The impact of crustal density variations on seismic wave propagation

Thursday, 18 December 2014
Agnieszka Plonka, Utrecht University, Utrecht, 3584, Netherlands and Andreas Fichtner, ETH Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Zurich, Switzerland
Lateral density variations are the source of mass transport in the Earth at all scales, acting as drivers of convective motion. However, the density structure of the Earth remains largely unknown since classic seismic observables and gravity provide only weak constraints with strong trade-offs. Current density models are therefore often based on velocity scaling, making strong assumptions on the origin of structural heterogeneities, which may not necessarily be correct.

We propose to develop a seismic tomography technique that directly inverts for density, using complete seismograms rather than arrival times of certain waves only. The first task in this challenge is to systematically study the imprints of density on synthetic seismograms.

To compute the full seismic wavefield in a 3D heterogeneous medium without making significant approximations, we usenumerical wave propagation based on a spectral-element discretization of the seismic wave equation. We consider a 2000 by 1000 km wide and 500 km deep spherical section, with the 1D Earth model PREM (with 40 km crust thickness) as a background. Onto this (in the uppermost 40 km) we superimpose 3D randomly generated velocity and density heterogeneities of various magnitudes and correlation lenghts. We use different random realizations of heterogeneity distribution.

We compare the synthetic seismograms for 3D velocity and density structure with 3D velocity structure and with the 1D background, calculating relative amplitude differences and timeshifts as functions of time and frequency.

Our analyses indicate that reasonably sized density variations within the crust can leave a strong imprint on both traveltimes and amplitudes. This suggests (1) that crustal tomography can be significantly biased when density heterogeneities are not properly accounted for, and (2) that the solution of the seismic inverse problem for density may become feasible.