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High-resolution lithosphere viscosity and dynamics revealed by magnetotelluric imaging

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Science  30 Sep 2016:
Vol. 353, Issue 6307, pp. 1515-1519
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf6542

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Abstract

An accurate viscosity structure is critical to truthfully modeling lithosphere dynamics. Here, we report an attempt to infer the effective lithospheric viscosity from a high-resolution magnetotelluric (MT) survey across the western United States. The high sensitivity of MT fields to the presence of electrically conductive fluids makes it a promising proxy for determining mechanical strength variations throughout the lithosphere. We demonstrate how a viscosity structure, approximated from electrical resistivity, results in a geodynamic model that successfully predicts short-wavelength surface topography, lithospheric deformation, and mantle upwelling beneath recent volcanism. We further show that this viscosity is physically consistent with and better constrained than that derived from laboratory-based rheology. We conclude that MT imaging provides a practical observational constraint for quantifying the dynamic evolution of the continental lithosphere.

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