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REFLECTIONS AT THE BASE OF THE MANTLE:
OBSERVATIONS OF THE D′′ DISCONTINUITY AND SPECULATIONS ON ITS CAUSE

R. BRIAN WHITE Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, Washington University, St. Louis, MO 63130

INTRODUCTION The region at the base of the mantle known as D′′ has been the topic of extensive research, especially in the past two decades [see Loper and Lay 1995, Lay et al. 1998, Wysession et al. 1998, and Garneo 2000 for recent reviews]. Characterizing this “layer” is important for understanding such questions as the dynamics of the core mantle boundary (CMB), mantle convection, plume formation, and the fate of subducted slabs. Many studies note travel time triplications due to a sharp velocity increase about 250 km above the CMB. The reason for this so-called “D′′ discontinuity” is the topic of much debate. It is not known if D′′ represents a thermal boundary, chemical boundary, or a phase change like the upper mantle discontinuities. One of the most direct ways to see this discontinuity is to look for reflections from it. Some of the earliest studies in seismology have noted anomalous seismic velocities at the base of the mantle. In fact, the term “D′′ ” was coined by Bullen in 1949 to indicate a slight velocity decrease there [Wysession et al. 1998]. However, the first definitive reflections off D′′ were not seen until Lay and Helmberger [1983] noted a 2.75% increase in VS about 280 km above the CMB. Two years later, Wright et al. [1985] found a similar increase in VP around 200 km above the CMB. Since then, a number of studies have found 1.5-3% velocity increases for both P- and S-waves at discontinuity heights above the CMB of 250 ± 100 km [Weber and Davis 1990, Weber 1993, Kendall and Shearer 1994, Loper and Lay 1995, Wysession et al. 1998]. In

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some places the increase in velocity is sudden [Weber 1993], but in others it is gradual over tens of kilometers [Lay et al. 1998] or nonexistent [Natuf and Houard 1993, Weber 1993]. High frequency P-waves can help determine the sharpness of the boundary. The D′′ discontinuity is highly variable both laterally and radially with topography of ±50 km and wavelengths of 200500 km [Lay et al. 1997]. Such small-scale variability suggests the region is either a jumble of materials with different material properties or a layer with significant topography rather than a uniform layer like the upper mantle discontinuities. Figure 1 shows a recent tomographic map of the D′′ region; P-waves do not seem to reflect as strongly as S-waves.

Figure 1 P-wave and S-wave velocity heterogeneity at 2,750 km depth. Faster than average velocities are indicated by blues, and slower than average velocities are indicated by reds. Note the much larger amplitudes of the shearwave velocity heterogeneity compared to P-wave in the D′′ layer. [Lay et al. 1998]

REFLECTED PHASES Seismic energy can only be reflected off sufficiently steep velocity gradients. An abrupt velocity increase produces a triplication in seismic travel times. By studying the arrival times and amplitudes of the triplication phases (turn above, reflect off, and turn below D′′), the location of the discontinuity can be determined [Lay and Helmberger 1983, Kendall and Shearer 1994, Wysession et al. 1998]. The phases associated with reflections off the D′′ discontinuity are called SdS and PdS [Weber and Davis 1990]. Since S-waves seem more sensitive to the discontinuity, often studies focus on SdS rather than PdS. Figure 2 illustrates the phases involved.
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Figure 2 Paths traveled by S, ScS, and SdS. SdS is often separated into Sbc and Scd. [Lay et al.. 1998]

At epicentral distances (Δ) less than 70-75˚, SdS is a simple reflection off the discontinuity, but at greater distances, the triplication complicates the picture. At these

distances, SdS separates into phases that reflect (Sbc) off the discontinuity and refract (Scd) through it before turning up again. The third phase of the triplication (Sab) involves waves that bottom out above the discontinuity [Lay and Helmberger 1983, Wysession et al. 1998]. At shorter distances Sbc and Scd arrive together as one phase SdS, but as distance increases these two phases separate. For distances less than the cross-over distance of 82˚, SdS will arrive between S and ScS phases [Kendall and Shearer 1994, Wysession et al. 1998]. Because the D′′ discontinuity is relatively weak, it is best to look for the SdS phase at large epicentral distances (Δ > 70˚) where the greater angle of incidence will enhance the amplitude of the phase. However, at such large distances, the neighboring S and ScS phases interfere with the D′′ reflections as their travel times converge. The amplitude of SdS diminishes with decreasing distance and approaches a null in the reflection coefficient at 44˚ [Kendall and Shearer 1994].

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Thus, an optimal range for studying SdS is 44˚-70˚, but below 60˚ its amplitude is most likely too small to be seen. Furthermore, at these distances, the three phases can be regarded as simple δfunctions, giving the waveforms an identical polarity and shape. Thus a cross-correlation of the phases can yield precise arrival times. Kendall and Shearer [1994] exploited this likeness of the phases to find SdS from Global Digital Seismograph Network (GDSN) data. They estimated the D′′ thickness to be 150 km to 350 km. Figures 3 illustrates the range of velocity models proposed for the discontinuity, and Figure 4 shows the relative positions S, SdS, and ScS with distance.

Figure 3 Examples of the range of models proposed for the discontinuity’s velocity structure [Wysession et al. 1998]

Figure 4 Predicted arrivals for a SH waveforms at varying distances. [Kendall and Shearer 1998]

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THE CAUSE OF D′′ In order for the magnetohydrodynamo of the core to be maintained, sufficient heat must be conducted from the core, across D′′, and into the mantle above [Lay et al. 1998]. Because the mantle is much less dense than the core, this conduction should create a thermal boundary layer (TBL) with a large temperature gradient of about 1000 °C [Stacey and Loper 1983, Farnetani 1997, Wysession et al. 1998]. This TBL interpretation of D′′ explains the ultra-low velocity zone (ULVZ) seen in the 40 km above the CMB [Wysession et al. 1998], but it does not account for a velocity increase that could produce a discontinuity over 200 km higher. However, another thermal argument can be made for thermal origin of D′′. If subducted slabs of oceanic lithosphere survive all the way down to the CMB, they could retain some of their cold signature, providing a reflector for seismic waves [Stacey and Loper 1983, Wysession 1996a,b]. There are two main problems with this theory: 1) The slabs would have to reach the CMB much faster than most geodynamical models predict; 2) There is no good explanation for why the discontinuity seems to have a uniform depth of 250 km since the slabs should sink all the way down to the CMB, creating a deeper discontinuity. One could impose layering of many slabs on the CMB to build up a layer 250 km thick (which could explain some anisotropy observed), but the problem of maintaining enough “coolness” in the rock becomes a problem. This thermal slab explanation for D′′ fits in well to the whole-mantle plume paradigm in which hot rock at the base of the mantle is heated and rises as plumes to the surface to form hot spot volcanoes. Essentially, the cold slabs, push the rock together to the point that it gets hot enough to rise. However, Farnetani [1997] points out that plumes need a temperature gradient of 200-300 °C to form. With a temperature gradient of 1000 °C, D′′ would just be too dynamic.

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While the localized plume hypothesis is attractive because it could raise slabs to the appropriate height, it may not be possible at D′′ conditions. The other major way of thinking about D′′ views it as a chemical boundary layer (CBL) rather than a TBL. This could be due to a phase transition, reactions with the core, or some primordial layer left over from the Earth’s differentiation. Since it is believed that the lower mantle is primarily perovskite, several studies have been aimed at determining its phase at CMB temperatures and pressures. Stixrude and Bukowinski [1992] found that perovskite is stable at these conditions and therefore is not likely to recrystallize. However, Natuf and Houard [1993] argue that a phase transition must be present given the lateral variations in the region. There is presently no consensus in theminerological community about whether a phase change is possible at D′′. Due to its proximity to the core, CMB rock could be reacting with the liquid outer core to produce iron-enriched rocks. Knittle and Jeonloz [1989] found that such reactions can take place. Kellogg and King [1993] advocate this process because it could help explain the isotopic signature seen in ocean island basalts. Finally, it has been proposed that the D′′ region might be leftover from the early differentiation of the Earth. If this is so, it would be heavier than the mantle but lighter than the core. This model cannot explain significant variations in topography, however.

DISCUSSION One way to study the D′′ discontinuity is by its reflections. The associated seismic phases with these reflections have been well-documented for some time. The cause of the discontinuty remains a mystery, however. Further lab work is needed to constrain minerological models, and seismic tomography with greater resolution is needed to unravel the mystery of D′′.

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With enough well-constrained bounce points on the D′′ discontinuity, a map of D′′ topography can be created. To obtain the highest density of bounce points, a seismic array with close station spacing is needed. With some of the world’s major subduction zones along strike at the appropriate distances (such as Japan, Kurils, and parts of South America), the FLED array to be deployed this summer is poised to provide the sampling needed to make high-resolution maps of the lateral variations in the D′′ discontinuity for most of the Pacific region [Wysession 2001]. It can help constrain how D′′ varies across the mid-Pacific to the Americas.

REFERENCES Davies, G.F. and M. Gurnis, “Interaction of Mantle Dregs with Convection: Lateral Heterogeneity at the Core-Mantle Boundary,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol 13, no 13, 1517-1520, December 1986. Doornbos, D.J., S. Spiliopoulos, and F.D. Stacey, “Seismological properties of D′′ and the structure of a thermal boundary layer,” Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, vol 41, 225-239, 1986. Farnetani, C.G., “Excess temperature of mantle plumes: The role of chemical stratification across D′′,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol 24, no 13, 1583-1586, 1997. Garnero, E.J., “Heterogeneity of the Lowermost Mantle,” Annual Review of Earth Planetary Sciences, vol 28, 509-537, 2000. Kellogg, L.H. and S.D. King, “Effect of mantle plumes on the growth of D′′ by reaction between the core and mantle,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol 24, 2749-2752, 1997. Kendall, J.-M. and P.M. Shearer, “Lateral variations in D′′ thickness from long-period shearwave data,” Journal of Geophysical Research, vol 99, no B6, 11575-11590, 10 June 1994. Knittle, E. and R. Jeanloz, “Simulating the Core-Mantle Boundary: An Experimental Study of High-Pressure Reactions Between Silicates and Liquid Iron,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol 16, no 7, 609-612, July 1989. Lay, T. and D.V. Helmberger, “A lower mantle S-wave triplication and the velocity structure of D′′,” Geophysical Journal of the Royal. Astronomical Society, vol 75, 799-837, 1983.

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Lay, T., E.J. Garnero, C.J. Young, and J.B. Gaherty, “Scale-lengths of shear velocity heterogeneity at the base of the mantle from S wave differential travel times,” Journal of Geophyical Research, vol 102, no B5, 9887-9910, 10 May 1997. Lay, T., Q. Williams, and E.J. Garnero, “The core-mantle boundary layer and deep Earth dynamics,” Nature, vol 392, 461-468, 2 April 1998 Loper, D.E. and T. Lay, “The core-mantle boundary region,” Journal of Geophysical Research, vol 100, no B4, 6397-6420, 10 April 1995. Nataf, H-C. and S. Houard, “Seismic Discontinuity at the Top of D′′: A World-Wide Feature?,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol 20, no 21, 2371-2374, 5 November 1993. Stacey, F.D. and D.E. Loper, “The thermal boundary-layer interpretation of D′′ and its role as a plume source,” Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors, vol 33, 45-55, 1983. Stixrude, L. and M.S.T. Bukowinski, “Stability of (Mg,Fe)SiO3 Perovskite and the Structure of the Lowermost Mantle,” Geophysical Research Letters, vol 19, no 10, 1057-1060, 22 May 1992. Weber, M. and J.P. Davis, “Evidence of a laterally variable lower mantle structure from P- and S-waves,” Geophysical Journal International, vol 102, 231-255, 1990. Weber, M., “P and S wave reflections from anomalies in the lower-most mantle,” Geophysical Journal International, vol 115, 183-210, 1993. Wright, C., K.J. Muirhead, and A.E. Dixon, “The P Wave Velocity Structure Near the Base of the Mantle,” Journal of Geophysical Research, vol 90, no B1, 623-634, 10 January 1985. Wysession, M.E., C.R. Bina, and E.A. Okal, “Constraints on the Temperature and Composition of the Base of the Mantle,” in Dynamics of the Earth’s Deep Interior and Earth Rotation, Geophysical Monograph Series, edited by J.L. LeMouel et al., AGU, Washington, D.C., 181190, 1993. Wysession, M.E., “Continents of the Core,” Nature, vol 381, 373-374, 30 May 1996a. Wysession, M.E., “Imaging Cold Rock at the Base of the Mantle: The Sometimes Fate of Slabs?,” in Subduction: Top to Bottom, Geophysical Monograph Series, edited by G.E. Bebout, D. Scholl, S. Kirby, and J.P. Platt, AGU, Washington, D.C., 369-384, 1996b. Wysession, M.E., T. Lay, J. Revenaugh, Q. Williams, E.J. Garnero, R. Jeanloz, and L.H. Kellogg, “The D′′ Discontinuity and its Implications,” in The Core-Mantle Boundary, edited by Gurnis, M., B.A. Buffet, E. Knittle, and M.E. Wysession, AGU, Washington, D.C., 273298, 1998. Wysession, M.E., “FLED NSF Proposal”, 2001. (Although, I’m sure it’s at least as old as 1999.)

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