Wax perfect material for modeling ocean floors
2 February 2005, CIESM News

Geophysicists at Cornell and Columbia University have found that wax is a perfect tool for modeling ocean floors. Using a tub of wax they have produced a predictive model of tectonic microplates-one of the most important and poorly understood features of plate tectonics-for the first time, as reported in the New Journal of Physics.

This breakthrough gives scientists a clearer understanding of the mechanisms of plate tectonics: how the land masses of the Earth shift and change over time, how earthquakes are generated, volcanoes erupt, and precious metals are concentrated in rich seams. Tectonic microplates could also help identify whether this process, which many scientists argue was a key factor in triggering the evolution of life on Earth, occurs on other bodies in the Solar System.

This is the first time that mathematical model successfully describe how 'tectonic microplates'- dynamic whirlpools of ocean floor found at mid-ocean ridges - behave, using the wax scale model of the ocean floor which is heated from below. Air-conditioning cools from above the wax so that the surface became a rigid crust while the center and the base remained molten. A pair of long straight paddles was moved slowly away from the center pulling the crust apart and causing new molten material to rise up and solidify at the surface, just like the creation of a new ocean floor at mid-ocean ridges on Earth. Researchers began to see structures growing in the wax that were very similar to transform faults, rift valleys and also zigzag rifts found on the surface of lava lakes in volcanic craters. When the paddles pulled the surface apart at a certain rate a rare spiral feature of mid-ocean ridges called microplates formed and evolved mimicking structures known to exist in the East-Pacific Rise.

Such models will help researchers predict how micro-plates will evolve over time, how the plates near them will move and shift with time and how microplates will effect the surrounding crust and the mid-ocean ridges which give birth to them.