A previously undetected layer of tectonic plates may offer answers to the mysterious Vityaz earthquakes in the Pacific Ocean. Researchers recently presented their preliminary findings on an additional layer of tectonic plates in Earth’s mantle at a joint meeting of the American Geophysical Union and the Japan Geoscience Union in Tokyo. These plates might have moved into the mantle millions of years ago.


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Scientists have known for over 50 years that continents slowly move around Earth, and the ocean floor rips apart as they do. Magma from the Earth’s mantle fills these gaps. But when tectonic plates converge, subduction, or the process of one plate edge moving down into the mantle, occurs. Scientist Johnny Wu of the University of Houston shared new evidence of a layer of tectonic plates that long ago subducted into the mantle.

Related: Newly discovered link between two faults could lead to a much bigger San Francisco earthquake

The recently discovered tectonic plates are in the mantle’s so-called transition zone, around 273 to 410 miles under the surface in the Tonga area. The plates move horizontally nearly as fast as plates do at the surface, and breaks and bends in these newly found plates can lead to earthquakes.

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Seismology advances helped make the find possible. Scientists are now able to make pictures of the interior of the planet utilizing vibrations from natural earthquakes. Wu put it this way: “Think of Hubble. We look out, and the further we look out the more things we discover, not just about the universe – we’re actually looking back in time. And this new seismology is like turning the Hubble to look into the Earth, because as we look deeper and get clearer images, we can see what the Earth might have looked like further and further back in time.”

Another scientist from the University of Houston, one from the China Earthquake Administration, and a fourth from the University of Utah were also part of the research, which was presented at the meeting on Tuesday. The findings haven’t been peer reviewed yet, but could change the way scientists look at plate movement.

Via The Guardian

Images via YXO on Flickr and Nguyen Tan Tin on Flickr