UCL team records Earth’s ‘pulse’ on ocean floor

A new project led by UCL will deploy 50 seismometers on the Atlantic Ocean floor, aiming to improve understanding of movements within Earth’s interior.

UCL
IPMA research vessel Mário Ruivo. Credit: IPMA

The seismometers detect vibrations due to seismic waves and will be deployed across a region encompassing the Canary Islands and the archipelagos of Azores and Madeira. They will continuously record the Earth’s ground motions — the planet’s ‘pulse’ — for a year.

Named UPFLOW (Upward mantle FLOW from novel seismic observations), the project is funded with a €2.8m grant from the European Research Council and involves collaboration with institutions in Germany, Ireland, Spain and Portugal.

“This is a first of a kind seismic experiment,” said primary investigator professor Ana Ferreira, UCL Earth Sciences. “It is the first time we have covered such a large region of the North Atlantic Ocean with these highly sensitive instruments. 

“By analysing their data, we hope to better understand the massive motions occurring hundreds of kilometres deep in the Earth’s mantle — in particular, upward flows of material that we still do not understand very well. These motions are what ultimately cause volcanic eruptions and can also lead to Earthquakes.”

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The project will use a new seismic imaging method (a new way to characterise the structure under the Earth’s surface by analysing seismic waves) previously used by astrophysicists to study distant galaxies.

Professor Ferreira added that the data will have a ‘tremendous legacy’, with applications in a range of areas including tracking whales, monitoring earthquakes and volcanic tremors, and examining interactions between the atmosphere, oceans and solid Earth.

Co-investigator Professor Jorge Miguel Alberto de Miranda, president of project partner IPMA (Portuguese Institute of Sea and Atmosphere), said: “The existence of the Canary Islands and the volcanic islands in Madeira and the Azores are a result of massive motions deep under the Earth’s surface. Our research will aim to uncover if there is a link in how these islands formed.”

Over the next five weeks, Ferreira will lead an expedition on IPMA’s research vessel Mário Ruivo to drop the seismometers to the ocean floor where they will anchor for a year before being collected. During the expedition, she will also take part in various outreach activities including Zoom calls with primary school classes in the UK.