Research

I work to improve resolution of the structure of the deep Earth and integrate my results with the work of geodynamics, mineral physics, and geochemistry to better understand the Earth’s evolution. My tools are observational seismology and waveform modelling. I investigate structures in the mantle and core across a range of spatial scales often using single stations and seismic arrays of various sizes.

 

The mantle:

Mantle convection constantly introduces heterogeneity into the mantle through subduction. Small, kilometre-scale heterogeneity distributed throughout the mantle is responsible for much of the energy that we observe in the high-frequency seismic wavefield. The distribution of this heterogeneity is likely controlled by the patterns of mantle convection. By observing scattered seismic energy and mapping the systematic distribution of the causative heterogeneities we can begin to track the movement of the deep Earth through time.

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The scattering of seismic body wave energy by discrete volumes with sharply contrasting elastic parameters (bulk and shear moduli and density) is responsible for the long codas of energy that often follow the arrivals of major phases. The direct wave makes investigation of the coda waves challenging. However, for some ray geometries (such as PKPdf, the wave that samples the Earth’s mantle, outer and inner cores), scattered seismic waves can arrive as precursors the direct wave, thus can be more easily identified.

Seismic arrays, collections of closely spaced seismometers, allow resolution of the direction of the incoming energy. By identifying scattered seismic energy with seismic arrays I am able to precisely determine the direction, and thus the location in the Earth of the heterogeneity responsible for the scattering. With this approach I have mapped volumetric heterogeneity throughout the mantle under South Africa (Frost et al., 2013). Through analysis of the frequency content of the scattered energy I resolved the size of the heterogeneity to be around 3-7 km, and determined that heterogeneity within 300 km of the Core-Mantle Boundary (CMB) is more concentrated around the edges of large, convective mantle structure (the LLSVPs) (Frost et al., 2017a). I further mapped scattering heterogeneities within the mantle from the CMB to the surface, finding that heterogeneities are more common close to mantle features likely associated with convection (Frost et al., 2018).

The core:

The iron core occupies only 15% of the volume of the Earth. yet supplies a significant proportion of the heat budget, and is the source of the magnetic field. Interactions across the CMB may affect the composition of the Earth’s lower mantle, and modulate the pattern of the magnetic field. Meanwhile, the inner core affects the pattern of convection in the outer core, and thus likely the magnetic field. The growth of the inner core is likely recorded in it’s crystal structure, which may manifest as seismically resolvable velocity variations.

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Through travel time anomalies on the body wave PKPdf, the seismic velocity in the inner core (IC) has been observed to depend on the direction along which is it is sampled, known as anisotropy. This is supported by measurements of core-sensitive free oscillations of the Earth that show anomalous splitting. The fast axis of anisotropy most is most likely aligned with the rotation axis, and observations suggest that the magnitude of the anisotropy shows hemispherical differences, with the western hemisphere of the IC being more anisotropic than the eastern hemisphere. However, sampling of Earth’s interior is limited by the global distribution of sources and receivers, which is particularly poor along paths close to the fast axis of anisotropy, thus observed patterns may not be representative of the IC.

In my work I aim to resolve the details of the velocity structure of the IC, and thus uncover its history so that we can understand its role in whole Earth evolution. I have applied array methods to study the low amplitude core wave PKPdf2 (or P′P′) at angles close to the fast axis of anisotropy and found that the upper outer core need not be as strongly anisotropy as was previously proposed (Frost and Romanowicz, 2017). Meanwhile, specific paths show stronger travel time anomalies, suggesting an origin outside of the IC.

New data from recently seismic deployments in Alaska and Antarctica have allowed me to better understand the pattern of anisotropy, especially along paths through the deep IC. I find that anisotropy continues to the core’s centre, and the fast axis remains aligned with the rotation axis, in contrast to several recent studies (Frost and Romanowicz, submitted). Furthermore, anisotropy increases further into the IC, but this pattern appears to depend not on depth, but on axial distance from the rotation axis (Frost and Romanowicz, in prep).

Through mapping the structure of the core we will be better able to understand its growth history, and thus its influence on the rest of the Earth.

 

The contamination of seismic images by mantle heterogeneity:

The seismic signals that penetrate into the deep Earth may contain interference from complexities in the shallow Earth. In particular, subduction introduces strong velocity heterogeneity into the mantle. Many seismic sources are in regions of subduction, and sometimes seismic stations may overlie these heterogeneities. I aim to understand how these plates act as a lens distorting the seismic waves and affecting our view of the deep Earth, especially the inner and outer cores core. This will help to better bring the life and history of the inner core into focus.

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Adapting array methodology to lower frequency data, I have investigated the influence of mantle structure on the wave SmKS, which has been used to study structure in the upper outer core (OC). Arrays allow me to detect changes in the direction of the incoming wave, in addition to travel time anomalies, all of which help me to map the 3D structure of the mantle.

The recently deployed Alaskan element of Earthscope’s transportable array provides an opportunity to study the effects of upper mantle structure on the inner core wave PKPdf. The effect of the Alaskan slab can be seen in travel time anomalies that are usually attributed to the anisotropic character of the inner core. In an NSF funded project “Resolving the influence of mantle heterogeneity on estimates of inner core anisotropy”, I will employ waveform modelling to replicate the travel time anomalies caused by the Alaskan slab, which will help me to both improve the resolution of inner core anisotropy, and understand the geometry of the subducted slab at depth.