Birch's Mantle

Don L. Anderson

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

Francis Birch's 1952 paper started the sciences of mineral physics and physics of the Earth's interior. Birch stressed the importance of pressure, compressive strain and volume in mantle physics. Although this may seem to be an obvious lesson many modern paradoxes in the internal constitution of the Earth and mantle dynamics can be traced to a lack of appreciation for the role of compression. The effect of pressure on thermal properties such as expansivity can gravitational stratify the Earth irreversibly during accretion and can keep it chemically stratified. The widespread use of the Boussinesq approximation in mantle geodynamics is the antithesis of Birchian physics. Birch pointed out that eclogite was likely to be an important component of the upper mantle. Plate tectonic recycling and the bouyancy of oceanic crust at midmantle depths gives credence to this suggestion. Although peridotite dominates the upper mantle, variations in eclogite-content may be responsible for melting- or fertility-spots. Birch called attention to the Repetti Discontinuity near 900 km depth as an important geodynamic boundary. This may be the chemical interface between the upper and lower mantles. Recent work in geodynamics and seismology has confirmed the importance of this region of the mantle as a possible barrier. Birch regarded the transition region (TR; 400 to 1000 km) as the key to many problems in Earth sciences. The TR contains two major discontinuities near 410 and 650 km) and their depths are a good mantle thermometer which is now being exploited to suggest that much of plate tectonics is confined to the upper mantle (in Birch's terminology, the mantle above 1000 km depth). The lower mantle is homogeneous and different from the upper mantle. Density and seismic velocity are very insensitive to temperature there, consistent with tomography. A final key to the operation of the mantle is Birch's suggestion that radioactivities were stripped out of the deeper parts of Earth and placed in the crust and upper mantle. This resolves the lower mantle overheating paradox but the stratified mantle slows down the cooling of the Earth. A completely thermodynamically self-consistent treatment of mantle dynamics, with volume and temperature-dependent parameters has not yet been attempted but the essence of this approach is contained in the 1952 paper, which is must reading for all students of Earth's interior. One implication of this paper is that lower mantle structures should be gigantic and long-lived, a prediction spectacularly confirmed by modern seismic tomography.