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Weirdest Science: Possible 'Ocean' Beneath the Oregon Coast, North America

Published 05/04/21 at 5:25 AM PDT
By Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

Weirdest Science: Possible 'Ocean' Beneath the Oregon Coast, North America

(Portland, Oregon) – The discovery is several years old now, but here's a weird, weird thought: there really could be a kind of "ocean" far beneath Oregon and the Pacific coastline. In fact, there's a lot of solid evidence this very different form of water exists within the Earth, perhaps some 400 miles below everything.

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The mind-bending discovery arrived on the scene back in 2014 from Northwestern University geophysicist Steve Jacobsen and University of New Mexico seismologist Brandon Schmandt.

However, before you invoke Jules Verne and start thinking about a surfing expedition to the center of the Earth, this is not a body of water in the normal sense. Jacobsen and Schmandt are talking about a section of the Earth's crust where pressures are so high water does not exist in the usual forms we are familiar with, like liquid, ice or vapor.

Rather, it's where water is bound together with rock on a molecular level - layers they discovered evidence of underneath North America. That could well include the Oregon / Washington coastlines and the Pacific itself. It's actually a theory that geologists have had since the ‘80s, that there exists a rocky layer of the Earth's mantle some 250 miles to 410 miles below where water is trapped by the intensely high pressures of such depths.

“The weight of 250 miles of solid rock creates such high pressure, along with temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that a water molecule splits to form a hydroxyl radical (OH), which can be bound into a mineral's crystal structure,” Jacobsen and Schmandt wrote back in 2014.

Jacobsen and Schmandt were the first to provide direct evidence of this layer of liquid, which appeared in a 2014 issue of the journal Science.

They said the amount of water is likely enormous – possibly three times the amount of H2O in the planet's oceans.

Schmandt used seismic wave equipment from the USArray (part of EarthScope), analyzing the waves from earthquakes to investigate the structure of the deep crust and mantle. Jacobsen tested the geologic processes in the lab. The two discovered strong evidence on both sides of their investigation methods that matched each other.

It's a process that often include subduction, where plates are folding underneath one another. Water is getting cycled downwards, squeezed into this fourth form of liquid – not dissimilar to the ancient and crushing processes that essentially built layers upon layers of the rock formations we know on the southern Oregon coast, starting as far back as 250 million years ago.

“The water cycle involves more than just the water that circulates between the atmosphere, oceans, and surface waters,” said the journal Science, describing the findings. “It extends deep into Earth's interior as the oceanic crust subducts, or slides, under adjoining plates of crust and sinks into the mantle, carrying water with it.”

This find also sheds more light on the formation of the planet itself. All of this is further evidence for the theory that the oceans formed from beneath the planet and not from icy comets.

Yet another startling idea comes from their discoveries as well, with some impact on Oregon's coastline geology.

Jacobsen also theorized this layer of trapped water may help explain why oceans stay the same for millions of years at a time. With so much water present on the Earth, if some of it wasn't trapped beneath the surface, the oceans would be high enough to leave only mountaintops poking out of the seas. (See the original press release)

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