The tectonic diversity of the North American continent makes it an ideal region to investigate the structure and dynamics of the continental upper mantle. Investigations of timely geophysical questions, such as the relation to geological age of the variations in the lithospheric thickness, the relation of upper-mantle anisotropy to present day asthenospheric flow and past tectonic events, the nature and strength of the lithosphere/asthenosphere coupling and the driving mechanisms of plate motions, are contingent upon obtaining high-resolution 3-D tomographic models of the isotropic and anisotropic mantle structure of the continent.
Mantle seismic velocity tomography is a powerful tool for exploring the Earth's deep structure. Interpreting the velocity anomalies as thermal anomalies allows us a snapshot glimpse of the dynamics of a convecting mantle.
Isotropic seismic velocities independent of direction are a simplifying assumption made in most tomography models. Velocity anisotropy, however, is often interpreted to exist in many areas. These range from the upper crust due to sedimentary layering, to the upper mantle as a result of viscous interaction between the underlying convecting mantle and the rigid lithospheric slabs, down to the core-mantle boundary, where chemical interactions with the molten outer core or a chemically distinct layer of old slabs may introduce anisotropy.
Anisotropy can have many causes. Often, it is a result of alignment of crystal orientation, or possibly alignment of fractures or pockets of melt within a strain field. In general, while isotropic velocities may only give us snapshots of the current thermal and chemical conditions of the mantle, anisotropy can give us a more dynamic picture by giving us additional information about the stress and strain present in the mantle.
The development and interpretation of seismic mantle tomographic results has usually proceeded under the assumption that fast and slow velocity anomalies reflect a spatially heterogeneous temperature field controlling, or being controlled by, mantle convection. Implicit in this approach is an assumption that the effect of anisotropy on seismic velocities is small in comparison with isotropic thermal or compositional effects, or that the tomographic results represent the average isotropic heterogeneity, even if individual seismic observations are affected by anisotropic structure. Velocity anomalies in the oceanic mantle are commonly interpreted as reflections of the progressive cooling (and localized re-heating) of a mechanical and thermal boundary layer consisting of the rigid oceanic lithosphere and the underlying less viscous asthenosphere. We show here that the interpretation of seismic velocity anomalies is considerably more complicated for the mantle beneath the central Pacific: in a broad area, with its center near Hawaii, seismic data reveal a regional anomaly in elastic anisotropy which produces variations of seismic velocities that are at least as large as those due to thermal effects. Seismic anisotropy is an independent indicator of strain in Earth materials, and our new tomographic results therefore provide constraints on both the buoyancy forces (thermal effects) and flow patterns in the mantle.