Researchers are also investigating the possible causes of mantle plumes. Physical anomalies along the core-mantle boundary and chemical anomalies attributable to recycled surface material are two intriguing possibilities. Whatever the cause or the source of mantle plumes, they bring to the surface basaltic lavas with chemical clues about the deep mantle material from which they were extracted.
The movement of plumes through the mantle represents chemical and physical links between the interior and exterior. The mantle itself is flowing in a complicated pattern of convection. This pattern manifests itself at the surface as spreading centers and subduction zones, where vast slabs of lithosphere can be seismically traced along descending arms of the convecting system. The convection, which governs plate dynamics, may be limited to an outer layer of the mantle, possibly complementing another convection system delivering energy and material through an inner mantle. An alternative possibility suggests cells that convect through the whole of the mantle, directly linking the bottom boundary along the core to the surface characteristics of plate tectonics.
There are two layers to the Earth's core, recognizable from the distinctive behavior of seismic waves. The outer core is fluid. Only compressional waves propagate through it, while shear waves can be detected propagating within the inner core. The core is the nucleus of the internal domain, 2,900 km below the surface. Even from that remote depth it affects the crust and the atmosphere: the core is the source of the magnetic field.
Core, mantle, crust; lithosphere, hydrosphere, atmosphere, magnetosphere—every layer, every component of the earth system can be defined independently. But to understand the meaning of those definitions, the significance of the components, and the nature of the whole earth system requires consideration that transcends the specific. Exchanges between the innermost center and the outermost reaches of the earth system are ubiquitous and continuous. Earth scientists are discovering both explanations of the past and implications for the future by adopting this grand scale—the whole earth system—in their ongoing inquiries.
This expansive perspective solves old problems and presents new ones. For example, 25 years ago plate structure was recognized as a characteristic that specifically defined the lithosphere. Lately, motion of the lithospheric plates has gained a prominent position as a factor in processes that affect both mantle heterogeneity and global climate. Seismic studies have traced hot areas associated with spreading centers deep into the mantle and recently have detected slabs of cool lithospheric material descending deep beneath subduction zones. This cooler material persists over long periods; cool-temperature anomalies found in the mantle today are remnants of the breakup of the ancient continent of Gondwanaland about 150-million-years ago.
The breakup of Gondwana also caused drastic changes in climate patterns. As Africa, India, and South America drew away from Antarctica and encountered the landmasses of the north, the equatorial currents of the Tethys Sea were interrupted and deflected. After India collided with Asia 45-million-years ago, cold deep water began to accumulate off