A new study by Cambridge University researchers has shown previous theories about the Earth’s mantle to be completely wrong. The mantle, a 3,000 kilometer (2,000 mile) thick layer of hot compressed rock sandwiched between Earth’s crust and molten core, has been studied by geologists for the past 30 years, but until recently, the technology simply didn’t exist to observe it accurately.
The team used more than 2,000 measurements taken from the ocean floor around the globe to compile the first worldwide map of movement in the Earth’s mantle. Geologists knew the mantle flowed in waves called “convective currents” but until now they had no way to measure the speed. As it turns out, previous estimates were about 10 times slower than we now know to be the case.
The study has a few interesting implications: for one, it may turn out that new oil is created at a different speed within the Earth than was previously thought. These currents affect the rate at which hydrocarbons are created, and if it turns out to take less time to form than previously believed, that could be big news for the oil and gas industry (and perhaps a warning sign for those of us interested in cutting carbon pollution).
Researchers studying the ocean will also have to take these new findings into account; the chaotic rise and fall observed along the ocean floor could hold important clues about the circulation of the world’s seas. Mantle convection is also responsible for the formation of geothermal systems that appear in the middle of tectonic plates, like Yellowstone or the Hawaiian Islands, so these findings may help geologists better understand these unique regions.
It’s possible that further research into the mantle will reveal new information about the melting of the ice caps as well. A study from 2013 already speculated that heat from the Earth’s mantle was accelerating the disappearance of ice from Greenland, and this study reveals one potential reason for the destruction. The complete study has been published in the journal Nature Geoscience.