In the typical textbook picture, volcanoes, such as those that are forming the Hawaiian islands, erupt when magma gushes out as narrow jets from deep inside Earth. But that picture is wrong, according to a new study from researchers who conclude that seismology data are now confirming that such narrow jets don't actually exist.
© Sunshine Pics/Fotolia
Tungurahua volcano eruption
In the typical textbook picture, volcanoes, such as those that are forming the Hawaiian islands, erupt when magma gushes out as narrow jets from deep inside Earth. But that picture is wrong, according to a new study from researchers at Caltech and the University of Miami in Florida.
New seismology data are now confirming that such narrow jets don't actually exist, says Don Anderson, the Eleanor and John R. McMillian Professor of Geophysics, Emeritus, at Caltech. In fact, he adds, basic physics doesn't support the presence of these jets, called mantle plumes, and the new results corroborate those fundamental ideas.
"Mantle plumes have never had a sound physical or logical basis," Anderson says. "They are akin to Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories
about how giraffes got their long necks."
Anderson and James Natland, a professor emeritus of marine geology and geophysics at the University of Miami, describe their analysis online in the September 8 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
According to current mantle-plume theory, Anderson explains, heat from Earth's core somehow generates narrow jets of hot magma that gush through the mantle and to the surface. The jets act as pipes that transfer heat from the core, and how exactly they're created isn't clear, he says. But they have been assumed to exist, originating near where Earth's core meets the mantle, almost 3,000 kilometers underground -- nearly halfway to the planet's center. The jets are theorized to be no more than about 300 kilometers wide, and when they reach the surface, they produce hot spots.
While the top of the mantle is a sort of fluid sludge, the uppermost layer is rigid rock, broken up into plates that float on the magma-bearing layers. Magma from the mantle beneath the plates bursts through the plate to create volcanoes. As the plates drift across the hot spots, a chain of volcanoes forms -- such as the island chains of Hawaii and Samoa.