Nav: Home

What makes the Earth's surface move?

October 30, 2019

Do tectonic plates move because of motion in the Earth's mantle, or is the mantle driven by the movement of the plates? Or could it be that this question is ill-posed? This is the point of view adopted by scientists at the École Normale Supérieure - PSL, the CNRS and the University of Rome 3, who regard the plates and the mantle as belonging to a single system. According to their simulations, published in Science Advances on October 30, 2019, it is mainly the surface that drives the mantle, although the dynamic balance between the two changes over supercontinent cycles.

Which forces drive tectonic plates? This has remained an open question ever since the advent of plate tectonic theory 50 years ago. Do the cold edges of plates slowly sinking into the Earth's mantle at subduction zones cause the motion observed at the Earth's surface? Or alternatively, does the mantle, with its convection currents, drive the plates? For geologists, this is rather like the problem of the chicken and the egg: the mantle apparently causes the plates to move, while they in turn drive the mantle...

To shed light on the forces at work, scientists from the Geology Laboratory of the École Normale Supérieure (CNRS/ENS - PSL), the Institute of Earth Sciences (CNRS/Universities Grenoble Alpes and Savoie Mont Blanc/IRD/Ifsttar) and the University of Rome 3 treated the solid Earth as a single indivisible system and carried out the most comprehensive modelling to date of the evolution of a fictional planet very similar to the Earth. The scientists first had to find the appropriate parameters, and then spend some nine months solving a set of equations with a supercomputer, reconstructing the evolution of the planet over a period of 1.5 billion years.

Using this model, the team showed that two thirds of the Earth's surface moves faster than the underlying mantle, in other words it is the surface that drags the interior, while the roles are reversed for the remaining third. This balance of forces changes over geological time, especially for the continents. The latter are mainly dragged by deep motion within the mantle during the construction phases of a supercontinent, as in the ongoing collision between India and Asia: in such cases, the motion observed at the surface can provide information about the dynamics of the deep mantle. Conversely, when a supercontinent breaks up, the motion is mainly driven by that of the plates as they sink down into the mantle.

The computation contains a wealth of data that remains largely unexploited. The data obtained could help us to understand how mid-ocean ridges form and disappear, how subduction is triggered, or what determines the location of the plumes that cause vast volcanic outpourings.
-end-


CNRS

Related Science Articles:

75 science societies urge the education department to base Title IX sexual harassment regulations on evidence and science
The American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) today led 75 scientific societies in submitting comments on the US Department of Education's proposed changes to Title IX regulations.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, biopharma, and pharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2018 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Science in the palm of your hand: How citizen science transforms passive learners
Citizen science projects can engage even children who previously were not interested in science.
Applied science may yield more translational research publications than basic science
While translational research can happen at any stage of the research process, a recent investigation of behavioral and social science research awards granted by the NIH between 2008 and 2014 revealed that applied science yielded a higher volume of translational research publications than basic science, according to a study published May 9, 2018 in the open-access journal PLOS ONE by Xueying Han from the Science and Technology Policy Institute, USA, and colleagues.
Prominent academics, including Salk's Thomas Albright, call for more science in forensic science
Six scientists who recently served on the National Commission on Forensic Science are calling on the scientific community at large to advocate for increased research and financial support of forensic science as well as the introduction of empirical testing requirements to ensure the validity of outcomes.
World Science Forum 2017 Jordan issues Science for Peace Declaration
On behalf of the coordinating organizations responsible for delivering the World Science Forum Jordan, the concluding Science for Peace Declaration issued at the Dead Sea represents a global call for action to science and society to build a future that promises greater equality, security and opportunity for all, and in which science plays an increasingly prominent role as an enabler of fair and sustainable development.
PETA science group promotes animal-free science at society of toxicology conference
The PETA International Science Consortium Ltd. is presenting two posters on animal-free methods for testing inhalation toxicity at the 56th annual Society of Toxicology (SOT) meeting March 12 to 16, 2017, in Baltimore, Maryland.
Citizen Science in the Digital Age: Rhetoric, Science and Public Engagement
James Wynn's timely investigation highlights scientific studies grounded in publicly gathered data and probes the rhetoric these studies employ.
Science/Science Careers' survey ranks top biotech, pharma, and biopharma employers
The Science and Science Careers' 2016 annual Top Employers Survey polled employees in the biotechnology, biopharmaceutical, pharmaceutical, and related industries to determine the 20 best employers in these industries as well as their driving characteristics.
Three natural science professors win TJ Park Science Fellowship
Professor Jung-Min Kee (Department of Chemistry, UNIST), Professor Kyudong Choi (Department of Mathematical Sciences, UNIST), and Professor Kwanpyo Kim (Department of Physics, UNIST) are the recipients of the Cheong-Am (TJ Park) Science Fellowship of the year 2016.
More Science News and Science Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Listen Again: Meditations on Loneliness
Original broadcast date: April 24, 2020. We're a social species now living in isolation. But loneliness was a problem well before this era of social distancing. This hour, TED speakers explore how we can live and make peace with loneliness. Guests on the show include author and illustrator Jonny Sun, psychologist Susan Pinker, architect Grace Kim, and writer Suleika Jaouad.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#565 The Great Wide Indoors
We're all spending a bit more time indoors this summer than we probably figured. But did you ever stop to think about why the places we live and work as designed the way they are? And how they could be designed better? We're talking with Emily Anthes about her new book "The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of how Buildings Shape our Behavior, Health and Happiness".
Now Playing: Radiolab

The Third. A TED Talk.
Jad gives a TED talk about his life as a journalist and how Radiolab has evolved over the years. Here's how TED described it:How do you end a story? Host of Radiolab Jad Abumrad tells how his search for an answer led him home to the mountains of Tennessee, where he met an unexpected teacher: Dolly Parton.Jad Nicholas Abumrad is a Lebanese-American radio host, composer and producer. He is the founder of the syndicated public radio program Radiolab, which is broadcast on over 600 radio stations nationwide and is downloaded more than 120 million times a year as a podcast. He also created More Perfect, a podcast that tells the stories behind the Supreme Court's most famous decisions. And most recently, Dolly Parton's America, a nine-episode podcast exploring the life and times of the iconic country music star. Abumrad has received three Peabody Awards and was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2011.