Seismic Imaging of the Global Asthenosphere using SS Precursors

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Virginia Tech


The asthenosphere, a weak layer beneath the rigid lithosphere, plays a fundamental role in the operation of plate tectonics and mantle convection. While this layer is often characterized by low seismic velocity and high seismic attenuation, the global structure of the asthenosphere remains poorly understood. In this dissertation, twelve years of SS precursors reflected off the top and bottom of the asthenosphere, namely, the LAB and the 220-km discontinuity, are processed to investigate the boundaries of the asthenosphere at a global scale. Finite-frequency sensitivities are used in tomography to account for wave diffraction effects that cannot be modeled in global ray-theoretical tomography.

Strong SS precursors reflected off the LAB and the 220-km discontinuity are observed across the global oceans and continents. In oceanic regions, the LAB is characterized by a large velocity drop of about 12.5%, which can be explained by 1.5%-2% partial melt in the oceanic asthenosphere. The depth of the Lithosphere Asthenosphere Boundary is about 120 km, and its average depth is independent of seafloor age. This observation supports the existence of a constant-thickness plate in the global oceans. The base of the asthenosphere is imaged at a depth of about 250 km in both oceanic and continental areas, with a velocity jump of about ∼ 7% across the interface. This finding suggests that the asthenosphere in oceanic and continental regions share the same defining mechanism.

The depth perturbations of the oceanic 220-km discontinuity roughly follow the seafloor age contours. The 220-km topography is smoother beneath slower-spreading seafloors while it becomes rougher beneath faster-spreading seafloors. In addition, the roughness of the 220-km discontinuity increases rapidly with spreading rate at slow spreading seafloors, whereas the increase in roughness is much slower at fast spreading seafloors. This observation indicates that the thermal and compositional structures of seafloors formed at spreading centers may have a long-lasting impact on asthenospheric convections.

In continental regions, a broad correlation is observed between the 220-km discontinuity depth structure and surface tectonics. For example, the 220-km discontinuity depth is shallower along the southern border of the Eurasian plate as well as the Pacific subduction zones. However, there is no apparent correlation between 3-D seismic wavespeed in the upper mantle and the depths of the 220-km discontinuity, indicating that secular cooling has minimum impact on the base of the asthenosphere.



Asthenosphere, Low Velocity Zone, Partial Melt, Lithosphere Asthenosphere Boundary (LAB), 220-km Discontinuity, SS Precursors