How has the Earth evolved, and what’s in store for the future? It’s a sticky question that has graduate student Loes van Dam covered in corn syrup by the end of a day in the lab.
She thought using a computer model would be limiting. So she designed and built a large tank, filled it with 2,000 pounds of corn syrup, and added six counter-rotating belts to study how tectonic plates drift and shift.
The corn syrup represents the Earth’s mantle, which melts to form magma at volcanoes and ridges. The belts are the drifting and shifting tectonic plates. Their intersection is the ocean ridge.
Syrup in the tank, which measures 5 feet wide, 5 feet long and 1½ feet tall, slowly moves as the belts pull apart. Cameras record the flow in what van Dam has named the “ridge zone replicator.” One minute of each experiment equals more than a million years in time, to show how tectonic plates move mantle material.
“It’s really cool that with our little experiments, we get clues about how this process has been going on in the past and why those plates are positioned the way they are now,” said van Dam, who studies geological oceanography at the University of Rhode Island’s Graduate School of Oceanography in Narragansett.