Changes in Seismic Anisotropy Shed Light on the Nature of the Gutenberg Discontinuity

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Science  14 Mar 2014:
Vol. 343, Issue 6176, pp. 1237-1240
DOI: 10.1126/science.1246724

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G Below Sea

Rheological differences between Earth's lithosphere and asthenosphere help drive plate tectonics. Geophysical analyses repeatedly reveal a seismic Gutenberg (G) discontinuity at 40- to 100-kilometer depth in oceanic plates, although the origin of this boundary remains enigmatic. Beghein et al. (p. 1237, published online 27 February) found that vertical stratification of anisotropy aligned with the depths of the G discontinuity, but not with the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary. It appears that the G discontinuity forms when there are geophysical changes in the mantle, such as dehydration beneath mid-ocean ridges.


The boundary between the lithosphere and asthenosphere is associated with a platewide high–seismic velocity “lid” overlying lowered velocities, consistent with thermal models. Seismic body waves also intermittently detect a sharp velocity reduction at similar depths, the Gutenberg (G) discontinuity, which cannot be explained by temperature alone. We compared an anisotropic tomography model with detections of the G to evaluate their context and relation to the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary (LAB). We find that the G is primarily associated with vertical changes in azimuthal anisotropy and lies above a thermally controlled LAB, implying that the two are not equivalent interfaces. The origin of the G is a result of frozen-in lithospheric structures, regional compositional variations of the mantle, or dynamically perturbed LAB.

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