BREAKING NEWS: A New Powerful Study Affirms Battros 2012 Equation

When Earth overheats, it finds its way to maintain its ambient temperature. In very much the same way humans sweat through our pores to cool off, in like manner, Earth sweats by producing increased mantle plume activity.

New research released this week confirms increased heat from Earth’s core strengthens the flow viscous material (liquefied rock) upward through the mantle having an effect on tectonic plates, including seamounts which in-turn heats the oceans.

For decades, scientists have theorized that the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates is driven largely by negative buoyancy created as they cool. New research, however, shows plate dynamics are driven significantly by the additional force of heat drawn from the Earth’s core.

The new findings also challenge the theory that underwater mountain ranges known as mid-ocean ridges are passive boundaries between moving plates. The findings show the East Pacific Rise, the Earth’s dominant mid-ocean ridge, is dynamic as heat is transferred.

David B. Rowley, professor of geophysical sciences at the University of Chicago, and fellow researchers came to the conclusions by combining observations of the East Pacific Rise with insights from modeling of the mantle flow there. The findings were published Dec. 23 in Science Advances.

“We see strong support for significant deep mantle contributions of heat-to-plate dynamics in the Pacific hemisphere,” said Rowley, lead author of the paper. “Heat from the base of the mantle contributes significantly to the strength of the flow of heat in the mantle and to the resultant plate tectonics.”

The researchers estimate up to approximately 50 percent of plate dynamics are driven by heat from the Earth’s core and as much as 20 terawatts of heat flow between the core and the mantle.

Unlike most other mid-ocean ridges, the East Pacific Rise as a whole has not moved east-west for 50 to 80 million years, even as parts of it have been spreading asymmetrically. These dynamics cannot be explained solely by the subduction of a process whereby one plate moves under another or sinks. Researchers in the new findings attribute the phenomena to buoyancy created by heat arising from deep in the Earth’s interior.

“The East Pacific Rise is stable because the flow arising from the deep mantle has captured it,” Rowley said. “This stability is directly linked to and controlled by mantle upwelling,” or the release of heat from Earth’s core through the mantle to the surface.

The Mid-Atlantic Ridge, particularly in the South Atlantic, also may have direct coupling with deep mantle flow, he added.

“The consequences of this research are very important for all scientists working on the dynamics of the Earth, including plate tectonics, seismic activity and volcanism,” said Jean Braun of the German Research Centre for Geosciences, who was not involved in the research.

The forces at work

Convection, or the flow of mantle material transporting heat, drives plate tectonics. As envisioned in the current research, heating at the base of the mantle reduces the density of the material, giving it buoyancy and causing it to rise through the mantle and couple with the overlying plates adjacent to the East Pacific Rise. The deep mantle-derived buoyancy, together with plate cooling at the surface, creates negative buoyancy that together explain the observations along the East Pacific Rise and surrounding Pacific subduction zones.

A debate about the origin of the driving forces of plate tectonics dates back to the early 1970s. Scientists have asked: Does the buoyancy that drives plates primarily derive from plate cooling at the surface, analogous with cooling and overturning of lakes in the winter? Or, is there also a source of positive buoyancy arising from heat at the base of the mantle associated with heat extracted from the core and, if so, how much does it contribute to plate motions? The latter theory is analogous to cooking oatmeal: Heat at the bottom causes the oatmeal to rise, and heat loss along the top surface cools the oatmeal, causing it to sink.

Until now, most assessments have favored the first scenario, with little or no contribution from buoyancy arising from heat at the base. The new findings suggest that the second scenario is required to account for the observations, and that there is an approximately equal contribution from both sources of the buoyancy driving the plates, at least in the Pacific basin.

“Based on our models of mantle convection, the mantle may be removing as much as half of Earth’s total convective heat budget from the core,” Rowley said.

Much work has been performed over the past four decades to represent mantle convection by computer simulation. Now the models will have to be revised to account for mantle upwelling, according to the researchers.

“The implication of our work is that textbooks will need to be rewritten,” Rowley said.

The research could have broader implications for understanding the formation of the Earth, Braun said. “It has important consequences for the thermal budget of the Earth and the so-called ‘secular cooling’ of the core. If heat coming from the core is more important than we thought, this implies that the total heat originally stored in the core is much larger than we thought.

“Also, the magnetic field of the Earth is generated by flow in the liquid core, so the findings of Rowley and co-authors are likely to have implications for our understanding of the existence, character and amplitude of the Earth’s magnetic field and its evolution through geological time,” Braun added.

Breakup of Supercontinent Cooled Mantle and Thinned Crust

The thinning is related to the cooling of Earth’s interior prompted by the splitting of the supercontinent Pangaea, which broke up into the continents that we have today, said Harm Van Avendonk, the lead author of the study and a senior research scientist at The University of Texas Institute for Geophysics. The findings, published in Nature Geosciences on Dec. 12, shed light on how mantle plumes and plate tectonics has influenced the cooling of the Earth’s mantle throughout geologic history.

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The mantle is the very hot, but mostly solid, layer of rock between the Earth’s crust and core. Magma from the mantle forms oceanic crust when it rises from the mantle to the surface at spreading centers and cools into the rock that forms the very bottom of the seafloor. The Earth’s mantle has been cooling almost from its creation.

“It’s important to note the Earth seems to be cooling a lot faster now than it has been over its lifetime,” Van Avendonk said. “The current rate of mantle plumes allows Earth to cool much more efficiently than it did in the past.”

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The research that led to the connection between the splitting of the supercontinent and crust thickness started when Van Avendock and Ph.D. student Jennifer Harding, a study co-author, noticed an unexpected trend when studying existing data from young and old seafloor. They analyzed 234 measurements of crustal thickness from around the world and found that, on a global scale, the oldest ocean crust examined – 170 million year old rock created in the Jurassic – is about one mile thicker than the crust that’s being produced today.

The link between crust thickness and age prompted two possible explanations – both related to the fact that hotter mantle tends to make more magma. Mantle plumes could have thickened the old crust by covering it in layers of lava at a later time. Or, the mantle was hotter in the Jurassic than it is now.

The finding that splitting up Pangea cooled the mantle is important because it gives a more nuanced view of the mantle temperature that influences tectonics on Earth.

Why Are There Volcanoes Where They Shouldn’t Be?

Easy Answer: Mantle Plumes….But here is the long winded answer served up by this latest find: Madagascar, the big island off the east coast of Africa with the lemurs and baobabs, is thought to be sitting in the middle of an old tectonic plate, and so, by the rules of plate tectonics, should be tectonically quiet: few earthquakes and no volcanoes.

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But it’s not. The island has been away from tectonic action for the past 80 million years, said Martin Pratt, research scientist in earth and planetary sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, yet it experiences about 500 earthquakes per year.

The island also has volcanoes that have been active within the recent geologic past. “Having active volcanoes in Madagascar is like having erupting volcanoes in St. Louis,” said Michael Wysession, professor of earth and planetary sciences. “You have to ask yourself, ‘What are they doing there?'”

Since this part of the world is geologically complex, there are lots of interesting possible explanations for the volcanoes. To figure it out, the geologists needed to be able to examine not just the island’s accessible surface, but also what lies beneath the rigid crust and upper mantle.

To image Earth’s interior, geologists use a technique called seismic tomography that is similar to the medical CT scan, probing the earth’s stricture with seismic waves from distant earthquakes and ambient noise.

But remote and politically unstable Madagascar was largely unexplored by seismic methods until recently. Starting in 2010, however, three groups, including one led by Washington University seismologists Wysession and Doug Wiens, began to deploy seismic arrays on Madagascar, on nearby islands in the Mozambique channel (between the island and Africa), and on the ocean floor east of Madagascar.

In an article published online Nov. 22 in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, the Washington University scientists report that they found three areas of hot rock within the mantle beneath three separate volcanic provinces on the island. They also see signs that the bottom of the lithosphere beneath the central volcanic province has peeled off. As the cold rock sank into the mantle, hotter rock flowed around it to the center and the south of the island. The crust, unburdened, bobbed higher. The northern volcanic province, meanwhile, probably taps a different heat source.

A busted-up chunk of an ancient continent

Madagascar, originally part of the ancient continent Gondwana, was formed in two steps. The island, together with India, pulled away from Africa 150 million years ago, stretching and thinning the crust on the island’s west coast before it finally snapped off. The thinned crust on the west coast sagged and the dips filled with sediments, forming deep basins of sedimentary rocks.

Then, about 90 million years ago, when the mini-continent migrated over the Marion hotspot (a mantle plume that now lies beneath the Antarctic plate to the south), brief but voluminous eruptions covered the island in lava. The blast of heat is thought to have cracked the overriding continent into two parts, Madagascar and India, which scraped past the east coast of Madagascar on its way north toward Asia, leaving a very straight coastline there.

But the volcanism in the central, northern, and southern provinces are much younger than the basaltic remains of the 90-million-year-old eruption still found around the perimeter of Madagascar. So the question was: Where did they come from?

Lead-author Pratt used three complementary methods to analyze surface waves (seismic waves trapped near Earth’s surface), which are created by distant earthquakes and from sources of seismic noise, such as ocean storms.

“His approach is clever and creative,” Wysession said. “He’s taken three really different data sets, some good at high frequencies that give you better resolution at shallow depths, and some better at low frequencies that give you better resolution at greater depths, and he’s put them all together. It’s a bit like combining an X-ray, an MRI and a CT scan to get a clearer image.”

The images show three low-velocity seismic anomalies corresponding to the upwelling of hotter mantle rock along the island’s backbone.

“We knew about the named volcanic provinces in the center and north,” Wysession said. “But we didn’t know about the one in the southwest. When we saw the third blob in the images, we checked the literature and discovered that, sure enough, there was volcanic activity there as recently as 9 million years ago.”

The cause of the three hot regions in the mantle is a mystery, however. Though there is some indication from the tomographic images that the regions might be connected, particularly the southern two, further modeling of deeper structure will be needed to confirm. One origin of the hot regions previously has been proposed to be hot rock rising through the mantle as the Comores hot spot, which has created a set of volcanic islands just west of the north end of the island.

The authors have a different idea, however, and it comes from the way that the central and southwestern provinces appear to be connected at depth. “If you look at the images that Martin has made,” Wysession said, “you can see a horseshoe shape where the central hot mantle anomaly swings west and then comes back east again, connecting the central and southern provinces.

The deflecting obstacle seems to be a slab of colder rock. “We think the lithosphere (the crust and rigid upper mantle) has delaminated, and the bottom of it fell off,” Wysession said. “As the cold, dense slab began to sink, hotter rock flowed up and in to replace it, buoying the central province and, as it tilted, blocking flow to the south.”

But what caused the bottom of the lithosphere to peel off? “We think it may have been the Marion hotspot,” Wysession said. “The underside of the plate was heated by this huge blow torch 95 million years ago, weakening the rock enough that it was able to peel off. So we’re still seeing collateral damage from this ancient event.” This idea also has the advantage of explaining the unusually high elevations of the northern half of the island. Once the heavy bottom of the plate fell off, it stopped pulling down the crust, which rebounded upward as much as a kilometer as hot rock from below took the place of the delaminated slab.

Something similar happened underneath the Great Basin of the western United States, he said, where the bottom of the lithosphere also split off, forming a large blob of cold material sinking down through the mantle below the surface of central Nevada. There, the blow torch that delaminated the plate was an ocean spreading center that was overridden by the North American plate, Wysession said.

Rupture in Lithosphere Driving Undersea Volcanism

Scientists analyzing a volcanic eruption at a mid – ocean ridge under the Pacific have come up with a somewhat contrarian explanation for what initiated it. Many scientists say undersea volcanism is triggered mainly by upwelling magma that reaches a critical pressure in the lithosphere and forces its way up. The new study says the dominant force, at least in this case, was the seafloor itself – basically that it ripped itself open, allowing magma to spill out. The eruption took place on the East Pacific Rise, some 700 miles off Mexico.

magma-rifts

“Mid – ocean ridges are commonly viewed as seafloor volcanoes, operating like volcanoes on land,” said the study’s lead author, Yen Joe Tan, a graduate student at Columbia University’s Lamont – Doherty Earth Observatory. “We’re saying they should actually be viewed as tears in the crust, where magma oozes out.” The study appears in the journal Nature this week.

axial-seamount

The authors of the new paper took another look after a 2015 eruption at an unconnected study site, at Axial Seamount, off the coast of Oregon. Unlike the earlier East Pacific Rise eruption, this one was studied in real time with an assortment of instruments. Among the data produced were recordings of violent popping noises that appeared related to the emergence of lava on the seafloor – possibly the result of exploding gas bubbles, or implosions of hardening lava.

In light of the Axial Seamount observations, the researchers reviewed the 2005 – 2006 data from the East Pacific Rise, and came up with a newly sharpened picture. Their reanalysis suggested that most of the eruption took place rapidly, not over months. Other researchers had already identified a series of conventional earthquakes of about magnitude 2 on Jan. 22, 2006, of the kind usually associated with the rupture of a rock boundary, along a 35 – kilometer – long segment of the ridge. About 15 minutes later, the seismometers started picking up clusters of lower – frequency earthquakes, of a type usually associated with rising magma. Another hour or two on, popping sounds like those heard at Axial Seamount appeared, in four separate areas along the segment, each in an area about 5 kilometers long.

mantle-plumes

“It’s been a kind of chicken – and – egg question,” said coauthor Maya Tolstoy, a marine geophysicist at Lamont – Doherty. “You have these two different forces [magma vs. tectonics] that could play a role, and it’s hard to tell which triggers the eruption. Here, we can make the argument for one dominating, because we see this series of events, and then multiple magma chambers erupting at the same time.”

The authors say that according to their observations, about 85 percent of the lava emerged within two days, with remnants dribbling out over the course of a week. The eruptions produced some 22 million cubic meters of seafloor – about enough to cover 13 football fields 1,000 feet deep.

Cynthia Ebinger, a professor at the University of Rochester who studies eruptions at spreading sites both on land and under the ocean, said in an email that very few seafloor eruptions have been so directly observed. The study “adds a new factor to consider,” she said. “It shows that tectonic stresses can trigger large – volume intrusions and eruptions” to create new seafloor.

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Michael Perfit, a professor at the University of Florida who also studies undersea eruptions, said the study “tells a remarkable story.” But, he said, the authors may have overstated the relative role of tectonic stress versus magma pressure. “I think it’s really got to be both,” he said. He cited a 2014 geochemical study he coauthored suggesting that the magma was replenished with new material from below about 6 weeks before the eruption. This suggests pressure could have played a more substantial role, he said.

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JUST IN: Antarctic Peninsula Glacier Retreat Caused by Mantle Plumes

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A new study has found for the first time that ocean warming is the primary cause of retreat of glaciers on the western Antarctic Peninsula. The Peninsula is one of the largest current contributors to sea-level rise and this new finding will enable researchers to make better predictions of ice loss from this region.

The research, by scientists at Swansea University and British Antarctic Survey, is published in the journal Science today. The study reports that glaciers flowing to the coast on the western side of the Peninsula show a distinct spatial correlation with ocean temperature patterns. Glaciers in the south are retreating rapidly but those in the north showing little change. Some 90% of the 674 glaciers in this region have retreated since records began in the 1940s.

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Dr Alison Cook, who led the work at Swansea University, says: “Scientists know that ocean warming is affecting large glaciers elsewhere on the continent, but thought that atmospheric temperatures were the primary cause of all glacier changes on the Peninsula. We now know that is not the case.”

“The numerous glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula give a key insight as to how environmental factors control ice behavior on a wide scale. Almost all glaciers on the western side have fractured ending in the sea. We have been able to monitor changes in their ice fronts using images as far back as the 1940s. Glaciers here are extremely diverse and yet the changes in their frontal positions showed a strong regional pattern.

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“We were keen to understand what was causing the differences, in particular why the glaciers in the north-west showed less retreat than those further South and why there was acceleration in retreat since the 1990s. The ocean temperature records have revealed the crucial link.” It appears to be regional mantle plumes along the continental shelf. The team studied ocean temperature measurements around the Peninsula stretching back several decades, alongside photography and satellite data of the 674 glaciers.

The north-south gradient of increasing glacier retreat was found to show a strong pattern with ocean temperatures, whereby water is cold in the north-west, and becomes progressively warmer at depths below 100m further south. Importantly, the warm water at mid-depths in the southerly region has been warming since as long ago as the 1990s, at the same time as the widespread acceleration in glacier retreat.

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Co-author Professor Mike Meredith at British Antarctic Survey says: “These new findings demonstrate for the first time the ocean plays a major role in controlling the stability of glaciers on the western Antarctic Peninsula.”

“Where mid-depth waters from the deep ocean intrude onto the continental shelf and spread towards the coast, they bring heat from the plumes that cause the glaciers to break up and melt. These waters have become warmer and moved to shallower depths in recent decades, causing glacier retreat to accelerate.”

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Co-author Professor Tavi Murray, who leads the Glaciology Research Group at Swansea University, says: “The glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula are changing rapidly – almost all of the Peninsula’s glaciers have retreated since the 1940s. We have known the region is a climate warming hotspot for a while, but we could not explain what was causing the pattern of glacier change.”

“This new study shows that a warmer ocean is the key to understanding the behavior of glaciers on the Antarctic Peninsula. Currently the Peninsula makes one of the largest contributions to sea-level rise, which means understanding this link will improve predictions of sea-level rise.”

 

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BREAKING NEWS: Research Suggests Major Changes to Geology Textbooks Related to Mantle Plumes

Super-computer modeling of Earth’s crust and upper-mantle suggests that ancient geologic events may have left deep ‘scars’ that can come to life to play a role in earthquakes, mountain formation, and other ongoing processes on our planet.

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Mantle Plumes are columns of hot magma rising by convection in the mantle, believed to cause volcanic activity in hot spots, are often the source of mountain building such as the Hawaiian Islands, and are away from plate margins. This changes the widespread view that only interactions at the boundaries between continent-sized tectonic plates could be responsible for such events.

A team of researchers from the University of Toronto and the University of Aberdeen have created models indicating that former plate boundaries may stay hidden deep beneath the Earth’s surface. These multi-million-year-old structures, situated at sites away from existing plate boundaries, may trigger changes in the structure and properties at the surface in the interior regions of continents.

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“This is a potentially major revision to the fundamental idea of plate tectonics,” says lead author Philip Heron, a postdoctoral fellow in Russell Pysklywec’s research group in UT’s Department of Earth Sciences. Their paper, “Lasting Mantle Scars Lead to Perennial Plate Tectonics,” appears in the June 10, 2016 edition of Nature Communications.

Heron and Pysklywec, together with University of Aberdeen geologist Randell Stephenson have even proposed a ‘perennial plate tectonic map’ of the Earth to help illustrate how ancient processes may have present-day implications.

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“It’s based on the familiar global tectonic map that is taught starting in elementary school,” says Pysklywec, who is also chair of UT’s Department of Earth Sciences. “What our models redefine and show on the map are dormant, hidden, ancient plate boundaries that could also be enduring or “perennial” sites of past and active plate tectonic activity.”

To demonstrate the dominating effects that mantle plume anomalies below the Earth’s crust can have on shallow geological features, the researchers used UT’s SciNet – home to Canada’s most powerful computer and one of the most powerful in the world- to make numerical models of the crust and upper-mantle into which they could introduce these scar-like anomalies.

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The team essentially created an evolving “virtual Earth” to explore how such geodynamic models develop under different conditions.

“For these sorts of simulations, you need to go to a pretty high-resolution to understand what’s going on beneath the surface,” says Heron. “We modeled 1,500 kilometers across and 600 kilometers deep, but some parts of these structures could be just two or three kilometers wide. It is important to accurately resolve the smaller-scale stresses and strains.”

Using these models, the team found that different parts of the mantle below the Earth’s crust may control the folding, breaking, or flowing of the Earth’s crust within plates – in the form of mountain-building and seismic activity – when under compression. In this way, the mantle structures dominate over shallower structures in the crust that had previously been seen as the main cause of such deformation within plates.

“The mantle is like the thermal engine of the planet and the crust is an eggshell above,” says Pysklywec. “We’re looking at the enigmatic and largely unexplored realm in the Earth where these two regions meet.”

“Most of the really big plate tectonic activity happens on the plate boundaries, like when India rammed into Asia to create the Himalayas or how the Atlantic opened to split North America from Europe,” says Heron. “But there are lots of things we couldn’t explain, like seismic activity and mountain-building away from plate boundaries in continent interiors.”

The research team believes their simulations show that these mantle anomalies are generated through ancient plate tectonic processes, such as the closing of ancient oceans, and can remain hidden at sites away from normal plate boundaries until reactivation generates tectonic folding, breaking, or flowing in plate interiors.

“Future exploration of what lies in the mantle beneath the crust may lead to further such discoveries on how our planet works, generating a greater understanding of how the past may affect our geologic future,” says Heron.

The research carries on the legacy of J. Tuzo Wilson, also a U of T scientist, and a legendary figure in geosciences who pioneered the idea of plate tectonics in the 1960’s.

“Plate tectonics is really the cornerstone of all geoscience,” says Pysklywec. “Ultimately, this information could even lead to ways to help better predict how and when earthquakes happen. It’s a key building block.”

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BREAKING NEWS: Volcanoes Responsible for Climate Change Through Much of Earth’s History

A new study in the April 22 edition of the journal ‘Science’, reveals that volcanic activity associated with the plate-tectonic movement of continents may be responsible for climatic shifts from hot to cold throughout much of Earth’s history. The study, led by researchers at The University of Texas at Austin Jackson School of Geosciences, addresses why Earth has fluctuated from periods when the planet was covered in ice to times when polar regions were ice-free.

volcanic arc

Lead researcher Ryan McKenzie said the team found that periods when volcanoes along continental arcs were more active coincided with warmer trends over the past 720 million years. Conversely, periods when continental arc volcanoes were less active coincided with colder, or cooling trends.

For this study, researchers looked at the uranium-lead crystallization ages of the mineral zircon, which is largely created during continental volcanic arc activity. They looked at data for roughly 120,000 zircon grains from thousands of samples across the globe.

zircon and mantle

Zircon is often associated with mantle plumes. If the zircon Hf model age is very close to its formation age (zircon U–Pb) – the magma could be subsequent of a depleted mantle plume. On the other hand, if the zircon Hf model age is older than its formation age, it can be concluded that the magma was derived from enriched mantle sources or was contaminated by crustal materials.

“We’re looking at changes in zircon production on various continents throughout Earth’s history and seeing how the changes correspond with the various cooling and warming trends,” McKenzie said. “Ultimately, we find that during intervals of high zircon production we have warming trends, and as zircon production diminishes, we see a shift into our cooling trends.”

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New Equation:
Increase Charged Particles → Decreased Magnetic Field → Increase Outer Core Convection → Increase of Mantle Plumes → Increase in Earthquake and Volcanoes → Cools Mantle and Outer Core → Return of Outer Core Convection (Mitch Battros – July 2012)

One question unanswered in recent climate change debates, is what caused the fluctuations in CO2 observed in the geologic record. Other theories have suggested that geological forces such as mountain building have, at different times in the planet’s history, introduced large amounts of new material to the Earth’s surface, and weathering of that material has drawn CO2 out of the atmosphere.

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Using nearly 200 published studies and their own fieldwork and data, researchers created a global database to reconstruct the volcanic history of continental margins over the past 720 million years.

“We studied sedimentary basins next to former volcanic arcs, which were eroded away over hundreds of millions of years,” said co-author Brian Horton, a professor in the Jackson School’s Department of Geological Sciences. “The distinguishing part of our study is that we looked at a very long geologic record – 720 million years – through multiple warming and cooling trends.”

The cooling periods tended to correlate with the assembly of Earth’s supercontinents, which was a time of diminished continental volcanism, Horton said. The warming periods correlated with continental breakup, a time of enhanced continental volcanism.