Constraints on upper mantle viscosity from the flow-induced pressure gradient across the Australian continental keel

Christopher Harig, Shijie Zhong, Frederik J. Simons

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The thickness of continental lithosphere varies considerably from tectonically active to cratonic regions, where it can be as thick as 250-300 km. Embedded in the upper mantle like a ship, when driven to move by a velocity imposed at the surface, a continental keel is expected to induce a pressure gradient in the mantle. We hypothesize that the viscosity of the asthenosphere or the shear coupling between lower lithosphere and asthenosphere should control this pressure effect and thus the resulting dynamic topography. We perform three-dimensional finite element calculations to examine the effects of forcing a continental keel by an imposed surface velocity, with the Australian region as a case study. When the upper mantle is strong but still weaker than the lower mantle, positive dynamic topography is created around the leading edge, and negative dynamic topography is created around the trailing edge of the keel, which is measurable by positive and negative geoid anomalies, respectively. For a weak upper mantle the effect is much reduced. We analyze geoidal and gravity anomalies in the Australian region by spatiospectral localization using Slepian functions. The method allows us to remove a best fit estimate of the geographically localized low spherical harmonic degree contributions. Regional geoid anomalies thus filtered are on the order of 10 m across the Australian continent, with a spatial pattern similar to that predicted by the models. The comparison of modeled and observed geoid anomalies places constraints on mantle viscosity structure. Models with a two-layer mantle cannot sufficiently constrain the ratio of viscosity between the upper and lower mantle. The addition of a third, weak, upper mantle layer, an asthenosphere, amplifies the effects of keels. Our three-layer models, with lower mantle viscosity of 3 × 1022 Pa s, suggest that the upper mantle (asthenosphere) is 300 times weaker than the lower mantle, while the transition zone (400-670 km depths) has a viscosity varying between 1021 and 1022 Pa s.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numberQ06004
JournalGeochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems
Issue number6
StatePublished - Jun 2010

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geophysics
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


  • Asthenosphere
  • Continental keel
  • Geoid
  • Mantle
  • Rheology
  • Spatiospectral localization


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