Viscosity jump in Earth’s mid-mantle

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Science  11 Dec 2015:
Vol. 350, Issue 6266, pp. 1349-1352
DOI: 10.1126/science.aad1929

A mysterious mid-mantle slowdown

The viscosity of Earth's deep interior plays a key role in mediating plate tectonics. Rudolph et al. combined several geophysical data sets to model the viscosity of the mantle. Mantle viscosity abruptly increases below 1000 km. The increase could explain the stalling of subducting slabs and the deflections of hot upwelling plumes around this depth. Although the viscosity increase explains some recent unexpected observations, the origin of the jump itself remains a mystery.

Science, this issue p. 1349


The viscosity structure of Earth’s deep mantle affects the thermal evolution of Earth, the ascent of mantle plumes, settling of subducted oceanic lithosphere, and the mixing of compositional heterogeneities in the mantle. Based on a reanalysis of the long-wavelength nonhydrostatic geoid, we infer viscous layering of the mantle using a method that allows us to avoid a priori assumptions about its variation with depth. We detect an increase in viscosity at 800- to 1200-kilometers depth, far greater than the depth of the mineral phase transformations that define the mantle transition zone. The viscosity increase is coincident in depth with regions where seismic tomography has imaged slab stagnation, plume deflection, and changes in large-scale structure and offers a simple explanation of these phenomena.

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