Don't Worry, But a Giant Blob of Hot Rock is Forming Under New England

Dec 20, 2017

Credit Ken Snow / Flickr Creative Commons

A hot mass of rock has been forming under the New England region for tens of millions of years now.

That’s according to a recent paper published in the journal Geology

Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with Vadim Levin, lead author of the paper. Levin is a geophysicist and professor at Rutgers University.

When you think of New England, you definitely don’t think of molten rock or volcanoes. Can you describe what this giant blob is for our listeners?

Yes, with pleasure, except I would appreciate an opportunity to push back on the molten part of it, because it’s not. It is warm. It is definitely rising, but it by no means is molten. Geophysics is a science of seeing inside the earth by various means, and I use seismic wave propagation – waves from distance earthquakes. We can tell that the area beneath New England is warmer than the nearby regions. We definitely don’t think of the interior of our planet as molten everywhere. Of course we have volcanoes, but they’re much closer to the surface. This region is just hot.

This is not something that is happening on a quick scale. Obviously it happens over the course of tens of millions of years. And it looks like this blob is under central Vermont, Western New Hampshire region, parts of Massachusetts. But how big is it exactly?

Well, our ability to see depends on how many eyes, if you will, we place on the surface of the Earth. Humans cannot see through rock by our own devices. We need instruments for that. So we construct antennas. We can see that it is east of St. Lawrence River, you know that would be a good marker towards the Northwest. How far it extends into the ocean is harder to see because our instruments don’t work underwater yet.

There hasn’t been any serious magma activity in New England that we know of for the past 200 million years. And as your research points out, this isn’t going to change anytime soon, but what does this discovery mean for the region? Does this upend our geology thinking here in New England?

Maybe just a bit, because New England, as you correctly pointed out, is an area where nothing really happened for a very long time. And in our textbooks we have a general description of what happens when a continent breaks and an ocean forms. And New England sits on the edge of a very quiet area, supposedly quiet. However deep underneath it we’re finding objects and features – we call them features – that are not explained by this general process that we think of when we imagine continents coming together, and then coming apart and making oceans on the surface. So something else is happening. What exactly it is, and how it is maintained – you need energy to make these things – we’re learning that now. And it will change our understanding of how our planet works, and probably give us a good clue as to what other planets can do. Because we’re venturing off our planet, starting to look into others and it’s a good thing to understand your home world before you go elsewhere.

How do you think this research is going to change things in the long run?

While of course New England is vast and wonderful, on a global scale it’s a very small thing. We are finding other such areas of excessive warmth under the eastern seaboard of the Norther American continent. The next step is of course to look elsewhere. If they are appearing elsewhere it is a systematic process. We need to understand what it is. If they are not, then New England is truly special. It doesn’t need this to be truly special really.

We like to think of ourselves as the center of the universe.

Absolutely, especially when it comes to skiing, yes. Because I really look forward to visiting in a couple of months. Please make some snow.

We’ve got it. We’ll have more of it.

Excellent. But indeed, findings like the one published in our paper influence our thinking in two ways. First of all, we found something unexpected, which was extremely pleasant, especially given that three out of five authors are undergraduate students. It was their work, and we helped them frame it. So professors got to be first authors because we wrote it, but students did the work. But for our understanding of how the world works, well finding more of those would be great.