eEarth, 5, 1-20, 2010
© Author(s) 2010. This work is distributed
under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.
24 Mar 2010
Plate tectonics conserves angular momentum
C. Bowin
Department of Geology & Geophysics, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA 02543, USA

Abstract. A new combined understanding of plate tectonics, Earth internal structure, and the role of impulse in deformation of the Earth's crust is presented. Plate accelerations and decelerations have been revealed by iterative filtering of the quaternion history for the Euler poles that define absolute plate motion history for the past 68 million years, and provide an unprecedented precision for plate angular rotation variations with time at 2-million year intervals. Stage poles represent the angular rotation of a plate's motion between adjacent Euler poles, and from which the maximum velocity vector for a plate can be determined. The consistent maximum velocity variations, in turn, yield consistent estimates of plate accelerations and decelerations. The fact that the Pacific plate was shown to accelerate and decelerate, implied that conservation of plate tectonic angular momentum must be globally conserved, and that is confirmed by the results shown here (total angular momentum ~1.4+27 kg m2 s−1). Accordingly, if a plate decelerates, other plates must increase their angular momentums to compensate. In addition, the azimuth of the maximum velocity vectors yields clues as to why the "bend" in the Emperor-Hawaiian seamount trend occurred near 46 Myr. This report summarizes processing results for 12 of the 14 major tectonic plates of the Earth (except for the Juan de Fuca and Philippine plates).

Plate accelerations support the contention that plate tectonics is a product of torques that most likely are sustained by the sinking of positive density anomalies revealed by geoid anomalies of the degree 4–10 packet of the Earth's spherical harmonic coefficients. These linear positive geoid anomalies underlie plate subduction zones and are presumed due to phase changes in subducted gabbroic lithosphere at depth in the upper lower mantle (above 1200 km depth). The tectonic plates are pulled along by the sinking of these positive mass anomalies, rather than moving at near constant velocity on the crests of convection cells driven by rising heat. The magnitude of these sinking mass anomalies is inferred also to be sufficient to overcome basal plate and transform fault frictions. These results imply that spreading centers are primarily passive reactive features, and fracture zones (and wedge-shaped sites of seafloor spreading) are adjustment zones that accommodate strains in the lithosphere. Further, the interlocked pattern of the Australian and Pacific plates the past 42 Million years (with their absolute plate motions near 90° to each other) is taken as strong evidence that large thermally driven "roller" convection cells previously inferred as the driving mechanism in earlier interpretations of continental drift and plate tectonics, have not been active in the Earth's mantle the past 42 Million years, if ever.

This report also presents estimates of the changes in location and magnitude of the Earth's axis of total plate tectonic angular momentum for the past 62 million years.

Citation: Bowin, C.: Plate tectonics conserves angular momentum, eEarth, 5, 1-20, doi:10.5194/ee-5-1-2010, 2010.
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