Illustration of the Planet Earth Core Layers

Collaborative Research: As Above So Below

August 24, 2023

University of Idaho researcher Eric Mittelstaedt, Associate Professor, Department of Geological Sciences, recently received a National Science Foundation award in collaboration with his colleague Catherine (Katie) Cooper, Associate Professor, School of the Environment at Washington State University. The project aims to use numerical simulations to better understand how the Earth cools through time. Earth’s cooling rate affects an amazing array of processes necessary for life on Earth and potentially other planets, such as plate tectonics, volcanism, release of gasses from the planet’s interior, Earth’s magnetic field, etc. Researchers are specifically interested in how continents along the surface and large, continent-sized piles of anomalous material (Large Low Shear Velocity Provinces; LLSVPs) covering portions of the outer core act as insulators and change the long-term evolution of our planet.

Previous studies separately examined the insulating effects of continents and LLSVPs, but none focused on the potentially counteracting effects of simultaneous insulating bodies. Furthermore, both continents and LLSVPs act as chemical reservoirs that isolate critical elements from participating in global cycling for potentially long portions of Earth’s history. This study will quantify the resulting dynamic and thermal effects of such bodies and the implications for the Earth’s cooling history, plate tectonics, and magnetic field. Additionally, the formation and evolution of LLSVPs is still actively debated. This study will identify their likely thermal and chemical fingerprints as an additional means of testing their potential formation timing and duration.

Numerical simulations of the Earth’s mantle subject to continent and LLSVP insulators will utilize University of Idaho’s Falcon supercomputer and/or Washington State University’s Kamiak high performance computer cluster. This project will provide two years of support for a postdoctoral researcher and a graduate student at the University of Idaho along with a graduate student at Washington State University.

This project will also expand educational opportunities centered on the deep Earth through an interdisciplinary game development program with Polymorphic Game Studio that will produce a new, widely distributed, educationally focused video game designed to combat several geoscience misconceptions. In the game, players will take on the role of supremely powerful planetary engineers that modify existing inhospitable planets into habitable worlds by changing the structure and chemical composition of the planet. The goal of the game is to present an engaging, fun experience that also helps to educate players about the deep Earth. Game development activities will support a diverse, interdisciplinary group of ten undergraduate student developers.

By Michelle Reagan,
IIDS Scientific Communications and Design Specialist