EarthByte Models Mantle Plumes Through Space and Time

According to DCO member Sabin Zahirovic (EarthByte, University of Sydney, Australia), Earth’s interior is essentially a giant, spherical lava lamp.

The intense heat at the core drives plumes of mantle material up to the cooler surface where it solidifies as part of tectonic plates. Over geologic timescales, the edges of those plates eventually sink back into the mantle in a process called subduction, which contributes to convection. The churning of Earth’s interior controls the movement of the plates at the surface, which in turn regulates the balance of carbon between the atmosphere and the subsurface, moderating climate. Ultimately, it is these swirling, lava lamp-like processes that make our planet habitable.

The DCO has partnered with EarthByte to support paleogeography, climate, and deep carbon research using their plate tectonic models. Modeling offers a way to extract more information from new data sets and to integrate existing Earth science data sets collected over decades. “With the DCO, we’re studying the deep carbon cycle in the deep Earth and through deep geological time,” said Zahirovic. “Now that we have this great data from the DCO community, we can start to put the pieces of the puzzle together to make sense of these Earth systems through time.”

The following are but two examples to show how community tools can be used to generate realistic models of Earth processes.  With EarthByte, the only limiting factors are data, time, and one’s imagination of what can be visualized.

Rakib Hassan (formerly of EarthByte, now at Geoscience Australia) has developed a model for predicting the eruption of hot plumes from deep in the mantle. He discovered that these eruptions do not occur at random, but depend on the location of subduction zones. The animation below shows the location of these plumes during the last 230 million years, starting when all land existed as the supercontinent Pangea. The green ball indicates the core-mantle boundary, while the blue lines delineate the subduction zones. Hassan’s study appears in a paper in Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems [1].

Sometimes these hot mantle plumes melt through the crust and erupt as volcanoes, such as the plume that created the Hawaiian Islands. These eruptions send large amounts of deep carbon into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide. As the tectonic plates shift, the plume can create a line of volcanoes. In a paper in Nature [2], Hassan describes Hawaii’s formation from a mantle plume and explains how the movement of the base of the plume created the L-shaped chain of underwater mountains that include Hawaii.

The location of mantle plumes is just one of the modeling projects undertaken by EarthByte. The collaboration is an e-research group led by Dietmar Müller and Patrice Rey (both at the University of Sydney, Australia) developing new technologies and techniques to model Earth systems. The group strives to be open-source and open-access in order to share information, software, and workflows.

Zahirovic encourages any DCO scientists who would like to incorporate Earth systems modeling into their research program to contact EarthByte. “We’re inviting anyone who is interested to join us,” he said.

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