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“Mantle wind” blows through slab window beneath Panama

A small pool of water sourced from a deep spring in Panama. A collaborative team, including WHOI researchers, discovered abnormal geochemical compounds beneath this region, revealing details about Earth as a dynamic system. Peter Barry © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

November 19, 2021

A Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution-led team unravels the existence of a 900-mile-long mantle conduit between the Galapagos and Central America

Woods Hole, MA — Volcanic gases are helping researchers track large-scale movements in Earth’s deep interior. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists, together with a group of international collaborators, have discovered anomalous geochemical compositions beneath Panama.

This interdisciplinary team used helium isotopes and other geochemical data from fluids and rocks to show that volcanic material is sourced from the Galapagos plume, over 900 miles (1500 km) away. The findings of this study, “High 3He/4He in central Panama reveals a distal connection to the Galápagos plume”, were published today in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

“The lateral transport of plume material represents an understudied mechanism that scatters enriched geochemical signatures in mantle domains far from plumes,” said David Bekaert, postdoctoral scholar at WHOI, and lead author of the paper.

“We can compare volcanic systems to the body of a living organism; when the organism bleeds, it’s kind of like magma bleeding out of the Earth. And you can measure the composition of that magma, just like you can measure a blood type. In this study, we measured an unexpected volcanic gas composition, sort of like when a human has a rare blood type. In the case of the Earth, we then try to explain where it came from in terms of deep geological processes.”

The team showed that relatively hot material originating from Earth's deep interior travels laterally through the shallow mantle, similar to wind blowing at Earth’s surface. Chemical observations were combined with geophysical imaging of Earth’s deep interior to pinpoint the source and direction of this so-called “mantle wind”.

(L to R) Donato Giovannelli (University of Naples), Patrick Beaudry (MIT) and Maarten de Moor (National University of Costa Rica), all part of an interdisciplinary team of researchers, use a YSI Multimeter in central Panama to measure water chemistry. This is part of a WHOI-led study reporting how geochemically-enriched material travels laterally through Earth’s mantle. Peter Barry © Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Typically, material cannot easily pass through a subduction zone, where the edge of a tectonic plate, called a “slab”, acts as a barrier. However, the region beneath Panama is unusual in that there appears to be a “slab window” that allows this mantle wind to blow through. Overall, this study tells us that, even after billions of years of evolution, our planet remains a dynamic system marked by large-scale movements of solid material, miles beneath our feet.

“Exotic volcanic chemical features have previously been documented in Central America. We use these chemical characteristics as indicators for large geological processes. In this case, our findings help explain why plume-derived volcanic material shows up in central Panama, even though there are no active volcanoes there,” added Bekaert.

“Our work suggests that small bits of deep mantle material were carried by ‘mantle wind’ blowing through the window in the subduction zone. Broadly speaking, this informs us about the nature and extent of large-scale mixing processes that contribute to the heterogeneous, or diversified, nature of the solid Earth” said Peter Barry, assistant scientist at WHOI and senior author of the paper.

Many of the study’s samples were collected over the past 15 years, but only in light of the insights from other disciplines of geoscience – such as geophysics and lava studies – did the message from helium isotopes become clear.

The geochemical composition of Earth’s interior is highly diverse. It has been well established that rising plumes of superheated rock in Earth’s mantle are the main channels for transporting geochemically enriched material deep underground, but the extent to which lateral flow processes disperse mantle material far from vertical plumes, remains widely unknown. The finding of lateral transport of deep, exotic material across the Earth’s interior could have far-reaching implications for scientist’s understanding of the chemical evolution of our planet over geological time.


Fellow collaborators on this paper include:

Alan Seltzer, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

John Krantz, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Donato Giovannelli, University of Naples

Esteban Gazel, Cornell University

Stephen Turner, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Mark Behn, Boston College

Maarten de Moor, National University of Costa Rica

Sabin Zahirovic, The University of Sydney

Vlad Manea, Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, University of Bucharest

Kaj Hoernle, GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research, Kiel University

Tobias Fischer, University of New Mexico

Alexander Hammerstrom, University of Massachusetts Amherst

Justin Kulongoski, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Bina Patel, Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Matthew O. Schrenk, Michigan State University

Sæmundur A. Halldórsson, University of Iceland

Mayuko Nakagawa, Tokyo Institute for Technology

Carlos Ramirez, Servicio Geologico Ambiental

Mustafa Yücel, Middle East Technical University

Christoper Ballentine, University of Oxford

Karen Lloyd, University of Tennessee




About Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution:

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is a private, non-profit organization on Cape Cod, Massachusetts, dedicated to marine research, engineering, and higher education. Established in 1930, its primary mission is to understand the ocean and its interaction with the Earth as a whole, and to communicate an understanding of the ocean’s role in the changing global environment. WHOI’s pioneering discoveries stem from an ideal combination of science and engineering—one that has made it one of the most trusted and technically advanced leaders in basic and applied ocean research and exploration anywhere. WHOI is known for its multidisciplinary approach, superior ship operations, and unparalleled deep-sea robotics capabilities. We play a leading role in ocean observation and operate the most extensive suite of data-gathering platforms in the world. Top scientists, engineers, and students collaborate on more than 800 concurrent projects worldwide—both above and below the waves—pushing the boundaries of knowledge and possibility. For more information, please visit