Passive Imaging of the Lithosphere Asthensphere Boundary (PiLAB)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Earth Sciences


Plate tectonics has been a fundamental tenet of Earth Science for nearly 50 years, but fundamental questions remain, such as where is the base of the plate and what makes a plate, "plate-like?" A better understanding of the transition from the rigid lithospheric plate to the weaker mantle beneath has important implications for the driving forces of plate tectonics, natural hazards, and climate change.

There are many proxies used to estimate the depth and nature of the base of tectonic plates, but to date no consensus has been reached. For example, temperature is known to have a strong effect on the mechanical behaviour of rocks, and if this were the sole process governing the definition of the plate, then we would expect to see a thin plate near a mid ocean ridge and a very thick plate beneath old seafloor. However numerous geophysical studies observe what are interpreted as nearly constant thickness plate at all seafloor ages. This has led scientists to propose other mechanisms, such as dehydration of the mantle to strengthen the mantle to form a rigid plate. Similarly, observations of very strong anomalies have led others to suggest that melt might exist to weaken the mantle beneath the plates. However many of these observations come from only one ocean, the Pacific, from indirect, remote observations, at different areas and scales, and with different sensitivities to earth properties. Although results have been promising, comparisons among studies are challenging, hindering a complete understanding of the tectonic plate.

We will systematically image the entire length of an oceanic plate, from its birth at the Mid Atlantic Ridge to its oldest formation on the African margin. This is a large-scale focused effort with multiple scales of resolution and sensitivity, from a metre to kilometre scale using seismic and electromagnetic methods. This scale, focus, and interdisciplinary approach will finally determine the processes and properties that make a plate strong and define it. The project will be accomplished through a large, focused international collaboration that involves EU partners (3.5 M euro) and industry (6.4M euro), both already funded.

Planned Impact

We have three main end users of the knowledge acquired during this grant:
1) Energy and Minerals Exploration
2) Public
3) UK companies

We will engage with the end users through the following activities:
1) 2 Workshops at IPGP to liaise with our academic partners and industry partners about the progress and developments achieved through the proposed work.
2) Outreach the public through our Discover Oceanography Program, TEATime lectures for post-16 Students, Bringing Research to Life Roadshow and Learn through US program.
3) Data Sharing, Analyses Code Sharing and Web presence.

Our milestones for success will be uptake by industry and other academics of our methods and data products, levels of access of our websites and feedback and response to our outreach efforts.


10 25 50
Description Evidence that mantle processes beneath slow spreading centres are markedly different from those beneath fast spreading centres.
Exploitation Route Research output of interest to others working on plate tectonics and mantle processes.
Sectors Energy,Environment

Description Better insight into large earthquakes on transform faults.
First Year Of Impact 2018
Sector Education,Environment
Impact Types Societal