Occasionally a paper comes along that rattles you out of your present biases; whether the paper is right or not is less important than getting you thinking. A paper in Geology got GG thinking about some things he’d ignored…
Kimberlites are rather famous kinds of igneous intrusions as they host most of the world’s diamonds. These eruptions originate at great depths in the earth but seem to pop up rather erratically and their relationship to subduction zones and the like is somewhere between unclear and non-existent. In North America, they seem to pop up in sort of broad swaths of the continent. One band in particular is of interest to those of us studying the origins of the Cordillera: a collection of Cretaceous kimberlites that seem to have erupted almost under the eastern part of the seaway that ran from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic.
Most workers have generally sought to connect these Cretaceous eruptions to the subduction of the Farallon plate under North America. This proposal generally seems to work by adding fluids to the deep continental lithosphere, which would then generate the melts that rise forcefully to the surface to emplace the kimberlites (e.g., Currie and Beaumont, 2011).
In this view, the easterly positions of the kimberlites in the Cretaceous reflects a fairly low-angle subduction regime that would have had to be established by 112 Ma (the oldest intrusion in Kansas) and continued to about 85-90 Ma in the U.S. and into the Tertiary in Canada.
The alternative in a recent issue of Geology by Zhang and others looks at this in a very different direction, namely with westward subduction of North America under the western Cordillera, an idea put forward in some lengthy publications by Robert Hildebrand. Read More…
We’ve discussed isostasy a few times here, but today let’s stand back and ask the question, how do we determine what has led to the creation of isostatically supported topography? We will for today put aside the discussions of dynamic topography and just concern ourselves with isostatically supported topography, which seems likely to describe much of the US Cordillera. For this post, we’ll just focus on the crustal part of the problem, leaving the mantle for another day.
OK, first up is that isostasy means that the integral of density from the surface to some depth of compensation (usually somewhere in the asthenosphere) is constant. So how do we get at density at such great depths? At first blush you might think “gravity” as that is the geophysical observable produced by mass. The problem is that gravity is non-unique: you can recreate any gravity field by having a thin surface layer varying in density. Gravity gradients tell you of the maximum depth an anomaly can lie, and the integral over a broad region tells you of the total mass surplus or deficit relative to some reference. Those integrals support isostasy, but the gradients are tough to work with because isostasy is only thought to work well at long enough wavelengths that the strength of the lithosphere becomes irrelevant. So in essence you need to smooth gravity out to appropriate wavelengths–and once you do that, the depth limits in the raw gravity are pretty much gone.
So with gravity being relatively useless, where do we go? Keep in mind that we’ll be wanting to compare two columns to be able to discern what happened at one column relative to the other to produce a difference in elevation.
Consider for a moment the geoid, which is the difference in elevation between a reference spheroid and an equipotential. The geoid has lots of neat properties, among them being directly related to the gravitational potential energy in the lithosphere. It is sensitive to density variations at great depths and so can give us insight into deep earth processes. But there are some issues that casual readers of papers using geoid might want to be aware of.
Geoid has long been recognized as having a sensitivity to greater depths than gravity, but this is a mixed blessing as density variations far below the asthenosphere can affect the geoid, complicating a lithospheric interpretation. The most common approach is to filter the geoid to eliminate long wavelengths that are most sensitive to deep structure–but these same wavelengths are also sensitive to the difference between continents and oceans. In the western U.S., the look you get from the geoid depends on how you filter it. For instance, these are two images of the geoid, one as published in Jones et al., Nature, 1996, and the other with a different filter.
The clearest difference is at the right, where the solid zero line has moved a lot, but also note that the scale of the color bar has changed. It can be a bit hard to compare these, so another way of looking at it is to plot some points from each against each other:
The diagonal line would be where points would plot if both filters yielded the same values. Clearly the southern Rockies (SRM) pick up a lot of power in the degree and order 7-10 range compared with, say, the Sierra Nevada (SN). If interpreting this for potential energy, at D&O >7 taper to 11 the western Great Plains (GP) would have a positive GPE and would be expected to have normal faulting, but at D&O >10 taper to 15 it would be quite negative and you would expect to have compressional stresses and possible reverse faulting.
(Beyond the issues with the edge of the filter is the nature of the taper–a brute force cutoff can produce some artifacts you might not want to interpret.)
Anyways, what is the appropriate filter? There is no simple answer for three reasons. One is that the maximum depth you might care about probably varies across the region so a filter that cuts off in the asthenosphere in one place might also cut off the lower lithosphere in another. Another is that there is significant shallow power in the longer wavelengths/lower orders: continent/ocean boundaries have some real power in low degrees and orders. So when you filter out the long wavelengths, you can be removing shallow signal as well as deep signal. The third is that the sensitivity with depth is gradational, so a filter won’t fully cut off greater depths unless there is reduction in power from shallower ones.
(If you are wondering, in the paper we chose D&O 7-11 as the most appropriate filter for our purposes).
So be cautious when a filtered geoid is presented as a purely lithospheric signal, for it could be contaminated with deep sources or cutting off shallow ones.
Recently NSF’s EarthScope program office put out a media announcement with the top ten discoveries they attributed to the soon-to-end program. (EarthScope, for those unfamiliar with the program, originally had three main legs: the Transportable Array (TA) + Flex Array collection of seismometers, the Plate Boundary Observatory (PBO) network of GPS stations, and the San Andreas Fault Observatory at Depth (SAFOD), a drill hole through the fault). What struck GG about this collection was just how little we learned about tectonics, which was a selling point of sorts for the program prior to its start.
Now some of the “discoveries” are not discoveries at all–one listed is that there is a lot of open data. Folks, that was a *design*, not a discovery. A couple are so vague as to be pointless–North America is “under pressure” and there are “ups and downs” in drought–stuff we knew well before EarthScope, so these bullets give little insight to what refinements arose from EarthScope. And then the use of LIDAR to look at displacements of the El Mayor-Cucapah earthquake was hardly a core EarthScope tool or goal even as the program might have contributed funds. So the more substantive stuff might amount to 5 or 6 points.
Arguably PBO has more than delivered and SAFOD disappointed, but GG would like to consider the TA’s accomplishments–or non-accomplishments. TA-related “discoveries” in this list are actually a single imaging result and two technique developments (ambient noise tomography, which emerged largely by happy coincidence, and source back projection for earthquake slip, which is largely a continued growth of preexisting techniques). So in terms of learning about the earth, we are really looking at one result worthy of inclusion.
GG has been piddling along though the Sierra (ostensibly to give a campfire talk in Mineral King) and in doing so stared a bit longer at a recent paper on the age of a pediment in the Sierran foothills by Sousa et al. in Geosphere in 2017. In a way this is a callback to concepts from far back in the geologic literature, namely the significance of an “Eocene erosion surface.”
Here, to be brief, low-temperature thermochronology from a low-elevation pediment in the western foothills of the Sierra yields very old ages–in fact, overlapping with the emplacement of plutons in the Sierran crest [this was not a unique observation; Cecil et al., 2006, had a pretty old point in their collection]. Sousa and coauthors model these data and get a cooling to surface conditions by about 40 Ma. Because these pediments abut noticeable topography, this means there was at least that much local relief in the ancient Sierra. While the pediments had been noticed by others, many suspected a far more recent age.
In some ways, this is old news. The Eocene sediments in the northern Sierra have long made clear the presence of significant local relief, and many workers had inferred that such relief was probably higher in the southern Sierra (e.g., Wakabayashi and Sawyer, 2001). But the southern Sierra lacked the Eocene sediments necessary to know what the Eocene landscape might have looked like, so this paper opens up a new window for us.
Where does this lead us? Kind of down a rabbit hole only to come up with no strong and useful statement–though perhaps future work could nail things down. This is more a personal attempt to try and grasp what is going on, so profound errors might exist and insights are few. So, proceed at your own risk….
How should one read a scientific paper? As presenting conclusions one should take as our best estimate of truth? Or as information one can use to test competing hypotheses? You might think it must be one or the other, but that is rarely the case.
Consider the just-published paper by Bahadori, Holt and Rasbury entitled “Reconstruction modeling of crustal thickness and paleotopography of western North America since 36 Ma”. From the abstract you might be tempted to say that this paper is solving a problem, in this case the Late Cenozoic paleoelevation history of the western U.S.:
Our final integrated topography model shows a Nevadaplano of ∼3.95 ± 0.3 km average elevation in central, eastern, and southern Nevada, western Utah, and parts of easternmost California. A belt of high topography also trends through northwestern, central, and southeastern Arizona at 36 Ma (Mogollon Highlands). Our model shows little to no elevation change for the Colorado Plateau and the northern Sierra Nevada (north of 36°N) since at least 36 Ma, and that between 36 and 5 Ma, the Sierra Nevada was located at the Pacific Ocean margin, with a shoreline on the eastern edge of the present-day Great Valley.
There is one key word in that paragraph that should make you careful in accepting the results: “model”. What is the model, and how reliable is it?
In the previous post, we discussed how Occam’s Razor is of little use in some arguments, leading to the principle of least astonishment. But here GG would like to suggest that the shear immensity of geologic time means that Occam sometimes cuts us off from explanations we need to consider.
In this case, let’s talk Laramide. Orogeny, that is, the creation of the Southern Rocky Mountains between something like 75 and 45 million years ago. The prevailing explanation is that the subducting ocean floor only went down to about 100 km or so and turned flat, interacting with the continent in a way to make mountains far from the plate edge. It is a nice compact explanation.
The thing is, there are a lot of places where slabs today are flat and none of them produce anything of the scale of the Laramide Orogeny. Closest are the Sierras Pampeanas in Argentina, which are far closer to the trench than the Laramide ranges were, among other difficulties. Even looking over past orogenies yields few plausible rivals–maybe the Alice Springs orogeny in Australia, or if you push things hard, perhaps the Atlas ranges in northern Africa. Or, of course, the Ancestral Rockies in almost the same place as the Laramide. But these are just as cryptic and far less common than all the events that created the Appalachians, or the Urals, or the Caledonides, or the bulk of the Alpine-Himalayan system.
Perhaps, when we encounter oddities in the past, we need to recognize that something unusual happened, meaning that Occam’s bias for parsimony might in fact be precisely the wrong bias. For instance, somebody walks up and says they will flip a coin ten times and it will come up heads. He asks a passerby for a coin and then does as he says. Parsimony says this was luck, but perhaps a better explanation is that it is a trick either involving an accomplice or sleight-of-hand [scientists are suckers for sleight-of-hand, as the Amazing Randi often showed].
Given the number of times slabs probably have been flat and given the far rarer production of mountain ranges far from the trench, maybe our bias for parsimony should be relaxed–odd and unusual results might demand more than a single cause. Maybe things were a bit Rube Goldberg-ish for awhile. In a similar vein, some workers are arguing that the impact ending the Cretaceous was so effective not just because of its size but because of the sulfur-rich rocks it hit (this in part a response to the absence of other impacts in causing extinction events and other extinction events seemingly lacking a coincident impact). Arguably something like this has or will emerge in explaining how one branch of the great apes led to humans despite lots of earlier evolutions of animals failing to reach a similar end. We often focus on the positive outcome–the mountains made, the extinction that happened–and miss how often the simple explanation predicts something that didn’t happen (kind of like the old quip that the stock market predicted nine of the past five recessions). We don’t ask, why are there no mountains in Iowa, for instance; we ask, why are there mountains in Colorado? But perhaps we need to ask both.
Occam reminds us to be distrustful of overly-complex explanations, but maybe we need to be careful not to demand too much simplicity. All theories will conflict with some observations in some way; there are always strange things that happen that are coincidences or results of unrelated phenomena. This reality means that no theory will fit every possible observation; what’s more, we tend to accept more misfits for simpler theories (for instance, the half space cooling model for ocean floor topography is widely accepted despite all the oceanic plateaus and seamounts one has to ignore to get a decent fit). Given that, we should wield the Razor more carefully least we cut off our theoretical nose to spite our parsimonious face….