Mantle structure: The message from scattered seismic waves

Speaker: George Helffrich
“When Francis Birch named the Transition Zone, the deep mantle became a dull place. It was homogeneous material simply becoming denser as pressure increased with depth. No more respect was accorded to it by geochemists than by geophysicists. For geochemists, the deep mantle was simply a dark box in which chemical components were held until needed for delicate flavoring of various sorts of rock cocktails.

It deserves more respect. Though it may be dregs, the part of the mantle in contact with the core is rich in seismologically annoying structural detail. This might be written off as an observational quirk due to a mendacious Earth or investigative incompetence, except that more of the lower mantle is grudgingly revealing structure as well. The structural details are fine-scale, at characteristic sizes of around one to one hundred kilometers.

The details are emerging from studies of scattered seismic waves. These are unscheduled arrivals in the timetable following an earthquake. They don’t arise in a uniform or even a layered Earth. Rather, they originate from the wave field’s interactions with sub-wavelength roughness in Earth structure. A lot of data is needed to be sure those arrivals are real and repeatable, but networks of hundreds of seismometers such as the ones in existence in Asia, Europe and North America can provide or have provided the necessary redundancy for confident detection.

The results of studies of S-to-P and P-to-P scattering to date show that some lower mantle heterogeneity is associated with present subduction. Some is also found at sites of past subduction, but it is difficult to generalize to all heterogeneity. Scattering strength varies with depth: the shallowest lower mantle is rougher than the deeper parts. The peak scattering strength is around 1600 km deep in the mantle, followed by a slow decline. The roughness clusters, too, with individual groups separated by around 100 km. Individual clusters appear to have particular fabrics that influence their scattering characteristics. Because the km- to 100 km-length scales are present in oceanic plates in their layer thicknesses and plate thickness, these features strongly suggest that the scattered waves emanate from solid material injected into the lower mantle by subduction. They also suggest that the deep mantle is not strongly layered in viscosity or density because scattering strength depth profiles do not change abruptly.

A real puzzle is the material identity of the heterogeneity. Seismic wavespeeds must change by more than 4% within a kilometer. Clearly, this is no thermal signal, but compositional differences that extreme in mantle mineralogies require extreme variations in silica or a very broad pressure-dependent phase transition to change properties that significantly.

Only about 2% of the lower mantle volume has been explored to date. Much of the mantle away from subduction zones will never be visible. Different methods will be needed to see all of the mantle’s structure details, even using scattering.”