Researchers have discovered a creeping network of volcanic plumes below the Earth’s surface that could erupt and destroy Africa in tens of millions of years
A fascinating, if not slightly terrifying, discovery has been made that suggests there is a Titanic-sized tree hidden underground that powers Earth’s volcanoes.
But let’s give some context, because you may need to channel your inner GCSE student to help you understand what’s going on down below and out of sight.
Reunion, a French island in the western Indian Ocean, is known for its rainforests, coral reefs and beaches.
It also sits on one of the largest and most active volcanic hotspots in the world.
Hidden below the surface is a vast mantle plume – columns of superheated rock – that descend to Earth’s core-mantle boundary.
If you can imagine a plume of smoke rising in a rough line before turning into a balloon-like head, it’s a bit like how you might visualize a mantle plume.
Just add a few thousand degrees for the extra temperature to melt the earth’s crust, and you’re done.
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When the magma from these plumes reaches the Earth’s surface, it eventually cools and forms “soil.” This partly explains the Hawaiian Islands, which are far from the prolific chain of volcanoes known as the “Ring of Fire”.
However, scientists have discovered more to this theory than just pillars of fire below the surface.
Instead, they discovered a huge network of mantle plumes, connected to each other like a tree and stretching for thousands of miles.
MAP COURTESY OF USGS)
Here and now, this plume feeds one of the most active volcanoes in the world, the Piton de la Fournaise. You guessed it, nestled in the French island of Reunion.
But if you travel back in time to around 65 million years ago, this plume would be the ignition point of a gigantic outpouring of lava, creating an area known as the Deccan Traps.
When the plume was beneath what is now India, its geological crisis was powerful enough to choke 1.5 million square kilometers of land. That’s enough to bury Texas, California and Montana combined.
Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
So while it’s clear that this plume packs a punch (also driving an intensely volcanic region in East Africa), it’s not clear how widespread – and therefore dangerous – it is.
A deployed team of geophysicists and seismologists set out to map the plume in 2012.
Nearly a decade later, their findings set fire to the theory that a titanic-sized tree exists beneath the Earth’s surface, linking together superheated branch-like structures that sprouted from a root. estimated almost as old as the Earth itself.
If you step back to consider such an ancient piece of natural construction, you will consider the fact that these volcanic tunnels have built a canopy of tree plumes over billions of years, seemingly unnoticed.
To be honest, it’s a little terrifying, with the Netflix series Stranger Things and the “upside down” oddly springing to mind.
The team published a report in nature geoscience that as these branches approach the crust, they appear to grow smaller, vertically rising branches – super hot plumes that underlie known volcanic hotspots on the surface.
If we assume that these tunnel-like branches continue to spread, researchers might get an idea of the planet’s future.
Study co-author Karin Sigloch said: “By looking at the core-mantle boundary, you might be able to predict where the oceans will open up.”
In fact, tens of millions of years from now, the theory is that the branch of the mantle plume currently lurking beneath Africa could send a drop erupting so large it could put the Deccan traps to shame.
With that in mind, if we haven’t moved to another planet by then, perhaps migrating out of Africa is the second best bet.