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Supercomputer Dives Into the Earth's Core

Mar 24, 2015 12:41 PM EDT

Traveling into the deepest depths of the Earth has frequently been a premise for some of Hollywood's more ridiculous science-fiction movies. However, experts have long known that there is no place for humanity - or life as we know it - under the incredible heat and pressure's of our planet's core. Now, researchers are using some of the world's most powerful supercomputers to look where we physically cannot.

That's at least according to Princeton University's Jeroen Tromp, who has embarked on a new and ambitious project to map the Earth's entire mantle, which stretches to a depth of about 1,800 miles - that's about 300 times deeper than humans have ever drilled.

So how the heck does he hope to pull this off? Interestingly, earthquakes and computers both have a big part to play.

"Seismology is changing at a fundamental level due to advances in computing power," Tromp recently said in a statement. "If someone had told me what seismology would look like 20 years from when I graduated from Princeton in 1992, I would have never believed it."

Tromp and a team of student researchers up to the task will reportedly be using one of the world's fastest supercomputers, named Titan, from the Department of Energy's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Titan can perform more than 20 quadrillion calculations per second, allowing it to easily assess quake data collected by the team. (Scroll to read on...)

According to the researchers, while earthquakes are destructive, the waves they send rippling through the mantle also help reveal the existence of structures such as mineral deposits, subterranean lakes, and upwellings of magma.

That's why they hope to look at about 3,000 quakes above a magnitude of 5.5 in all - which will include data from thousands of seismographic stations worldwide and distributed via the National Science Foundation's Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology. The team expects to have preliminary results from the first rounds of calculations by 2015's end.

"The ultimate goal is a 3-D map on a global scale," Tromp added. "We are specifically interested in the structure of mantle upwellings and plumes... but much of it will be investigating the images for unusual features."

The team notes that their work is not all that different from a medial computerized tomography (CAT) scan, in which a series of cross-sectional images captured by non-invasive means help create a whole 3-D image. (Scroll to read on...)

However, the churning rivers of semisolid rock that stretch down to the Earth's core obviously amount to far more of anything than has ever been CAT scanned at once. Even with Titan's help, it could take quite some time for the work to reach its final product, and by then, some worry that the mantle will have already radically changed.

Such was the bane of pioneering cartographers in the past, where maps of new territory and trails were rendered near-obsolete by the time settlers (such as on the Oregon trail) finally got moving.

However, it's important to note that this new work isn't intended for physical exploration. While the idea is no-doubt exciting, Tromp does not actually expect humanity to ever dive into Earth's deepest depths.

Instead, the data will help seismologists better understand what structural changes and instabilities cue powerful natural phenomena such as earthquakes or volcanic eruptions. This could, in turn, lead to better prediction models.

And the team has already put their strategy to the test in past studies. The latest one, published in the Journal of Geophysical Research, details how Tromp and his colleagues were able to roughly map the mantle beneath East Asia using 227 quakes.

This mini-project revealed the vast variety of structural cues the team will have to keep their eyes peeled for, even as they work with Titan and a much larger data set.

"You don't know what it is you are looking for, you are hunting," Tromp added. "That is the real challenge, and that is the wonderful part of this project - waiting to see what we will discover."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS

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