Hypothetical thermal plumes in the Earth’s mantle are expected to have low seismic-wave speeds and thus would support the propagation of guided elastic waves analogous to fault-zone guided seismic waves, fiber-optic waves, and acoustic waves in the oceanic SOund Fixing And Ranging channel. Plume-guided waves would be insensitive to geometric complexities in the wave guide, and their dispersion would make them distinctive on seismograms and would provide information about wave-guide structure that would complement seismic tomography. Detecting such waves would constitute strong evidence of a new kind for the existence of plumes.
A cylindrical channel embedded in an infinite medium supports two classes of axially symmetric elastic-wave modes, torsional and longitudinal-radial. Torsional modes have rectilinear particle motion tangent to the cylinder surface. Longitudinal-radial modes have elliptical particle motion in planes that include the cylinder axis, with retrograde motion near the axis. The direction of elliptical particle motion reverses with distance from the axis: once for the fundamental mode, twice for the first overtone, and so on. Each mode exists only above its cut-off frequency, where the phase and group speeds equal the shear-wave speed in the infinite medium. At high frequencies, both speeds approach the shear-wave speed in the channel. All modes have minima in their group speeds, which produce Airy phases on seismograms. For shear wave–speed contrasts of a few percent, thought to be realistic for thermal plumes in the Earth, the largest signals are inversely dispersed and have dominant frequencies of about 0.1–1 Hz and durations of 15–30 sec.
There are at least two possible sources of observable plume waves: (1) the intersection of mantle plumes with high-amplitude core-phase caustics in the deep mantle; and (2) ScS-like reflection at the core-mantle boundary of downward-propagating guided waves. The widespread recent deployment of broadband seismometers makes searching for these waves possible.