Mantle convection is the principal control on Earth's thermal, chemical and geological evolution. It is central to our understanding of the origin and evolution of tectonic deformation, the thermal and compositional evolution of the mantle and, ultimately, the evolution of Earth as a whole. Plate tectonics and volcanism are surface manifestations of mantle convection, which, in turn, control multiple surface processes, such as mountain-building and sea-level change. By transferring heat to the surface, mantle convection dictates the cooling of Earth's core and has a direct impact on the geodynamo. Understanding convection within Earth's mantle has recently been designated one of ten ‘Grand Research Questions in the Earth sciences’.
One of the most fundamental gaps in our understanding of mantle convection lies in the dynamics and geochemical expression of mantle plumes: buoyant upwellings that bring hot material from Earth’s deep-mantle to the surface, generating large volcanic provinces and volcanic island chains, such as Hawaii. Mantle plumes play an important role in a range of processes, including continental rifting, super-volcanic eruptions, global mass extinctions, changes in oceanic gateways, ore and diamond genesis, and hydrocarbon generation. Although our awareness of these phenomena is increasing, it remains unclear how their variable geochemical expression at Earth’s surface (i.e. geochemical variations recorded in volcanic hotspot lavas) relates to the heterogeneous structure of their deep-mantle source. For example, at Hawaii, distinct isotopic compositions are observed at the Kea (northern) and Loa (southern) volcanic tracks: Kea volcanism exhibits ‘average’ mantle compositions, whereas Loa volcanism is more `enriched’ (see Fig. 1a). Such systematic variations are attributed to an internal zonation of the plume conduit, which, ultimately, is believed to reflect much larger-scale chemical heterogeneities in the deep-mantle. However, relating surface hotspot observations to the nature of deep-mantle heterogeneity remains a challenge.
It is hypothesized that the observed variations at Hawaii occur because the southern side of the Hawaiian plume preferentially samples isotopically enriched material, from a distinct, large-scale geochemical reservoir in the deep-mantle, beneath the Pacific. This hypothesis makes two central assumptions: (i) that the large low shear-wave velocity province (LLSVP), observed by several seismological studies of the deep Pacific mantle (e.g. Ritsema et al. 2011), represents a chemically distinct structure; and (ii) that source-region heterogeneities are transported into and preserved (i.e. not mixed) within a plume conduit, as the plume rises from the deep-mantle to Earth’s surface. The Pacific LLSVP’s thermo-chemical structure remains debated, whilst it remains unclear whether mantle plumes can preserve the heterogeneous structure of their source region (see Jones et al. 2016). There is no doubt that plumes carry a message from Earth’s lowermost mantle. However, deciphering this message is challenging, since we do not yet have a realistic quantitative framework that explains: (i) how deep-mantle heterogeneities are transported into a mantle plume; and (ii) the extent to which such heterogeneities are mixed as a plume rises from the deep-mantle towards Earth’s surface. This project will use a state-of-the-art computational approach to develop a quantitative model for how deep-mantle heterogeneities are incorporated into a plume and how these are mixed during plume ascent. This will allow us to relate geochemical observations from hotspot lavas at Earth’s surface to the thermo-chemical structure of Earth’s lower mantle, under a self-consistent, Earth-like, fluid-dynamical framework.
High-resolution and high-precision geochemical data, from hotspot locations around the globe, have already identified the problem. The proposed research will provide constraints from geodynamical models, which will allow us to understand what the geochemical data means. As such, the project will yield unrivaled insights into the nature of lower mantle heterogeneity and will play a key role in reconciling geophysical and geochemical constraints on mantle structure, which has been a long-standing goal for the Earth sciences.