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Travel log – The Kenya rift

Travel log – The Kenya rift

Topographic map of the Kenya rift and surroundings. Dark red lines indicated faults from the GEM database. Dotted blue lines separate the northern, central and southern Kenya rift. In green circles the discussed locations.

A little over a year ago, I was lucky enough to join a field trip to the Kenya rift organized by Potsdam University and Roma III. This rift is part of the active East African Rift System, which I introduced in a previous blog post. With a group of 25 enthusiastic participants from Roma Tre, Potsdam University, Nairobi University and GFZ Potsdam (we somehow always managed to make the 20-person bus work), we set out to study the interaction between tectonics, magmatism and climate and their link to human and animal evolution. Based on several pictures, I’ll take you through the highlights.

 

 

 

 

Basement foliation and fault orientation

Two numerical modellers looking at rocks… Gneisses of the Mozambique belt with steeply dipping foliation – I think. Courtesy of Corinna Kallich, Potsdam University.

Although this first picture might not look so impressive (I promise, more impressive ones will come), this road outcrop shows the structure of the basement that is responsible for the orientation of the Kenya rift’s three western border faults. Here in particular, we are slightly west of the Elgeyo escarpment, the scarp of the major east-dipping Elgeyo fault. It reactivated the steep foliation of the Mozambique belt gneisses that formed during the Pan-African orogeny (550-500 Ma; Ring 2014). Changes in foliation orientation are mirrored by changes in fault orientation from NNE to NW upon going from the Northern to the Southern Kenya rift (see map). The Elgeyo fault itself displaced the 14.5 My old massive extrusion of phonolite lavas that can be seen throughout the Kenya rift area, marking the start of the current rift phase. From the differences in basement level between the western shoulder and the rift centre, the total offset along the fault is ~4 km!

Rift axis volcanism

Lunch overlooking the Menengai caldera that collapsed 36,000 yr ago. Courtesy of Corinna Kallich, Potsdam University.

With on-going rifting, the tectonic and magmatic activity localised in the centre of the Kenya rift. One massive central volcano is the Menengai volcano, whose view we enjoyed over lunch. This 12 km wide caldera collapsed 36,000 yr ago; the ash flows of the eruption can be found throughout the whole of Kenya. Within the caldera, diatomite layers alternating with trachyte lava flows indicate the presence of lakes 12 and 5 ky ago. These lakes were fed by the neighbouring Nakuru basin overflowing into the Menengai crater. The volcano itself was responsible for the earlier compartmentalization of the larger Nakuru-Elmentaita basin. At the moment, freshwater springs are being fed by the groundwater, and 40 geothermal wells are being constructed to benefit from the groundwater being heated by the magma chamber at 3-3.5 km depth.

Lunch at Hell’s Gate

Looking along Hell’s Gate Gorge – cut into the white diatomite and pyroclastic layers – towards feeder dikes of the remaining core of a volcano. Courtesy of Corinna Kallich, Potsdam University.

Watching the wildlife and beautiful scenery is usually the reason people visit Hell’s Gate National Park, but we studied the flow structures in a highly viscous, silica-rich lava flow. We then scrambled our way through Hell’s Gate Gorge that cut into mostly diatomite lake sediments (these algae are very helpful) alternated with pyroclastic layers. Most impressive however, were the crosscut basaltic intrusions that we could trace back to the centre of an otherwise eroded volcanic dome. The well-deserved lunch was a rather frustrating affair, as Vervet monkeys took every chance at stealing our food, not even shying away from distracting us with their adorable babies.

Monkey enjoying my lunch. Courtesy of Corinna Kallich, Potsdam University.

 

 

 

 

 

Wishing the lake was back

The white diatomites of the Olorgesailie Formation, indicating the presence of a lake. Courtesy of Corinna Kallich, Potsdam University.

The Olorgesailie basin is where paleoanthropologist Louis Leakey and his wife palaeontologist Mary Leakey (Wikipedia) unearthed a score of Acheulean hand axes in the 1940s. The 600-900 ky old tools were used to dig for roots, cleave, hammer and scrape meat and can be seen in the Kariandusi museum site. Besides the hand axes (made from all the trachyte found in the area), we marvelled at the Olorgesailie Formation that contains them, which was deposited between ~1.2-0.5 Ma. The formation consists of repetitions of wetland, river and lake sediments and paleosols (fossil soils, indicating dryer conditions). As we stand baking in the sun on top of the dusty, white diatomite, the vision of a lake sure is very alluring.

A not-so-fresh lake

On our way to a tiny hotspring along the edge of the slightly pink waters of Lake Magadi. In the foreground the white evaporates the lake is mined for. Courtesy of Corinna Kallich, Potsdam University.

While we mostly stayed in resorts, our only campsite (proper “glamping” with a shower and bathroom in the tent) was close to Lake Magadi, one of the lakes along the rift axis. This saline, alkaline lake gave its name to magadiite, a sodium hydro silicate, that when dehydrated forms chert (i.e. flint). The lake is also mined for its sodium carbonate, known as trona. During the African Humid Period (15,000-5,000 yr ago; Maslin et al. 2014), Lake Magadi was about 40 m higher, a lot fresher and connected to Lake Natron further south. Fun fact from Wikipedia: elephants visit the Magadi Basin to fill up on their own salts supplies as well. From my own experience, I can tell you, it does not taste very good.

 

 

My trusted companions for over a decade did not survive Kenya’s heat and volcanics… Serves me right for not taking them out often enough!

And then there were the hippos, neptunic dikes, dancing Maasai, a boat trip to the hydrothermal vents on Ol Kokwe Island, giraffes outside our cabin, midnight stargazing… too much to capture in one blog post. I had a wonderful time in Kenya exploring the geology, admiring the wildlife and getting to know its people. My only regret? Losing my shoes…

 

 

 

 

References:

Maslin, M. A., Brierly, C. M., Milner, A. M., Shultz, S., Trauth, M. H., Wilson, K. E. (2014). East African climate pulses and early human evolution, Quaternary Science Reviews 101, 1-17.

Ring, U. (2014). The East African Rift System, Austrian Journal of Earth Sciences, 107, 1.

Strecker, M. R., Faccenna, C., Wichura, H., Ballato, P., Olaka, L. A. and Riedl, S. (2018). Tectonics, seismicity, magmatic and sedimentary processes of the East African Rift Valley, Kenya, Kenya Field School Field Guide.

Personal communication with Strecker, M. R., Wichura, H., Olaka, L. A. and Riedl, S.

50 years of plate tectonics: then, now, and beyond

50 years of plate tectonics: then, now, and beyond

Even if we cannot attend all conferences ourselves, your EGU GD Blog Team has reporters that make sure all significant geodynamics events are covered. Today, Marie Bocher, postdoc at the Seismology and Wave Physics group of ETH Zürich, touches upon a recent symposium in Paris that covered one of the most important milestones of geodynamics.

On the 25th and 26th of June, the Parisian Collège de France was celebrating the anniversary of the plate tectonics revolution with a symposium entitled 50 years of plate tectonics: then, now and beyond. For this occasion, the organizers Eric Calais, Anny Cazenave, Claude Jaupart, Serge Lallemand, and Barbara Romanowicz had put together a very impressive list of presenters, starting with Xavier Le Pichon, Jason Morgan, and Dan McKenzie during the first morning!

The very impressive program of the 50 years plate tectonics symposium

Needless to say, it was a blast, and a great occasion to focus on the big picture and reflect on the evolution of Earth sciences within the last 50 years.

Watch it online!

But don’t panic if you missed it: all the presentations are available online now on the Collège de France website. So relax, brew yourself a cup of coffee, and enjoy the symposium from the comfort of your own home 🙂

Xavier Le Pichon
Image courtesy of Martina Ulvrova

Important panel
Image courtesy of Martina Ulvrova

Dietmar Müller
Image courtesy of Marie Bocher

To serve Geoscientists

To serve Geoscientists

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 latest ‘Geodynamics 101’ post, Fabio Crameri, postdoctoral researcher at the Centre for Earth Evolution and Dynamics (CEED), University of Oslo, Norway, joins us again. Continuing from his earlier post on the harmful use of the rainbow colour map, Fabio shares his thoughts on some of the expressions and phrases used in the community that propagate confusion, and how the new “Ocean-Plate Tectonics” concept offers relief for at least some on them. 

Blog author Fabio Crameri – in a shirt that translates from Tamasheq as “deserts” or “empty spaces.” You can expect no empty spaces in your lunchtime conversations after reading this post.

Do you, after reading the title, still wonder what this blog post is all about?
I’ll give you a hint, it’s about the Earth. No, wait, it’s about Earth, or perhaps earth, or isn’t it? And maybe it is a little bit about Moon, I mean the Moon. But also, it is about the Venus, I mean Venus.

It is not confusing, it is just well mixing.

You’ve got it; it is about confusion in the Geosciences. Confusion caused by symbols, letters, words and phrases through misuse, ambiguity or over-interpretation. So, after all, this is a blog post about geo-semantics rather than about culinary excursions.

The Geodynamics community is a diverse group of people with different backgrounds, native languages and customs. This is an attractive breeding ground for semantic related problems, particularly when you throw in some inherent peculiarities of the English language in which we largely operate.

Some use the symbol “a” for years, for years and years.

In line with a widely used standard definition (Holden et al., 2011) – but against the common convention of the Geosciences – the author of this blog post was using the unit of time “a”, or arguably just its symbol, for “years” (and I mean calendar years, neither financial years nor dog years), for years and years. A distinction between discrete points in time and the duration of time is at the heart of this confusion, and indeed has plagued a sub-selection of discussions, working groups and interpretations of the International System of Units (SI; e.g., Christie-Blick, 2012).

Figure 1. An ambiguously phrased situation near the recent end of the Cretaceous.

The symbol “a” for “annus” [year] (“Ma” being the symbol for 106 years, or “mega-annus”) in the Geosciences is most commonly used for a specific time or date in the past as measured from now. For example, “At 65 Ma (which is 65 Myr ago), the dinosaur looked up the sky.” (see Figure 1). On the other hand, “yr” for “year(s)” is commonly used for a duration of time, as in “The Cretaceous period ran for 79 Myr (from approximately 145-66 Ma).”. Other mutations within the convention of time in the Geosciences include “My”, “Myrs”, “Mya” or “m.y.” for “Millions of years”. Thus, the time unit and symbols for multiples of a “year” are likely amongst the most ambiguous expressions in the Earth Sciences, likely because, in contrast to the “second”, a universally applied scientific definition for the “annus” still remains elusive (Thompson and Taylor, 2008).

Such quibbling over semantics may seem petty.

Amongst other examples to cause geodynamic misunderstandings (e.g., Figure 2) might be the misuse of the phrase “stagnant slabs”? Are slabs ever really stagnant? Or are they just being deflected, slowing down, interrupting their downward motion, not directly entering the lower mantle at the same speed and trajectory as before?

Figure 2. One ambiguously phrased geodynamic explanation.

From the literature, you might be forgiven for having the false impression that slabs either fully stagnate around the upper-mantle transition zone or directly and effortlessly penetrate it; they likely do neither of the two (as explained in e.g., in an earlier Geodynamics101 post here).

When these slabs sink, and not temporally stagnate, they induce flow in the surrounding mantle. “Slab suction” is the downward suction induced by the nearby mantle that is set in motion through its dynamic coupling with the slab [e.g., Conrad and Lithgow-Bertelloni 2002]. Or isn’t it? “Slab suction” is also contrarily used as an upward directed force on the slab itself that is induced by the upper plate and might foster low-dipping shallow-depth slab portions in the uppermost upper mantle (unambiguously speaking of which: see again Figure 2).

The downward directed version of “slab suction” can induce “dynamic topography”. Estimates of the maximum amplitude of “dynamic topography” on Earth range from only a few hundred meters up to a few kilometres (see e.g., Molnar et al., 2015 and references therein). Such unusually large ranges of estimates are, as a general rule, a quite solid indicator for an underlying ambiguous definition, or in this case, rather a mix-up of multiple different definitions for the term “dynamic topography”. 

If you’re not confused, you did not pay attention.

As I keep talking about geodynamics, I hope we are all on the same page about subduction, one of the key players: Let’s assume planet XY has one single active subduction zone. Another subduction zone initiates on the opposite side of the same planet. Did “subduction” start once or twice on that planet?

It started once on that planet. Because “subduction” describes a process and not a physical feature; it is nonetheless easily mistaken for a physical feature.

And what about “plate tectonics”, the 50 yr old overarching concept that fascinates us, and for so many of us has become the foundation of our professional lives. Let’s approach this by considering the big question: When did “plate tectonics” start? Serious opinions in the plate tectonics community range from around 850 Ma (Hamilton 2011) all the way back to 4.3 Ga (Hopkins et al., 2008). – Remember what unusually large estimate ranges often indicate? – It is not surprising that the only commonly accepted specific answer everyone seems to agree on currently is that it depends on the very definition of plate tectonics.

So, what is the definition of “plate tectonics”? According to its original formulation, “plate tectonics” is the horizontal relative movement of several discrete and mostly-rigid surface-plate segments (Hess, 1962; see the corresponding visual representation in Figure 3). A generous interpretation of the original formulation might additionally define the plate-interface nature, but that is all.

Figure 3. As long as it is not overinterpreted, there is nothing wrong with the original definition of plate tectonics that solely describes the horizontal motion of several discrete surface plates: It does not discriminate the oceanic from the continental plate, does not consider the important framework of mantle convection, and does not specify the underlying key driver of the surface motion.

Considering the knowledge we have gained about the moving surface plates and their underlying causes and consequences during the past 50 yr, this is an extremely broad definition: As of today, we know that (A) the surface plates with their relative motion are an integral part of whole mantle convection (Turcotte and Oxburgh, 1972), that (B) Earth’s surface has a characteristic bimodal nature due to the partitioning into long-lived continental plates and short-lived oceanic plates (e.g., Wilson, 1966), and that (C) the latter are mainly driven by their very own subducted portions (i.e., all or parts of their slabs; Forsyth and Uyeda, 1975; Conrad and Lithgow-Bertelloni, 2002).

A clear, unambiguous and up-to-date definition for such a crucially important, wide-reaching concept is imperative. It is therefore not surprising that less ambiguous re-definitions have been suggested recently. To avoid propagating confusion, the introduction of alternative phases of plate tectonics that describe the various different possible modes of mantle convection during Earth’s evolution have been cast into the arena (e.g., Sobolev 2016). These include “plate-tectonics phase 1”, in short “PT1”, describing regional, plume-induced plate tectonics (e.g., until 3.0 Ga), “PT2” describing episodic, global plate tectonics (e.g., between 2.5-1.0 Ga), and finally “PT3” describing stable, global plate tectonics (e.g., 1.0-0.0 Ga). Other efforts result in different naming conventions, such as “modern plate tectonics”. However, apart from the fact that “modern” is a time dependent term, “modern plate tectonics” might be a somewhat unfortunate expression, as other planets like Venus might have undergone different, modern styles of plate tectonics than present-day Earth.

Stern and Gerya (2017) then actually suggests an entire update to the definition of “plate tectonics”:

“A theory of global tectonics powered by subduction in which the lithosphere is divided into a mosaic of strong lithospheric plates, which move on and sink into weaker ductile asthenosphere. Three types of localised plate boundaries form the interconnected global network: new oceanic plate material is created by seafloor spreading at mid-ocean ridges, old oceanic lithosphere sinks at subduction zones, and two plates slide past each other along transform faults. The negative buoyancy of old dense oceanic lithosphere, which sinks in subduction zones, mostly powers plate movements.”

Unfortunately, such a re-definition of the same old phrase makes it impossible to know which version of the definition (i.e., the original or the updated one) an author of a subsequent study should be applying and referring to.

In an effort to prevent all of the above problems, we recently introduced an entirely new concept; one that can coexist in harmony with the original definition; one that fully captures the dynamics of the oceanic plate according to our current knowledge. The concept is called “Ocean-Plate Tectonics” or, if you really like the term, “OPT”.

“Ocean-Plate Tectonics is a mode of mantle convection characterised by the autonomous relative movement of multiple discrete, mostly rigid, portions of oceanic plates at the surface, driven and maintained principally by subducted parts of these same plates that are sinking gravitationally back into Earth’s interior and deforming the mantle interior in the process.” – Crameri et al. (2018).

“Ocean-Plate Tectonics” captures not only the relative horizontal surface motion of plates, but crucially also accounts for (A) the importance of the whole mantle framework, (B) the bimodal nature of Earth’s surface plates, and (C) the underlying engine of the surface-plate motion (see Figure 4).

Figure 4. “Ocean-Plate Tectonics”, the unambiguous up-to-date definition describing the dynamics of the oceanic plate that crucially incorporates the bimodal nature of Earth’s surface, the convecting-mantle framework, and the key driver of surface-plate motion (after Crameri et al., 2018).

“Ocean-Plate Tectonics” is here to serve Geoscientists.

The concept of “Ocean-Plate Tectonics” is intended to bring together the extremely diverse research communities, but also the general public, to meet on common, fruitful ground in order to discuss and further develop our understanding of the fascinating dynamics involved in Earth’s plate-mantle system; the unambiguous “Ocean-Plate Tectonics” is here to serve us.

 

Christie-Blick, N., (2011), Geological Time Conventions and Symbols, GSA Today, 22(2), 28-29, doi: 10.1130/G132GW.1

Conrad, C. P., and C. Lithgow-Bertelloni (2002), How mantle slabs drive plate tectonics, Science, 298 (5591), 207–209, doi:10.1126/science.1074161.

Crameri, F., C.P. Conrad, L. Montési, and C.R. Lithgow-Bertelloni (2018), The life of an oceanic plate, Tectonophysics, (in press), doi:10.1016/j.tecto.2018.03.016 .

Forsyth, D., and S. Uyeda (1975), On the relative importance of the driving forces of plate motion*, Geophysical Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society, 43(1), 163–200, doi:10.1111/j.1365-246X.1975.tb00631.x.

Hamilton, W.B. (2011), Plate tectonics began in Neoproterozoic time, and plumes from deep mantle have never operated, Lithos, 123, 1–20, doi:10.1016/j.lithos.2010.12.007.

Hess, H.H. (1962), History of ocean basins, Petrologic studies, 4, 599–620.

Holden N.E., M.L. Bonardi, P. De Bièvre, P.R. Renne and I.M. Villa (2011), IUPAC-IUGS common definition and convention on the use of the year as a derived unit of time (IUPAC Recommendations 2011, Pure Appl. Chem., Vol. 83, No. 5, pp. 1159–1162, 2011. doi:10.1351/PAC-REC-09-01-22

Hopkins M., T.M. Harrison, C.E. Manning (2008), Low heat flow inferred from >4 Gyr zircons suggests Hadean plate boundary interactions, Nature, 456, 493–96, doi:10.1038/nature07465.

Molnar, P., P. C. England, and C. H. Jones (2015), Mantle dynamics, isostasy, and the support of high terrain. J. Geophys. Res. Solid Earth, 120, 1932–1957. doi: 10.1002/2014JB011724.

Sobolev, S.V. (2016), Plate Tectonics Initiation as Running Hurdles, Workshop on the Origin and Evolution of Plate Tectonics abstract, Ascona, Switzerland, http://jupiter.ethz.ch/~plates/.

Stern, R.J. and T.V. Gerya (2017), Subduction initiation in nature and models: A review, Tectonophysics, doi:10.1016/j.tecto.2017.10.014

Thompson, A., and B.N. Taylor (2008), Guide for the Use of the International System of Units (SI) NIST Special Publication 811, 2008 Edition (version 3.2). [Online] Available: http://physics.nist.gov/SP811 [2018, 05 02]. National Institute of Standards and Technology, Gaithersburg, MD.

Turcotte, D. L., and E. Oxburgh (1972), Mantle convection and the new global tectonics, Annual Review of Fluid Mechanics, 4 (1), 33–66.

Wilson, T. (1966), Did the Atlantic close and then re-open?, Nature, 211(5050), 676–681, doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/211676a0

Finding the forces in continental rifting

Finding the forces in continental rifting

Luke Mondy

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 latest ‘Geodynamics 101’ post, PhD candidate Luke Mondy from the EarthByte Group at the University of Sydney blogs about some impressively high-resolution numerical models of ‘rotational rifting,’ and the role of gravity. Luke also shares a bit about the journey behind this work, which recently appeared in Geology.

 

In geodynamic modelling, we’re always thinking about forces. It’s a balancing act of plate driving forces potentially interacting with the upwelling mantle, or maybe sediment loading, or thermal relaxation… the list goes on.

Figure 1: A summary of the forces interacting during continental rifting, from Brune, 2018.

But the thing that underpins all of these forces, fundamentally, is our favourite but oft forgotten force: gravity. Here, I’ll tell the story of investigating a numerical model of continental rifting and discovering – or rather, rediscovering – the importance of gravity as a fundamental force in driving Earth dynamics.

How it started – a side project!

A few years ago, my colleagues and I were granted access to not just one, but two, big supercomputers in Australia: Raijin, and Magnus. Both were brand new and raring to go – but we needed something big to test them out on. At the time, 3D geodynamic models were typically limited to quite low resolution, since they can be so computationally demanding, but since we had access to this new power, we decided to see how far we could push the computers to address a fundamentally 3D problem.

2D vs 3D

Historically, subduction and rifting have been ideal settings to model as they can be constrained to two dimensions while still retaining most of their characteristic properties.

Figure 2. A 2D subduction model. Despite being ‘only’ two dimensions, the fundamental and interesting aspects of the problem are still captured by the model. Figure from Rey et al., 2014.

However, as tremendously useful as these models have been, many interesting problems in geodynamics are fundamentally three dimensional. The obvious example is global mantle convection, but we are starting to see more and more papers addressing both rifting and subduction problems that require 3D contexts, for example: continental accretion (Moresi et al., 2014), metamorphic core complex formation (Rey et al., 2017), or oblique rifting (Brune et al., 2012).

Typically when we model a rift in 2D, the dimensionality implies that we are looking at orthogonal rifting – that the plates move away from each other perpendicular to the rift axis. Since 2D models cannot account for forces in the third dimension, they are only suitable for when the applied tectonic forces pull within the plane of the model – that is, when the 2D model lies along a small circle of an Euler pole.

Euler poles have another interesting geometric property – the velocity of extension between two plates changes as we move closer or further away from the Euler pole: zero velocity at the pole itself, and fastest at the equator to the pole (Lundin et al., 2014).

Figure 3. Left: From Lundin et. al. (2014), the figure shows the geometric relationship of increasing rifting velocity as the distance from the pole increases. Right: the same relationship graphed out, showing the cosine curve (Kearey et.al. 2009).

This leads to differing extension velocities along the length of the rift axis. Extension velocities are a huge control on the resulting geodynamics (e.g., Buck et al., 1999). Employing a series of 2D models along a rift axis (Brune et al., 2014) has been used to show how these dynamics change, but misses out on the three-dimensionality of the problem – how do these differing and diachronous dynamics interact with each along other the rift margin as it forms?

Rotational Rifting

We decided to attempt to model this sort of rifting, as we termed it “rotational rifting”. Essentially we linked up the 2D slices along the rift axis into one big 3D model – so that we have slow extension towards the Euler pole, and fast extension away from it.

To do this, we ended up using the code Underworld (at the time version 1.8 – but their 2.0 version is the best place to start!), and a framework developed inside the EarthByte group at the University of Sydney called the ‘Lithospheric Modelling Recipe’, or LMR.

 

Figure 4. Map view of the two experiments. Arrows show the velocity boundary conditions applied. Note they are perpendicular to the model domain – we thought long and hard about this choice, and explain it fully in the Data Repository.

Using the LMR, we set up two 3D experiments: both are 1000 km by 500 km along the surface, and 180 km deep. The ‘orthogonal’ experiment is modelled at the equator to the pole – so the velocities along the walls are the same all the way along the rift axis. The ‘rotational’ experiment is very close to the Euler pole (where the rate of extension velocity change is greatest), from 89 degrees to 79 degrees (90 degrees being the Euler pole), which gives an imposed velocity at the slow end (89 degrees) of 0.5 cm/yr and at the fast end (79 degrees) 5.0 cm/yr.

 

Since we wanted to stress test the supercomputers, we ran these experiments at just under 2 km grid resolution (256 x 512 x 96). This meant each experiment ended up using about 2.5 billion particles to track the materials! The 2 km grid size is an important milestone – to properly resolve faulting, sub-2 km grid sizes are required (Gerya, 2009).

The results!

So we ran the experiments, and compared the results! To give a broad overview of what we found, here’s a nice animation:

Figure 5. Top: Animation showing the orthogonal experiment from a south-west perspective (with the Euler pole being the ‘north’ pole). The light grey layers show the upper crust, dark grey the lower crust. Half of the crust has been removed to show the lithospheric mantle topography. The blue to the white colours show the lithospheric mantle temperature, and from white to red shows the asthenospheric temperature. Bottom: As above but for the rotational experiment. Notice that the asthenospheric dome migrates along the rift towards the Euler pole.

What to do now?

Cool looking experiments, of course! The supercomputers had been able to handle the serious load we put on them (it took about 2 weeks per experiment, on ~800 cpus), so that part of the project was a success. But what about the experiments themselves – did switching to 3D actually tell us anything useful?

What we expected…

The things we expected were there. The orthogonal experiment behaved identically to a 2D model. For the rotational experiment, we found the style of faulting changed and evolved along the rift axis, and seemed to match up nicely with the 2D work about differing extension rates. We were able to identify phases of rifting via strain patterns, which were similar to those described by Lavier and Manatschal (2006), and seemed to match the outputs of the series of 2D models along a rift axis.

Figure 6. Map view of strain-rate of the rotational experiment through time. The phases (1 through 4, representing different modes of deformation) migrate along the rift towards the Euler pole.

What we didn’t expect…

Almost on a whim, we decided to start looking into the tectonic regime. Using the visualization program Paraview, we calculated the eigenvectors of the deviatoric stress and assigned a tectonic regime (blue for extension, red for compression, green for strike-slip, and white for undetermined), following a similar scheme to the World stress map (Zoback, 1992). Apologies to colour blind folk!

Here’s what a selected section of the orthogonal experiment surface looks like through time:

Figure 7. The stress regimes at the surface of the orthogonal experiment (clipped to y = ~400 to ~600 km).

Not really that surprising – we found mostly extension everywhere, with a bit of compression when the central graben sinks down and gets squeezed. However, it was a little bit surprising to see the compression come back on the rift flanks.

But when we applied the same technique to the rotational experiment, we found this on the surface:

Figure 8. The stress regimes at the surface of the rotational experiment. The three numbers at the top represent the total extension at y = 0 km, 500 km, and 1000 km respectively.

Now all of a sudden we’re seeing strike-slip stress regimes in different areas of the experiment!

The above figures displaying the stress in the experiments so far have been of the surface – where one of the principal stress axes must be vertical – but our colouring technique does not limit us to just the surface. We noticed when looking at cross-sections that the lithospheric mantle was also showing unexpected stress regimes!

Figure 9. Slices at y = 500 km across the rift axis (right in the middle). Coloured areas show where the plunge of one principal stress axis is >60 degrees. Both experiments have the same applied extension velocity at y = 500 km, and so total extension is equivalent between experiments.

In most of the lithosphere, the strain rate is still very small, not enough to notice much deformation (1e-16 to 1e-18 1/s). But a few puzzling questions were raised: why do we see compressional tectonic regimes in the orthogonal experiment; and why do we also see strike-slip regimes in the rotational experiment?

Gravitational Potential Energy (GPE)

It quickly became apparent that these stress changes were related to the upwelling asthenosphere, as the switch between regimes was well timed to when the asthenosphere would approach the Moho – about 40 km depth. This gave us the hint that perhaps buoyancy forces were at play. We used Paraview again to calculate the gravitational potential energy at each point on the surface (taking into account all the temperature dependent densities, detailed topography, and so on), and produced these maps:

Figure 10. A time series showing the gravitational potential energy (GPE) at each point on the surface of the rotational experiment. Only half the surface is shown because it is symmetrical. The small triangle notch is where we determined the rift tip to be located (where 1/(beta factor) < 0.2).

What we saw confirmed our suspicions – the rise of the asthenospheric dome induces a gravitational force that radiates outwards. The juxtaposition of the hot, yet still quite heavy, asthenospheric material, next to practically unthinned crust on both the rift flanks and ahead of the rift tip, produces a significant force.

But why the switch to compression or strike-slip tectonic regimes in an otherwise extensional setting? In the case of the orthogonal model, the force (aka the difference in GPE) is perpendicular to the rift axis, since the dome rises synchronously along the axis. When this force overcomes the far-field tectonic force (essentially the force required to drive our experiment boundary conditions), the stress regime changes from extension to compression.

However, in the rotational experiment, the dome is larger the further away from the Euler pole, and so instead the gravitational force radiates outwards from the dome. Now the stress in the lithospheric mantle has to deal with not only the force induced from the upwelling asthenosphere right next to it, but also from along the rift axis (have a look at the topography of the lithospheric mantle in Fig. 5). These combined forces end up rotating the principal stresses such that sigma_2 stands vertical and a strike-slip regime is generated.

We also see the gravitational force manifest in other ways. Looking at the along axis flow in the asthenosphere, the experiment initially predicts a suction force towards the rapidly opening end of the model (away from the Euler pole), similar to Koopmann et al. (2014). But once the dome is formed, we see a reversal of this flow, back towards the Euler pole, driven by gravitational collapse. This flow appears to apply a strong stress to the crust surrounding the dome, reaching upwards of 50 MPa in some places.

Figure 11. A: The direction of flow at the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary in the centre of the rift. Early in the experiment, we see suction towards the fast end of the rift, while later in the experiment, we see a return flow. The dashed line shows the flow after the tectonic boundary conditions have been removed. B,C: cross-sections showing stress and velocity arrows from the experiment just after the tectonic boundary conditions have been removed.

How do we know it’s gravity?

To test this idea further, we ran some additional experiments. First, we let the rotational experiment run for about 3.6 Million years, and then ‘stopped’ the tectonics (changed the side velocity boundary conditions to 0 cm/yr) – leaving gravity as the only driving force. We saw that the return flow towards the Euler pole was still present (though reduced). By running some more rotational experiments with either doubled or halved Euler pole rotational rate, we saw that the initial suction magnitude correlates with the change in opening velocity, but the return flow to the Euler pole is almost identical, giving further evidence that this is gravity driven.

What about the real world?

We numerical modellers love to stay in the world of numbers – but alas sometime we must get our hands dirty and look at the real world – just to make sure our models actually tell us something useful!

Despite our slightly backwards methodology (model first, check nature second), it did give us an advantage: our experiments were producing predictions for us to go and test. We had our hypothesis – now to see if it could be validated.

So we went out and looked for examples of rifting near an Euler pole, and the two most notable we found were in the Woodlark Basin, Papua New Guinea, and the Galapagos Rise in the Pacific. Despite the ‘complications’ of the natural world (things like sediment loading, pre-existing weakness in the crust, etc. – things that get your hands dirty), we found a striking first order relationship between the earthquake focal mechanisms present in both areas, and what our experiments predicted:

Figure 12. Top: the Woodlark Basin, PNG. Bottom: the Galapagos Rise. Both show earthquake focal mechanisms, coloured the same way as our experiments: blue for extension, red for compression, and green for strike-slip.

Furthermore, much work has been done investigating the Hess deep, a depression that sits ahead of the rift tip in the Galapagos. We found in our rotational experiment a similar ‘deep’ that moves ahead of the rift tip through time, giving us greater confidence in our experimental predictions.

Takeaways

There are a few things I’ve taken away from this experience. The first is that it’s important to remember the fundamentals. I’ve found that, generally, geodynamicists initially think about the force-balances going on in a particular setting, but gravity was staring me in the face for a while before I understood its critical role.

The second take-away was that exploratory modelling – playing around with experiments just for fun – is a great thing to do. Probably most of us do this anyway as part of the day-to-day activities, but putting aside some time to think about what sort of things to try out allowed us to find something really interesting. Furthermore, we then had a whole host of predictions we could go out and look for, rather than trying to tweak out experiment parameters to match something we already had found.

Finally, the 3D revolution we’re going through at the moment is exciting! Now that there are computers available to us that are able to run these enormous calculations, it gives us a chance to explore these fundamental problems in a new way and hopefully learn something about the world!

If you would like to checkout our paper, you can see it here. We made all of our input files open-source (and the code Underworld is already open-source), so please check them out too!

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