Dec
08
2011

Mountains moving under the Pacific Ocean consumed by subduction zone

Sonar study location along the Tonga Trench
Sonar study location along the Tonga TrenchCourtesy NOAA (with adaptation by author)
Here’s something you don’t see everyday: some very amazing images of a chain of mountains heading toward a subduction zone in the South Pacific. (Make sure you watch the video at the top of this story link - it seems to take a few seconds to load). The pictures were unveiled this week at the annual American Geophysical Union meeting held in San Francisco, California.

Researchers from Oxford and Durham universities took sonar readings along the bottom of the South Pacific northeast of New Zealand that show a chain of underwater mountains being dragged westward on the Pacific plate and subducted into theTonga Trench . This chasm is second only to the Marianas Trench in seabed depth – nearly 11 kilometers (6.6 miles) deep. The computer model created from the data shows one giant volcano at the very edge of the trench breaking into huge blocks and beginning to collapse into the abyss. It’s actually pretty cool to see. Earthquakes occur less frequently near where the volcanoes are being gobbled up, and scientists differ on whether the giant broken chunks of the volcano help or hinder the subduction process, but the images clearly show the mechanism at work.

Illustration of plate boundaries and subduction
Illustration of plate boundaries and subductionCourtesy USGS
According to the theory of plate tectonics both oceanic crust and continental crust ride atop rigid plates that migrate slowly across the globe, colliding with and pulling away from each other. There are three main types of boundary zones created by this movement: convergent (moving toward each other), divergent (moving away from each other) and transform (moving side by side). In the first example, which is the type this article deals with, the lighter oceanic plate (Pacific Plate) is subducting under the heavier continental plate (Indo-Australian Plate). The process is part of the creation and recycling of the Earth’s lithosphere – that is it’s rocky crust along with the uppermost part of the mantle. Some mantle material is forced upward in the process, and the land near these subduction zones – like that in Japan and along the coast of Chile in South America - is often populated with volcanoes. This collision of plates causes tremendous tensions to build up along the contact zone. The extreme pressure can continue building over hundreds or even thousands of years until it's too much, and the plates start to shift. All the pent-up energy is suddenly released in fits and starts in the form of earthquakes and aftershocks, as happened this year (and is still happening) in Sendai, Japan and Christchurch, New Zealand.

The underwater volcanic chain spreads across the ocean bottom in a southeasterly direction for several thousands kilometers as each mountain makes it way westward toward the trench at the rate of about 6cm per year. That's about as fast as your fingernails grow in two months. The sonar images were taken at a depth of six kilometers below the ocean surface as part of a project funded by Australia’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) to help determine if the massive debris from the crumbling volcanoes have any effect on the frequency of earthquakes and tsunamis in the area.

SOURCE
BBC report

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