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The known unknowns – the outstanding 49 questions in Earth sciences (Part III)

3 Oct

We continue exploring the biggest conundrums in Earth sciences in this third post of the known unknowns. In the two previous instalments of the series we’ve discovered what the major questions still to be answered about the early days of planet Earth and its inner workings are. We now move onto the planet’s surface. The advent of plate tectonic theory, arguably one of the biggest advancements in the geosciences of the past century, has allowed us to far better understand how continents are built and the hazards associated with moving plates. Nevertheless, there is still much we do not comprehend, opening the door for hugely exciting and innovative research opportunities.

Tectonic-plate motion and deformation

A cross section illustrating the main types of plate boundaries  (Image Source; WikimediaCommons; Author: Jose F. Vigil. USGS, http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/earthq1/plate.html)

A cross section illustrating the main types of plate boundaries (Image Source: WikimediaCommons; Author: Jose F. Vigil. USGS, http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/earthq1/plate.html)

  1. What is the relative importance of the forces driving plate tectonics: slab pull, slab suction, mantle drag, and ridge push? (e.g., Conrad & Lithgow-Bertelloni,JGR, 2004; Negredo et al., GRL, 2004, vs. van Benthem & Govers, JGR, 2010). What is the force balance and the geochemical cycle in subduction zones? (Emry et al., JGR, 2014) How much water (and how deep) penetrates into the mantle? (Ranero et al., Nature 2003) How much subcontinental erosion takes place under subduction areas? (Ranero et al.,Nature, 2000)
  2. What happens after the collision of two continents? Does continental collision diminish the rate of plate subduction, as suggested by the slab-pull paradigm? (Alvarez, EPSL, 2010)  How frequent are the processes of mantle delamination and slab break-off? What determines their occurrence? (Magni et al., GRL, 2013; Durezt & Gerya, Tectonoph., 2013)
  3. Why are orogens curved when seen from space? (Weil & Sussman, 2004, GSASP 383)
  4. How well do different approaches to establish plate motion compare? How does the long-term deformation derived from paleomagnetism and structural geology link quantitatively to the present-day motions derived from GPS and from neotectonic patterns of crustal deformation? (Calais et al., EPSL, 2003) How do these last two relate to each other? (Wang et al., Nature, 2012) Can we learn from regional structure of the crust/lithosphere from that link (or viceversa)?
  5. Are plate interiors moving in steady-state linear motion? How rigid are these and why/when did they deform? (Davis et al., Nature, 2005, and Wernicke & Davis, Seismological Research Letters, 2010).
  6. How is relative motion between continents accommodated in diffuse plate boundaries? (eg., the Iberian/African plate boundary). What determines the (a)seismicity of a plate contact?
  7. How/when does deformation propagate from the plate boundaries into plate interiors? (e.g., Cloetingh et al.,QSR, 2005)
  8. What is the rheological stratification of the lithosphere: like a jelly sandwich? Or rather like a creme brulée? (Burov & Watts, GSA Today, 2006). Is the lower crust ductile? Is strength concentrated at the uppermost mantle? Or just the other way around? (e.g., McKenzie et al., 2000, JGR; Jackson, GSA Today, Handy & Brun, EPSL, 2004; and a nice blog post).
  9. Does the climate-controlled erosion and surface transport of sediment modify the patterns of tectonic deformation? Does vigorous erosion cause localized deformation in the core of mountain belts and prevent the propagation of tectonic shortening into the undeformed forelands? Does the deposition of sediment on the flank of mountains stop the frontal advance of the orogen? Is there field evidence for these effects predicted from computer models? (Philip Allen’s blog) (Willett, JGR,1999,Whipple, Nature, 2009Garcia-Castellanos, EPSL, 2007)

    Earthquake damage to the Alexandia Square building in Napa, California (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Author: Jim Heaphy; User: Cullen328).

    Earthquake damage to the Alexandia Square building in Napa, California (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, Author: Jim Heaphy; User: Cullen328).

  10. Can earthquakes be predicted? (Heki, 2011, GRLFreed, 2012, Nat.Geosc.). How far away can they be mechanically triggered? (Tibi et al., Nature, 2003). Little is known about how faults form and when do they reactivate, and even worse, there seems to be no clear pathway as to solve this problem in the near future. Unexpected breakthroughs needed.
  11. How can the prediction of volcanic eruptions be improved? What determines the rates of magma accumulation in the chamber and what mechanisms make magmas eruptible? See for example this article on the Yellowstone Caldera  and this paper regarding volcanic uplift.
  12. How much of the Earth’s surface topography is dynamically sustained by the flow in the mantle? In many regions, the elevation of the continents does not match the predictions from the classical principle of isostasy for the Earth’s outer rigid layer (the lithosphere). This deviation is known as dynamic topography, by opposition to isostatic topography. But what are the mechanisms responsible? Can we learn about the mantle dynamics by estimating dynamic topography? (Braun, Nature Geoscience, 2010). Can the hidden loads needed to explain the accumulation of sediment next to orogens (foreland basins) be linked to these dynamic forces? (Busby & Azor, 2012).
  13. How do land-forming processes react to climate change at a variety of scales, ranging from the Milankovitch cycles to the late Cenozoic cooling of the Earth? Is there a feedback from erosion into climate at these time scales, through the Carbon cycle and the weathering of silicates, for example? What is the role of the surface uplift and erosion of Tibet on the drawdown of atmospheric CO2 over the Cenozoic? (Garzione, Geology, 2008)

 

Have you been enjoying the series so far? Let us know what you think in the comments section below, particularly if you think we’ve missed any fundamental questions!

In the second to last post in the series we will outline the top outstanding research questions with regards to the Earth’s surface: Earth’s landscape history and present environment.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer, based on the article previously posted on RetosTerricolas by Daniel Garcia-Castellanos, researcher at ICTJA-CSIC, Barcelona

Imaggeo on Mondays: Marble outcrops

29 Sep

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays image was taken by Prof. Konstantinos Kourtidis, in Alykes, along the southern coast of Thassos island, where he photographed the beautifully white marbles that outcrop along the coastline. The Greek Island of Thassos is located in northeastern Greece, close to the coast of Thrace in the Aegean Sea, although geographically it belongs to the Macedonia region. There is geological evidence to suggest that at one time, the island was joined to the mainland.

Marble Outcrops. (Credit: Konstantinos Kourtidis via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Marble Outcrops. (Credit: Konstantinos Kourtidis via imaggeo.egu.eu)

“The island is formed of alternating marbles, gneisses and schists” explains Konstantinos, “in the southern Thassos area, where this image was taken, Palaeozoic (around 400 million years in age) and Mesozoic metamorphosed rocks of the Rhodopi Massif and more recent sedimentary Miocene formations (around 25 million years old) are exposed.” The sediments in this area are dominated by conglomerates, sandstones and argillaceous sands.

Banded iron formations, also known as BIFs, are repeated thin layers of iron-rich material which are alternated with shales and/or silica rich cherts. There are numerous occurrences of BIFs across Thassos island and this is interesting because BIFs are typical sediments of the Precambrian rock record and can indicate the presence of rocks which are in excess of 3 billion years old! It is unusual to find BIFs in the younger rocks record. On Thassos Island their formation is associated with changes in the depositional environment and climate.

During the formation of BIFs, volcano-sedimentary units become heavily mineralised and rich in iron and manganese oxides. In addition the island has dense accumulations of zinc and lead. As a result there is a long mining history on Thassos, dating back to 13,000 BC. The marbles seen in today’s Imaggeo on Mondays image belong to an ancient mine at sea level which was “exploited given the excellent quality of the marbles” states Konstantinos. The stone has been used in art projects, monuments and the building of numerous ancient temples.

Ancient Marble Quarry in Thassos, Eastern Macedonia, Greece. (Credit: Konstantinos Kourtidis via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Ancient marble quarry in Thassos, Eastern Macedonia, Greece. (Credit: Ioannis Daglis via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Given the islands rich archeological and geological heritage the Greek Institute of Geology and Mineral Exploration (IGME) has produced a geological guide for the southern part of the island, which also includes 4 geotrails and is available online.

The known unknowns – the outstanding 49 questions in Earth Sciences (Part II)

19 Sep

Here is the second instalment in our series covering the biggest unknowns in the Geosciences.

Last week we explored what it is about the Earth’s origin that still remains unclear and this week we probe the Earth’s deep interior. Unlike in Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth, there are no volcanic tubes we can climb down which will allow us to discover the inner workings of our Planet. Direct understanding can only be gained from rock samples; our inability to collect those at depths in excess of 12 km means direct observations are restricted to the Crust. How do we know what happens far down below? We have to rely heavily on indirect measurements such as seismic wave tomography, together with geodynamic and petrological modelling. But, really, how confident can we be, considering we can’t really ‘see’ into the centre of the Earth, that our hypotheses are correct? Only this week, new research casts doubts over the long established theory that hot spot volcanism is fed by deep rooted mantle plumes. This highlights just how important it is to continue efforts to push our understanding and find new and innovative ways to journey into the centre of the Earth.

The Earth’s Interior

Tectonic plates (Credit: USGS, Department of the Interior/USGS)

Tectonic plates (Credit: USGS, Department of the Interior/USGS)

  1. What are the chemical composition and mechanical properties of rocks in the Earth’s mantle at the extreme pressure and temperature they undergo? As planets age and cool off, their internal and surface processes coevolve, chemically and mechanically, shaping in turn the atmospheric composition. Therefore this question has direct implications for our understanding of the environmental evolution of the Earth. (Kerr, 2005, Science)
  2. What are the dynamic processes in the Earth interior that accommodate and fuel plate tectonics? As seismometers spread more evenly over the planet’s surface, the seismic imaging of the interior will rapidly improve, providing a detailed distribution of seismic wave velocity. Simultaneously, lab-based mineral physics must better constrain what these mechanical wave velocities tell us about the hot, deep rocks of uncertain composition in the mantle. Only then will computer models be able to test the currently proposed geodynamic models by trying to quantitatively fit those data with other geophysical observations such as gravity variations. (Kerr, 2005, Science)
  3. How does the Earth’s magnetic field work? Sedimentary and volcanic rocks have recorded changes of the magnetic field throughout the evolution of the Earth. What causes the sudden reversals of the paleomagnetic field? What caused the long periods (more than 10 Myr) with no magnetic inversions (superchrons)? How does the geomagnetic field link to the iron convection properties at the deep Earth? Or inversely, what can we learn about the mechanical behavior of the materials at those depths from the geomagnetic field? (see this nature paper for further context). Are the magnetic reversals too fast to be related to core dynamics? (Biggin et al., 2012, Nature Geoscience). Could their frequency be related to the distribution of tectonic plates? (Pétrélis et al., 2011, GRL). What causes superchrons (periods without reversals)? Something internal within the core, or is it induced externally by the mantle/subducting slabs? Was the geomagnetic field always dipolar, or was it more asymmetric in the past, as suggested in by Biggin et al., (2012)?

    Magnetosphere rendition (Credit: Wikimedia Commons user NASA  http://sec.gsfc.nasa.gov/popscise.jpg)

    Magnetosphere rendition (Credit: Wikimedia Commons user NASA http://sec.gsfc.nasa.gov/popscise.jpg)

  4. What makes the magnetic field change between reversals? What is the history of and what controls the excursions of the rotation pole relative to the surface geography, known as true polar wander? (Creveling et al., 2012, Nature).
  5. How do hotspots come about? Are intraplate hotspots really made by deep sources of uprising materials (mantle plumes) coming from the deepest Earth’s mantle? Or can they be explained by shallower convection? (e.g Morgan, 1971, Nature and Fouch, 2012, Geology)
  6. What are the properties of deep rocks? How can we translate the heterogeneity in density, seismic wave velocity, and electromagnetic resistivity presently observed in the mantle and the lithosphere into variations of the mineralogical composition? And how do these measures relate to the dynamics of the Earth and to key mechanical properties such as the viscosity?  (Faccenna & Becker, 210, Nature)]
  7. What are the causes for and massive flood basalts such as the Columbia River Basalts?

    Distribution of the World’s Large Igneous Provinces (Source: Wikimedia Commons, user: USGS)

    Distribution of the World’s Large Igneous Provinces (Source: Wikimedia Commons, user: USGS)

Do you think these seven questions cover the fundamental issues yet to be addressed when it comes to the Earth’s deep interior? If you’d like to add to this discussion, please feel free to voice your opinions using the comments section below, we really would love to hear from you!

Enjoyed these seven questions? Why not explore the first post in the series?

Coming up next: Plate tectonics and deformation.

 

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer, based on the article previously posted on RetosTerricolas by Daniel Garcia-Castellanos, researcher at CSIC, Barcelona

Imaggeo on Mondays: Spectacular splatter – the marvels of a mud volcano

28 Jul

Mud volcanoes, unlike many others, do not extrude lava. Instead, they release glutinous bubbling brown slurry of mineral-rich water and sediment. They range in size from several kilometres across, to less than a metre – the little ones are known as mud pots, reflecting their diminutive nature. The world’s largest, though, is Lusi: a mud volcano in East Java that released an astonishing 180,000 cubic metres of fluid each day during the peak of its 2006 eruption. It’s likely to continue erupting for another 26 years!

Much of the gas that bubbles up through these muddy pools is methane, though the exact mix of gasses varies from site to site and is tied to other geological activity in the region, with those close to igneous volcanoes often releasing less methane than those associated with clathrate deposits. Small bubbles of gas can coalesce to form a much larger one, which, on reaching the surface, bursts and sends flecks of clayey fluid asunder, just as they do here:

The sediment-rich spatter from a bubbling mud volcano. (Credit: Tobias Heckmann via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The sediment-rich spatter from a bubbling mud volcano. (Credit: Tobias Heckmann via imaggeo.egu.eu)

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.

 

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