Mineral Winds

“Hey, if you guys are gonna use one of my tables at lunchtime, you oughtta order pizza.”

“Eddie, Eddie, you’re the one asking the questions that kept Kareem here into lunch hour. You owe him, seems to me.”

“Mmm, okayyy, but Sy, you can ante up. What can I get you, Kareem?”

“Nothing, thanks, unless you’ve got a halal oven.”

“Matter of fact I do, sort of. There’s a hotspot on the top left I only use for cheese melts so it should be OK for you. No pork spatters up there ever, that’s for sure.”

“A cheese melt would be fine, thanks.”

“Same for me, Eddie.”

<a few minutes later> “Here ya go, guys, straight outta the hotspot, lightly browned on top. Better let them sit a minute, you don’t wanna burn your mouth.”

“Thanks for the warning, Eddie.”

“Whatcha got there, a map?”

“Mm-hm, red dots for Earth’s sixty confirmed or proposed hotspots. Sy wanted to know more about the one that did a number on India.”

“What’s a hotspot? It’s like a big volcano, right?”

“Related but not quite. Most volcanoes are near where two plates are colliding. The classic case is the volcanoes along the western coastlines of the Americas The continents push westward and ride over Pacific seafloor plates, even break off slabs they shove down into the mantle where the heat melts them. The molten material squeezes up through cracks and escapes through volcanoes. Look where the dots are, though.”

BOW Bowie  COB Cobb
HAW Hawai’i
ANA AnahimYEL Yellowstone

“Most of them aren’t anywhere near the edge of anything. Yellowstone and those guys in Africa are as far from an edge as you can get. And I don’t see any red dots near Japan or the Philippines which are both really active for volcanoes and earthquakes.”

“Right, Sy. The primary criterion for a hot spot is vulcanism far from plate edges. But there’s another characteristic that many share. It’s easiest to see in this close‑up. Start with the Hawai’i, Cobb and Bowie hotspots. Each one is at the head of a straight‑line chain of volcanoes, older to younger as you get closer to the hotspot. The chains even run parallel with each other. The Anahim and Yellowstone hotspots also have parallel chains but they go west‑to‑east which makes sense if the continents are moving westward. It all fits with the idea that hotspots have stable locations in the mantle, and they scribble volcanoes on the plates that move over them. That’s the basis for much of what we know about ocean‑plate motion. But.”


“There’s controversy, of course. Magnetism surveys and isotope data seem to show that some hotspots may move or even flutter slowly in some geology‑timescale wind. I just read—”

“Hey, Kareem, I’ve decorated so many pizzas with pepperoni slices I see red‑dot patterns everywhere. Your world map looks like there’s a ring of red dots around Africa and a stripe across the south Pacific. Does that mean anything?”

“We think it does, Eddie, but we’re still figuring out what. A technique called seismic tomography has given us evidence for a pair of huge somethings called LLSVPs deep into the mantle and on opposite sides of the Earth. One, unofficially known as TUZO, underlies much of Africa and that hotspot ring you noticed. The other one, JASON, is below your hotspot stripe in the South Pacific. We know very little about them so far, just that they stick out in the tomograms and they’ve probably been more‑or‑less where they are for a billion years. And no, we have no idea why hotspots appear around the edge of TUZO but along the center of JASON.”

“What else is lurking down there?”

“Who knows? The textbook diagrams show the mantle as this inert homogeneous shell sitting between core and crust. But its upper part is fluid and six times deeper than our atmosphere. The new tech is showing us currents something like winds and objects something like clouds, all at geological sizes and timescales. Classical Geophysics down there has been like doing weather science but ignoring clouds, mountains and oceans. There’s weather beneath us and we’re just beginning to see it.”

~~ Rich Olcott

Where would you put it all?

Vinnie’s a big guy but he’s good at fading into the background. I hadn’t even noticed him standing in the back corner of Cathleen’s impromptu seminar room until he spoke up. “That’s a great theory, Professor, but I wanna see numbers for it.”

“Which part of it don’t you like, Vinnie?”

“You made it seem so easy for all those little sea thingies to scrub the carbon dioxide out of Earth’s early atmosphere and just leave the nitrogen and oxygen behind. I mean, that’d be a lot of CO2. Where’d they put it all?”

“That’s a reasonable question, Vinnie. Lenore, could you put your Chemistry background to work on it for us?”

“Oh, this’ll be fun, but I don’t want to do it in my head. Mr Moire, could you fire up Old Reliable for the calculations?”

“No problem. OK, what do you want to calculate?”

“Here’s my plan. Rather than work with the number of tons of carbon in the whole atmosphere, I’ll just look at the sky-high column of air sitting on a square meter of Earth’s surface. We’ll figure out how many moles of CO2 would have been in that column back then and then work on how thick a layer of carbon stuff it would make on the surface. Does that sound like a good attack, Professor?”

“Sure, but I see a couple of puzzled looks in the class. You’d better say something about moles first.”

“Hey, I know about moles. Sy and me talked about ’em when he was on that SI kick. They’re like a super dozen, right, Sy?”

“Right, Vinnie. A mole of anything is 6.02×1023 of that thing. Eggs, atoms, gas molecules, even stars if that’d be useful.”

“Back to my plan. First thing is the CO2 was in that column back when. Maria, your chart showed that Venus’ atmospheric pressure is 100 times ours and Mars’ is 1/100 ours and each of them is nearly pure CO2, right? So I’m going to assume that Earth’s atmosphere was what we have now plus a dose of CO2 that’s the geometric mean of Venus and Mars. OK, Professor?”

“That’d be a good starting point, Lenore.”

“Good. Now we need the mass of that CO2, which we can get from the weight of the column, which we can get from the air pressure, which is what?”

Every car buff in the room, in chorus — “14½ pounds per square inch.”

“I need that in kilograms per square meter.”

“Strictly speaking, pressure’s in newtons per square meter. There’s a difference between weight and force, but for this analysis we can ignore that. Keep going, Lenore.”

“Thanks, Professor. Sy?”

“Old Reliable says 10194 kg/m².”

“So we’ve got like ten-thousand kilograms of CO2 in that really tall meter-square column of ancient air. Now divide that by, um, 44 to get the number of moles of CO2. No, wait, then multiply by 1000 because we’ve got kilograms and it’s 44 grams per mole for CO2.”

“232 thousand moles. Still sounds like a lot.”

“I’m not done. Now we take that carbon and turn it into coal which is solid carbon mostly. One mole of carbon from each mole of CO2. Take the 232 thousand moles, multiply by 12 grams, no make that 0.012 kilogram per mole –“

“2786 kilograms”

“Right. Density of coal is about 2 grams per cc or … 2000 kilograms per cubic meter. So. Divide the kilograms by 2000 to get cubic meters.”

“1.39 meters stacked on that square-meter base.”

“About what I guessed it’d be. Vinnie, if Earth once had a carbon-heavy atmosphere log-halfway between Venus and Mars, and if the sea-plankton reduced all its CO2 down to coal, it’d make a layer all over the planet not quite as tall as I am. If it was chalk it’d be thicker because of the additional calcium and oxygen atoms. A petroleum layer would be thicker, too, with the hydrogens and all, but still.”

Jeremy’s nodding vigorously. “Yeah. We’ve dug up some of the coal and oil and put it back into the atmosphere, but there’s mountains of limestone all over the place.”

Cathleen’s gathering up her papers. “Add in the ocean-bottom carbonate ooze that plate tectonics has conveyor-belted down beneath the continents over the eons. Plenty of room, Vinnie, plenty of room.”

~~ Rich Olcott