AUSTIN (KXAN) — A newly confirmed layer of the Earth could give scientists a better understanding of plate tectonics and could help them better predict earthquakes, according to research published by the University of Texas.

The work, published in the scientific journal Nature Geosciences, was led by Junlin Hua, a post-doctoral student at UT Austin. Hua began his research while attending Brown University.

“Earthquakes (are) directly the cause of plate tectonics,” Hua said. Plate tectonics is the movement of the plates that make up the Earth’s crust. “It’s just kind of like a boat, like traveling on water.”

The plates float on the asthenosphere, a layer of the Earth’s upper mantle. It is about 100 miles beneath our feet and is the source of magma.

“The tectonic plate is like a plastic plate, and you put that on a syrup, and you try to kind of move that plastic plate. So that will certainly drag like those really sticky syrup, like in some way.”

Hua said that that this movement creates deformities in the surface of the asthenosphere. “And those (deformities) actually affect how we expect the plates to move with respect to each other.”

A new layer beneath the Earth

As plates move, they grind against one another. When this happens, we get earthquakes. So understanding this movement and the factors that influence it is vital to understanding earthquakes.

“What we are trying to know is whether or not we’re adding something else into those syrup. How will that change this motion?”

A diagram of the asthenosphere, which aids plate tectonics, where researchers at the UT Austin Jackson School of Geosciences say they detected a global layer of partial melt (shown in speckled red). Credit: Junlin Hua, Jackson School of Geosciences

Using 700 seismic stations from around the world, Hua found this new ingredient in the shape of a new layer. The layer? Partially melted rock. Not pure syrup. Not pure rock. Somewhere in the middle.

Scientists have theorized these pockets existed before, but Hua was able to prove they exist and map them. He discovered that the pockets could be found in 40%-50% of the asthenosphere.

Does the melted rock layer influence plate tectonics?

“Here we are, like solving like one part of plate tectonics,” Hua said.

The question scientists have is whether this partially melted rock is impacting how the “syrup” deforms. If it does, it could change the way the plates move.

Hua studied seismic readings and found that the rock does not influence the deformation. “what’s really determining how these things are deformed is still the solid thing instead of those melting rock.”

With this data, scientists will be able to build more accurate computer models for predicting plate movement.

According to the United States Geological Survey, there are more than twenty thousand earthquakes each year. We can not currently predict when they’ll happen.