Mechanisms for oscillatory true polar wander


Palaeomagnetic studies1,2,3,4,5 of Palaeoproterozoic to Cretaceous rocks propose a suite of large and relatively rapid (tens of degrees over 10 to 100 million years) excursions of the rotation pole relative to the surface geography, or true polar wander (TPW). These excursions may be linked in an oscillatory, approximately coaxial succession about the centre of the contemporaneous supercontinent5,6,7. Within the framework of a standard rotational theory8,9, in which a delayed viscous adjustment of the rotational bulge acts to stabilize the rotation axis10, geodynamic models for oscillatory TPW generally appeal to consecutive, opposite loading phases of comparable magnitude6,11,12. Here we extend a nonlinear rotational stability theory10 to incorporate the stabilizing effect of TPW-induced elastic stresses in the lithosphere13,14. We demonstrate that convectively driven inertia perturbations acting on a nearly prolate, non-hydrostatic Earth6,7 with an effective elastic lithospheric thickness of about 10 kilometres yield oscillatory TPW paths consistent with palaeomagnetic inferences. This estimate of elastic thickness can be reduced, even to zero, if the rotation axis is stabilized by long-term excess ellipticity in the plane of the TPW. We speculate that these sources of stabilization, acting on TPW driven by a time-varying mantle flow field11,12,15,16,17,18, provide a mechanism for linking the distinct, oscillatory TPW events of the past few billion years.

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Figure 1: TPW, supercontinent phases and the Earth’s figure.
Figure 2: Modelling palaeomagnetically inferred TPW during the Mesozoic.
Figure 3: Modelling palaeomagnetically inferred TPW during the Neoproterozoic.
Figure 4: Sensitivity of numerical predictions of convectively driven TPW to variations in model parameters.


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We thank D. Evans, T. Torsvik and B. Steinberger for comprehensive and constructive reviews; A. Forte for providing us with geoid kernels; and C. Hay, N. Gomez, E. Morrow and A. Wickert for assistance with figures. We also thank A. Maloof, R. van der Voo, A. Watts, P. Hoffman, G. Spada, R. Mitchell, S. Stanley, S. Zhong, V. Tsai, D. Rowley and N. Swanson-Hysell for critical discussions; and D. Johnston and A. Knoll for reading of the manuscript. We acknowledge support from the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research and Harvard University.

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J.R.C. developed the conceptual idea for the study. All authors contributed to the technical analysis and the writing of the paper.

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Correspondence to J. R. Creveling.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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This file contains Supplementary Text, Supplementary Figures 1-5 and Supplementary References. This file was replaced on 03 May 2013, as Supplementary Figure 2 had corrupted in the original file posted online. (PDF 749 kb)

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Creveling, J., Mitrovica, J., Chan, NH. et al. Mechanisms for oscillatory true polar wander. Nature 491, 244–248 (2012).

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