Broad plumes rooted at the base of the Earth's mantle beneath major hotspots

Nature. 2015 Sep 3;525(7567):95-9. doi: 10.1038/nature14876.


Plumes of hot upwelling rock rooted in the deep mantle have been proposed as a possible origin of hotspot volcanoes, but this idea is the subject of vigorous debate. On the basis of geodynamic computations, plumes of purely thermal origin should comprise thin tails, only several hundred kilometres wide, and be difficult to detect using standard seismic tomography techniques. Here we describe the use of a whole-mantle seismic imaging technique--combining accurate wavefield computations with information contained in whole seismic waveforms--that reveals the presence of broad (not thin), quasi-vertical conduits beneath many prominent hotspots. These conduits extend from the core-mantle boundary to about 1,000 kilometres below Earth's surface, where some are deflected horizontally, as though entrained into more vigorous upper-mantle circulation. At the base of the mantle, these conduits are rooted in patches of greatly reduced shear velocity that, in the case of Hawaii, Iceland and Samoa, correspond to the locations of known large ultralow-velocity zones. This correspondence clearly establishes a continuous connection between such zones and mantle plumes. We also show that the imaged conduits are robustly broader than classical thermal plume tails, suggesting that they are long-lived, and may have a thermochemical origin. Their vertical orientation suggests very sluggish background circulation below depths of 1,000 kilometres. Our results should provide constraints on studies of viscosity layering of Earth's mantle and guide further research into thermochemical convection.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.