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Dynamical models for the Earth's geoid


Richards, Mark Alan (1986) Dynamical models for the Earth's geoid. Dissertation (Ph.D.), California Institute of Technology.


The Earth's largest geoid anomalies occur at the lowest spherical harmonic degrees, or longest wavelengths, and are primarily the result of mantle convection. Thermal density contrasts due to convection are partially compensated by boundary deformations due to viscous flow whose effects must be included in order to obtain a dynamically consistent model for the geoid. These deformations occur rapidly with respect to the timescale for convection, and we have analytically calculated geoid response kernels for steady-state, viscous, incompressible, self-gravitating, layered Earth models which include the deformation of boundaries due to internal loads. Both the sign and magnitude of geoid anomalies depend strongly upon the viscosity structure of the mantle as well as the possible presence of chemical layering.

Correlations of various global geophysical data sets with the observed geoid can be used to construct theoretical geoid models which constrain the dynamics of mantle convection. Surface features such as topography and plate velocities are not obviously related to the low-degree geoid, with the exception of subduction zones which are characterized by geoid highs (degrees 4-9). Recent models for seismic heterogeneity in the mantle provide additional constraints, and much of the low-degree (2-3) geoid can be attributed to seismically inferred density anomalies in the lower mantle. The Earth's largest geoid highs are underlain by low density material in the lower mantle, thus requiring compensating deformations of the Earth's surface. A dynamical model for whole mantle convection with a low viscosity upper mantle can explain these observations and successfully predicts more than 80% of the observed geoid variance.

Temperature variations associated with density anomalies in the man tie cause lateral viscosity variations whose effects are not included in the analytical models. However, perturbation theory and numerical tests show that broad-scale lateral viscosity variations are much less important than radial variations; in this respect, geoid models, which depend upon steady-state surface deformations, may provide more reliable constraints on mantle structure than inferences from transient phenomena such as postglacial rebound. Stronger, smaller-scale viscosity variations associated with mantle plumes and subducting slabs may be more important. On the basis of numerical modelling of low viscosity plumes, we conclude that the global association of geoid highs (after slab effects are removed) with hotspots and, perhaps, mantle plumes, is the result of hot, upwelling material in the lower mantle; this conclusion does not depend strongly upon plume rheology. The global distribution of hotspots and the dominant, low-degree geoid highs may correspond to a dominant mode of convection stabilized by the ancient Pangean continental assemblage.

Item Type:Thesis (Dissertation (Ph.D.))
Subject Keywords:Geophysics
Degree Grantor:California Institute of Technology
Division:Geological and Planetary Sciences
Major Option:Geophysics
Thesis Availability:Restricted to Caltech community only
Research Advisor(s):
  • Hager, Bradford (advisor)
  • Ahrens, Thomas J. (co-advisor)
Defense Date:24 February 1986
Record Number:CaltechTHESIS:02122016-151411807
Persistent URL:
Default Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:9559
Deposited By: Benjamin Perez
Deposited On:17 Feb 2016 18:40
Last Modified:17 Feb 2016 18:40

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