From Geodynamics to Simplicity

Don L. Anderson

California Institute of Technology, Seismology Lab- M/C 252-21, Pasadena, CA 91125

Mantle convection and plate tectonics are often thought as synonymous. Convection is sometimes treated as the driver or plate tectonics is viewed as simply a manifestation of mantle convection. Mantle plumes are regarded as supplying some of the elements missing in the plate tectonic and mantle convection paradigms, such as island chains, swells and large igneous provinces. An alternate view is motivated by Prigogine's concept of far-from-equilibrium self-organization (SOFFE), not to be confused with Bak's self-organized criticality (SOC). In a SOFFE system the components interact, and the system is small compared to the outside world to which it is open. There must be multiple possible states and dissipation is important. Such a system is sensitive to small changes. Rayleigh-Benard convection in a container with isothermal walls is such a self-organizing system; the driving bouyancy and the dissipation (viscosity) are in the fluid. In Marangoni convection the driving forces (surface tension) and dissipation are in the surface film and this organizes the surface and the underlying fluid. The mantle provides energy and matter to the interacting plate system but forces in the plates drive and dissipate the energy. Thus, plate tectonics may be a SOFFEE system that drives convection,as are systems cooled from above, in general. If so, plates will reorganize as boundary conditions change; incipient plate boundaries will emerge as volcanic chains at tensile regions. Plates are defined as regions of lateral compression (force chains), rather than strength, and they are ephemeral. The plate system, rather than mantle viscosity, will modulate mantle cooling. The supercontinent cycle, with episodes of reorganization and massive magmatism, may be a manifestation of this far-from-equilibrium, driven from above, system. Geodynamics may be simpler than we think. Plate tectonics is certainly a more powerful concept once the concepts of rididity, elasticity, homogeneity, steady-state, equilibrium and uniformity are dropped or modified, as qualifiers of the system,as recommended in Occam's philosophy.