Satellites reveal melting of rocks under volcanic zone, deep in Earth’s mantle

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Mount Ngauruhoe, in the foreground, and Mount Ruapehu are two of the active volcanoes in the Taupo volcanic zone.
Guillaume Piolle/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

Simon Lamb, Victoria University of Wellington and Timothy Stern, Victoria University of Wellington

Volcanoes erupt when magma rises through cracks in the Earth’s crust, but the exact processes that lead to the melting of rocks in the Earth’s mantle below are difficult to study.

In our paper, published today in the journal Nature, we show how it is possible to use satellite measurements of movements of the Earth’s surface to observe the melting process deep below New Zealand’s central North Island, one of the world’s most active volcanic regions.

Rifting in the Taupo volcanic zone

The solid outer layer of the Earth is known as the crust, and this overlies the Earth’s mantle. But these layers are not fixed. They are broken up into tectonic plates that slowly move relative to each other.

It is along the boundaries of the tectonic plates that most of the geological action at the Earth’s surface occurs, such as earthquakes, volcanic activity and mountain building. This makes New Zealand a particularly dynamic place, geologically speaking, because it straddles the boundary between the Australian and Pacific plates.

The central region of the North Island is known as the Taupo volcanic zone, or TVZ. It is named after Lake Taupo, the flooded crater of the region’s largest volcano, and it has been active for two million years. Several volcanoes continue to erupt regularly.

The TVZ is the southern tip of a zone of expansion, or rifting, in the Earth’s crust that extends offshore for thousands of kilometres, all the way north in the Pacific Ocean to Tonga. Offshore, this takes place through sea floor spreading in the Havre Trough, creating both new oceanic crust and a narrow sliver of a plate right along the edge of the Australian tectonic plate. Surprisingly, this spreading is going on at the same time as the adjacent Pacific tectonic plate is sliding beneath the Australian plate in a subduction zone, triggering some of the major earthquakes in the region.

Sea floor spreading results in melting of the Earth’s mantle, but it is very difficult to observe this process directly in the deep ocean. However, sea floor spreading in the Havre Trough transitions abruptly onshore into the volcanic activity in the TVZ. This provides an opportunity to observe the melting in the Earth’s mantle on land.

Lake Taupo is the caldera of the region’s largest volcano.
NASA/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-ND

In general, volcanic activity happens whenever there is molten rock at depth, and therefore the volcanism in the North Island indicates vast volumes of molten rock beneath the surface. However, it has been a tricky problem to understand exactly what is causing the melting in the first place, because the underlying rocks are buried by thick layers of volcanic material.

We have tackled this problem using data from Global Positioning System (GPS) sensors, some of which form part of New Zealand’s GeoNet network and some that have been used in measurement campaigns since 1995. The sensors measure horizontal and vertical shifts in the Earth’s surface to millimetre precision, and our research is based on data collected over the past two decades.

Bending of the earth’s surface

The GPS measurements in the Taupo volcanic zone reveal that it is widening east-west at a rate of 6-15 millimetres per year – in other words, the region, overall, is expanding, as we anticipated from our previous geological understanding. But it was surprising to discover that, at least for the past 15 years, a roughly 70-kilometre stretch is undergoing strong horizontal contraction and is also rapidly subsiding, quite the opposite of what one might anticipate.

Also unexpectedly, the contracting zone is surrounded by regions that are expanding, but also uplifting. Trying to make sense of these observations turned out to be the key to our new insight into the process of melting beneath the TVZ.

We found that the pattern of contraction and subsidence, together with expansion and uplift, in the context of the overall rifting of the TVZ, could be explained by a simple model that involves the bending and curving of an elastic upper crust, pulled downwards or pushed upwards by an underlying vertical driving force. The size of the region that is behaving like this, extending for about 100 kilometres in width and 200 kilometres in length, requires this force to originate nearly 20 kilometres underground, in the Earth’s mantle.

This diagram illustrates a patch of suction stress along the axis of the underlying upwelling mantle flow beneath the Taupo volcanic zone.
Simon Lamb, CC BY-ND

Melting the mantle

When tectonic plates drift apart on the sea floor, the underlying mantle rises up to fill the gap. This upwelling triggers melting, and the reason for this is that hot, but solid, mantle rocks undergo a reduction in pressure as they move upwards and closer to the Earth’s surface. This drop in pressure, rather than a change in temperature, begins the melting of the mantle.

But there is another property of this upwelling mantle flow, because it also creates a suction force that pulls down the overlying crust. This force comes about because as part of the flow, the rocks have to effectively “turn a corner” near the surface from a predominantly vertical flow to a predominantly horizontal one.

It turns out that the strength of this force depends on how stiff or sticky the mantle rocks are, measured in terms of viscosity (it is difficult to drive the flow of highly viscous or sticky fluids, but easy in runny ones).

Experimental studies have shown that the viscosity of rocks deep in the Earth is very sensitive to how much molten material they contain, and we propose that changes in the amount of melt provide a powerful mechanism to change the viscosity of the upwelling mantle. If mantle rocks don’t contain much melt, they will be much stickier, causing the overlying crust to be pulled down rapidly. If the rocks have just melted, then this makes the flow of the rocks runnier, allowing the overlying crust to spring back up again.

We also know that the movements that we observe at the surface with GPS must be relatively short lived, geologically speaking, lasting for no more than a few hundred or few thousand years. Otherwise they would result in profound changes to the landscape and we have no evidence for that.

Using GPS, we can not only measure the strength of the suction force, but we can “see” where, for how long, and by how much the underlying mantle is melting. This melt will eventually rise up through the crust to feed the overlying volcanoes.

This research helps us to understand how volcanic systems work on a variety of time scales, from human to geological. In fact, it may be that the GPS measurements made over just the last two decades have captured a change in the amount of mantle melt at depth, which could herald the onset of increased volcanic activity and associated risk in the future. But we don’t have measurements over a long enough time period yet to make any confident predictions.

The ConversationThe key point here is, nevertheless, that we have entered a new era whereby satellite measurements can be used to probe activity 20 kilometres beneath the Earth’s surface.

Simon Lamb, Associate Professor in Geophysics, Victoria University of Wellington and Timothy Stern, Professor of Geophysics, Victoria University of Wellington

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The world’s tropical zone is expanding, and Australia should be worried

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‘Tropics’ may conjure images of sun-kissed islands, but the expanding tropical zone could bring drought and cyclones further south.
Pedro Fernandes/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Steve Turton, CQUniversity Australia

The Tropics are defined as the area of Earth where the Sun is directly overhead at least once a year — the zone between the Tropics of Cancer and Capricorn.

However, tropical climates occur within a larger area about 30 degrees either side of the Equator. Earth’s dry subtropical zones lie adjacent to this broad region. It is here that we find the great warm deserts of the world.

Earth’s bulging waistline

Earth’s tropical atmosphere is growing in all directions, leading one commentator to cleverly call this Earth’s “bulging waistline”.

Since 1979, the planet’s waistline been expanding poleward by 56km to 111km per decade in both hemispheres. Future climate projections suggest this expansion is likely to continue, driven largely by human activities – most notably emissions of greenhouse gases and black carbon, as well as warming in the lower atmosphere and the oceans.

If the current rate continues, by 2100 the edge of the new dry subtropical zone would extend from roughly Sydney to Perth.

As these dry subtropical zones shift, droughts will worsen and overall less rain will fall in most warm temperate regions.

Poleward shifts in the average tracks of tropical and extratropical cyclones are already happening. This is likely to continue as the tropics expand further. As extratropical cyclones move, they shift rain away from temperate regions that historically rely upon winter rainfalls for their agriculture and water security.

Researchers have observed that, as climate zones change, animals and plants migrate to keep up. But as biodiversity and ecosystem services are threatened, species that can’t adjust to rapidly changing conditions face extinction.

In some biodiversity hotspots – such as the far southwest of Australia – there are no suitable land areas (only oceans) for ecosystems and species to move into to keep pace with warming and drying trends.

We are already witnessing an expansion of pests and diseases into regions that were previously climatically unsuitable. This suggests that they will attempt to follow any future poleward shifts in climate zones.

I recently drew attention to the anticipated impacts of an expanding tropics for Africa. So what might this might mean for Australia?


Australia is vulnerable

Australia’s geographical location makes it highly vulnerable to an expanding tropics. About 60% of the continent lies north of 30°S.

As the edge of the dry subtropical zone continues to creep south, more of southern Australia will be subject to its drying effects.

Meanwhile, the fringes of the north of the continent may experience rainfall and temperature conditions that are more typical of our northern neighbours.

The effects of the expanding tropics are already being felt in southern Australia in the form of declining winter rainfall. This is especially the case in the southwest and — to a lesser extent — the continental southeast.

Future climate change projections for Australia include increasing air and ocean temperatures, rising sea levels, more hot days (over 35℃), declining rainfall in the southern continental areas, and more extreme fire weather events.

For northern Australia, changes in annual rainfall remain uncertain. However, there is a high expectation of more extreme rainfall events, many more hot days and more severe (but less frequent) tropical cyclones and associated storm surges in coastal areas.

Dealing with climate change

Adaptation to climate change will be required across all of Australia. In the south the focus will have to be on adapting to projected drying trends. Other challenges include more frequent droughts, more warm spells and hot days, higher fire weather risk and rising sea levels in coastal areas.

The future growth of the north remains debatable. I have already pointed out the lack of consideration of climate change in the White Paper for the Development of Northern Australia.

The white paper neglects to explain how planned agricultural, mining, tourism and community development will adapt to projected changes in climate over coming decades — particularly, the anticipated very high number of hot days.

For example, Darwin currently averages 47 hot days a year, but under a high carbon emission scenario, the number of hot days could approach 320 per year by 2090. If the north is to survive and thrive as a significant economic region of Australia, it will need effective climate adaptation strategies. This must happen now — not at some distant time in the future.

This requires bipartisan support from all levels of government, and a pan-northern approach to climate adaptation. It will be important to work closely with industry and affected local and Indigenous communities across the north.

These sectors must have access to information and solutions drawn from interdisciplinary, “public good” research. In the face of this urgent need, CSIRO cuts to such research and the defunding of the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility should be ringing alarm bells.

The ConversationAs we enter uncharted climate territory, never before has public-good research been more important and relevant.

Steve Turton, Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography, CQUniversity Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.