come true in 2019!

I also tried cross-country skiing once. That was infinitely better than alpine skiing. It was actually fun!

Grace Shephard

In hemispheric defiance of the “wintersport” edition, I am currently back Down Under where I have replaced the (seemingly eternal) television coverage of cross-country skiing with cricket, swapped a toboggan for me ‘togs’, and exchanged a pull-over for some ‘pluggers.’ I wish all of our blog readers a very happy and safe end to the year that was, and a fabulous start to the next!

What Aussies call swimming-related attire from bit.ly/AusWords

Anne Glerum

This year I spend winter in Berlin,
Where no snow has fallen and the ice is too thin.
So I drink myself heavy,
With hot chocolate and Pfeffi,
And wait for the fresh air of spring!

In the weeks before Christmas, Christmas markets dominate the streets of Berlin. Besides delicious food, they offer mulled wine and, as I discovered this year, hot chocolate with peppermintliqueur. A green version of the liqueur is made by Pfeffi, while a colorless Berlin-made peppermintliqueur is called Berliner Luft. It’s as clear and fresh as Berlin’s air according to the manufacturer. Although the freshness of Berlin’s air is debatable, the combination of chocolate and peppermint is delicious. I wish everybody a fresh start of the New Year with loads of hapiness!

Get conference ready!

Get conference ready!

It’s almost time for the AGU fall meeting 2018! Are you ready? Have you prepared your schedule and set up all your important business meetings? Here are some final tips to nail your presentation and/or poster!

Nailing your presentation
The art of the 15-minute talk: how to design the best 15-minute talk
Presentation skills – 1. Voice: how to get the most out of your presentation voice
Presentation skills – 2. Speech: how to stop staying ‘uh’

Making the best poster
Poster presentation tips: how to design the best poster layout
The rainbow colour map (repeatedly) considered harmful: how to make the best scientific figures

An industrial placement as a geodynamicist

An industrial placement as a geodynamicist

After years of trying to get a PhD, publishing papers, networking with professors, and trying to land that one, elusive, permanent job in science, it can be quite easy to forget that you actually do have career options outside of academia. To get a little taste of this, Nico Schliffke, PhD student in geodynamics at Durham University, tries out the industry life for a few weeks!

When coming close to the final stages of a PhD life, many students reconsider whether they want to stay in academia or prefer to step over to industry or other non-academic jobs. This is surely not a simple decision to take, as it could strongly shape your future. In this blog post, I would like to report my industrial placement experience during my PhD and share a few thoughts on the topic.

The taste of industry life was an opportunity I had within the frame of my PhD project. Split into two terms, I spent four weeks at a medium-sized company developing optical imaging techniques (both software and equipment) to measure flow fields and deformation. The branch I worked in was “digital image correlation” (DIC) which measures strain on given surfaces purely by comparing successive images on an object (see figure below). This technique is used in both industry (crash tests, quality assessments, etc.) as well as in academia (analogue experiments, wind tunnels, engineering..), and has the substantial advantage of measuring physical properties precisely, without using any materials or affecting dynamical processes. DIC is not directly related to or used in my PhD (I do numerical modelling of subduction zones and continental collision), but surprisingly enough I was able to contribute more than expected – but more on that later.

Basic principle of ‘digital image correlation’. A pattern on a digital image is traced through time on successive images to calculate displacements and strain rates.
Credit: LaVision

The specific project I worked on was inspired by the analogue tectonics lab at GFZ Potsdam, that uses DIC measuring systems to quantify and measure the deformation of their sandbox experiments. Typical earthquake experiments like the figure below span periods of a few minutes to several days during which individual earthquakes occur in a couple of milliseconds. The experiment is continuously recorded by cameras to both monitor deformation visually and quantify deformation by using the optical imaging technique developed by my host company. To resolve the deformation related to individual earthquakes, high imaging rates are required which in turn produce a vast amount of data (up to 2TB per experiment). However, only a small fraction (max. 5%) of the entire dataset is of interest, as there is hardly any deformation during interseismic periods. The project I was involved in tried to tackle the issue of unnecessarily cluttered hard discs: the recording frequency should be linked to a measurable characteristic within the experiment, e.g. displacement velocities in these specific experiments, and controlled by the DIC software.

Setup of the analogue experiment to model earthquakes in subduction zones (courtesy of Michael Rudolf). Cameras above the experiment measure deformation and strain rates by tracking patterns on the surface created by the contrast of black rubber and white sugar.

My general task during the internship was to develop this idea and the required software. We finally developed a ‘live-extensometer’ to calculate displacements between two given points of an image during recording and link its values to the camera’s recording frequency. Therefore, restricting high imaging rates to large (and fast) displacements of earthquakes should result in reducing the total amount of data acquired for a typical earthquake experiment by 95%. However, we needed an actual experiment to verify this. So, I met up with the team at GFZ to test the developed feature.

The main experiment the GFZ team had in mind is sketched in the figure above: a conveyor belt modelling a subducting slab continuously creates strain in the ‘orogenic wedge’ which is released by earthquakes leading to surface deformation. Cameras above the experiment monitor the surface while software computes strain rates and displacement (see figure below). The developed feature of changing frequencies during the experiment depending on slip rates was included and worked surprisingly well. Yet freshly programmed software is seldom perfect: minor issues and bugs crept up during the experiments. My final contribution during the internship was to report these problems back to the company to be fixed.

Displacement measured by ‘digital image correlation’ during an earthquake lasting ~5 ms (courtesy of Mathias Rosenau).

My geodynamical background allowed me to contribute to various fields within the company and resulted in various individual tasks throughout the internship: coding experience helped with discussing ideal software implementations and testing the latest implemented software on small (physical) experiments. My knowledge of various deformation mechanisms and geosciences in general, with its numerous subdisciplines and methods, provided a solid base for searching further applications for the developed software within academia, but also in industry. Last but not least, pursuing my own large project (my PhD) strongly facilitated discussing possible future development steps.

The atmosphere at the company in general was very pleasant and similar to what I experienced at the university: relaxed handling, pared with discussion how to improve products or use of new techniques that might be applicable to a problem. To stay competitive, the company needs to further develop their products which requires a large amount of research, developments and innovative ideas. Meetings to discuss further improvements of certain products were thus scheduled on a (nearly) daily basis. On the one hand this adds pressure to get work done as quickly as possible, but working on a project as a team with many numerous areas of expertise is also highly exciting.

This internship help reveal the variability of possible jobs that geodynamicists can have in industry besides the ‘classical’ companies linked to exploration, tunnel engineering or geological surveys. The skill set acquired in a geodynamical PhD (coding, modelling, combining numerics, physics, and geosciences) makes a very flexible and adaptive employee which is attractive to companies who are so specialised, that there is (nearly) no classical education at university level. Jobs at small to medium-sized companies are often harder to find, but it’s just as difficult for the companies to find suitable candidates for their open positions. Hence, it may be worth searching in-depth for a suitable job, if you are considering stepping out of academia and maybe even out of geoscience as well.

If PhD students are hesitant whether to stay in academia or change into industry, I would advise to do such a short internship with a company to get a taste of ‘the other side’. During a PhD, we get to know academic life thoroughly but industry mostly remains alien. Besides giving a good impression of daily life at a company and how you can contribute, an industry internship might also widen your perspective of which areas might be relevant to you, your methodology and your PhD topic. In total, this internship was definitely a valuable experience for me and will help when deciding: academia or industry?


Here are a few links for more information:
Host company
Digital Image Correlation
TecLab at GFZ Potsdam
Previous EGU blog post interviews of former geoscientists