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Ancient magma 'superpiles' may have shaped the continents
Date:12/15/2008

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Two giant plumes of hot rock deep within the earth are linked to the plate motions that shape the continents, researchers have found.

The two superplumes, one beneath Hawaii and the other beneath Africa, have likely existed for at least 200 million years, explained Wendy Panero, assistant professor of earth sciences at Ohio State University.

The giant plumes -- or "superpiles" as Panero calls them -- rise from the bottom of Earth's mantle, just above our planet's core. Each is larger than the continental United States. And each is surrounded by a wall of plates from Earth's crust that have sunk into the mantle.

She and her colleagues reported their findings at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Computer models have connected the piles to the sunken former plates, but it's currently unclear which one spawned the other, Panero said. Plates sink into the mantle as part of the normal processes that shape the continents. But which came first, the piles or the plates, the researchers simply do not know.

"Do these superpiles organize plate motions, or do plate motions organize the superpiles? I don't know if it's truly a chicken-or-egg kind of question, but the locations of the two piles do seem to be related to where the continents are today, and where the last supercontinent would have been 200 million years ago," she said.

That supercontinent was Pangea, and its breakup eventually led to the seven continents we know today.

Scientists first proposed the existence of the superpiles more than a decade ago. Earthquakes offer an opportunity to study them, since they slow the seismic waves that pass through them. Scientists combine the seismic data with what they know about Earth's interior to create computer models and learn more.

But to date, the seismic images have created a mystery: they suggest that the superpiles have remained in the same locations, un
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Contact: Wendy Panero
Panero.1@osu.edu
614-292-6290
Ohio State University
Source:Eurekalert  

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