Linking mantle plumes, large igneous provinces and environmental catastrophes

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Large igneous provinces (LIPs) are known for their rapid production of enormous volumes of magma (up to several million cubic kilometres in less than a million years)1, for marked thinning of the lithosphere2, 3, often ending with a continental break-up, and for their links to global environmental catastrophes4, 5. Despite the importance of LIPs, controversy surrounds even the basic idea that they form through melting in the heads of thermal mantle plumes2, 3, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. The Permo-Triassic Siberian Traps11—the type example and the largest continental LIP1, 12—is located on thick cratonic lithosphere1, 12 and was synchronous with the largest known mass-extinction event1. However, there is no evidence of pre-magmatic uplift or of a large lithospheric stretching7, as predicted above a plume head2, 6, 9. Moreover, estimates of magmatic CO2 degassing from the Siberian Traps are considered insufficient to trigger climatic crises13, 14, 15, leading to the hypothesis that the release of thermogenic gases from the sediment pile caused the mass extinction15, 16. Here we present petrological evidence for a large amount (15wt%) of dense recycled oceanic crust in the head of the plume and develop a thermomechanical model that predicts no pre-magmatic uplift and requires no lithospheric extension. The model implies extensive plume melting and heterogeneous erosion of the thick cratonic lithosphere over the course of a few hundred thousand years. The model suggests that massive degassing of CO2 and HCl, mostly from the recycled crust in the plume head, could alone trigger a mass extinction and predicts it happening before the main volcanic phase, in agreement with stratigraphic and geochronological data for the Siberian Traps and other LIPs5.

At a glance


  1. Petrological constraints.
    Figure 1: Petrological constraints.

    a, Geological map of the Siberian Traps32. Dark green areas are lavas, light green areas are tuffs. The dashed black line marks the border of the province. Red lines outline areas with different magmatic activities: solid indicates maximal, dashed is moderate, and dotted is minimal. The three studied regions are Norilsk (N), Putorana plateau (P) and Maymecha–Kotuy province (M). White numbers stand for the potential mantle temperature estimated for lavas of the corresponding areas14, 17. b, FeO/MnO ratios of olivine phenocrysts over normalized Gd/Yb ratios of host lavas. The blue line marks the pressure that divides ‘deep’ lavas depleted in heavy rare-earth elements from ‘shallow’ lavas. The green oval is the reference for the almost pure shallow peridotitic mantle source and indicates the compositions of olivine and lavas from the mid-ocean ridge (Knipovich Ridge, North Atlantic) with minimum amounts of recycled ocean crust in their sources18. All olivines are the averages of the three highest Fo percentages of each sample. GA, garnet in the mantle source. c, The proportions of pyroxenite-derived melt in the mixture of pyroxenite-derived and peridotite-derived melts calculated independently of Mn deficiency (XpxMn) and Ni excess (XpxNi) (Methods). d, Integrated lava section for Siberian Traps based on the Norilsk section (Supplementary Information). Xpx is the proportion of pyroxenite-derived melt, calculated as the average of XpxMn and XpxNi for high-forsterite olivines and as XpxMn for low-forsterite olivines, because XpxNi for the latter yields systematic overestimation (Fig. 1c). Small black dots show lavas of the Norilsk section19. For abbreviations indicating the lava suites of the Norilsk area and normalization for Dy/Yb ratio, see Supplementary Information. Per, peridotite-derived melt component.

  2. Model.
    Figure 2: Model.

    a, Maximum pre-magmatic surface uplift (H) atop a spreading mantle plume with an excess temperature of 250°C. The red curve corresponds to the purely thermal plume, and the black curve corresponds to a thermo-chemical plume containing 15wt% of recycled crust. b, c, Temperature distributions (°C) in the model cross-section at model times of 0.15Myr (b) and 0.5Myr (c). The solid line marks the boundary of the depleted lithosphere, and the dashed half-circle denotes the initial shape of the starting plume. d, Snapshots of the plume breaking through the lithosphere in the domain shown by the white rectangle in f. Colours show concentrations of the pyroxenitic component in the plume or in the crystallized melt. e, f, Distribution of the pyroxenite component in the plume (Cpx) or in the crystallized melt in the model cross-section at model times of 0.15Myr (e) and 0.5Myr (f). The solid line marks the boundary of the depleted lithosphere.

  3. Model predictions.
    Figure 3: Model predictions.

    a, Evolution in time of a melt volume crossing the 50-km depth and normalized to the volume of the plume. The solid and dashed curves correspond to the models with re-fertilized lithosphere and moderately depleted lithosphere, respectively. b, Plot of the fraction of pyroxenitic component in basalts of the Norilsk cross-section against the fraction of the volume of extruded magmas. The blue colour corresponds to the ‘shallow’ melts that do not retain a garnet signature; the red colour corresponds to the deep melts that retain a garnet signature. Symbols denote data from olivine compositions; see Fig. 1b for details. Error bars correspond to 1 standard deviation of the mean of pyroxenite-derived melt proportions estimated independently from Ni excess and Mn deficiency of olivine (Methods and Supplementary Table 1). The solid and dashed curves show the modelled average melt compositions with re-fertilized and moderately depleted lithosphere, respectively. The grey rectangle shows the range of variation of the melt compositions predicted by the model.

  4. Production of volatiles and its consequences for mass extinctions.
    Figure 4: Production of volatiles and its consequences for mass extinctions.

    a, Plot of modelled CO2 (left axis) and HCl (right axis) amounts extracted from the plume against model time (lower axis). Solid curves show the minimum estimate and dashed curves the maximum estimate of CO2 and HCl extracted from the plume (Methods). The grey rectangle shows the estimated range of the released CO2 during the Permo-Triassic mass extinction23. The green area shows time dependence of the normalized volume of the magma crossing the 50-km depth, calculated for the re-fertilized lithosphere (Fig. 3a). On the top axis we show geological time and a possible model for triggering the Permo-Triassic mass extinction. GBT, gases break through. Also shown is U–Pb dating of the extinction event27 and U–Pb dating of main-phase Siberian basalts26 and intrusions15. b, Plot of mass extinction intensity (light blue field) with major LIPs (circles) against geological time (modified from ref. 33), together with the timing of different ocean modes30. Circle colours denote the timing of LIPs relative to ocean modes: blue, ‘Cretan’ mode; red ‘Neritan’ mode; blue and red together, transition mode. The scale of circle sizes is in millions of cubic kilometres. CAMP, Central Atlantic Magmatic Province; NAMP, Northern Atlantic Magmatic Provinces, OJP, Ontong Java; CP, Caribbean Plateaux; CR, Columbian River basalts.


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Author information

  1. These authors contributed equally to this work.

    • Stephan V. Sobolev &
    • Alexander V. Sobolev


  1. Deutsches GeoForschungsZentrum GFZ, Telegrafenberg, 14473, Potsdam, Germany

    • Stephan V. Sobolev &
    • Alexey G. Petrunin
  2. O.Yu. Schmidt Institute of the Physics of the Earth, Russian Academy of Sciences, 10 ul. B. Gruzinskaya, Moscow, 123995, Russia

    • Stephan V. Sobolev &
    • Alexey G. Petrunin
  3. ISTerre, CNRS, University Joseph Fourier, Maison des Géosciences, 1381 rue de la Piscine, BP 53, 38041 Grenoble Cedex 9, France

    • Alexander V. Sobolev &
    • Nicholas T. Arndt
  4. Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, 27 J.-J.-Becher-Weg, Mainz, 55128, Germany

    • Alexander V. Sobolev &
    • Dmitry V. Kuzmin
  5. V. I. Vernadsky Institute of Geochemistry and Analytical Chemistry, Russian Academy of Sciences, 19 ul. Kosygina, Moscow, 119991, Russia

    • Alexander V. Sobolev &
    • Nadezhda A. Krivolutskaya
  6. V. S. Sobolev Institute of Geology and Mineralogy, Siberian Branch of Russian Academy of Sciences, 3 prosp. Akad. Koptyuga, Novosibirsk, 630090, Russia

    • Dmitry V. Kuzmin &
    • Yuri R. Vasiliev
  7. Limited Liability Company ‘Norilskgeologiya’ Norilsk, PO Box 889, 663330, Russia

    • Viktor A. Radko


S.V.S. and A.V.S. provided major contributions to thermomechanical (S.V.S.) and petrological (A.V.S.) modelling, to the interpretation of data and to the writing of the paper. N.A.K. provided geological background and contributed to interpretation. A.G.P. contributed to the thermomechanical modelling at an initial stage. N.T.A. contributed to interpretation and writing of the paper. D.V.K. processed samples and performed the measurements. N.A.K., V.A.R. and Y.R.V. provided carefully selected samples. All authors contributed intellectually to the paper.

Competing financial interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. Supplementary Information (3.5M)

    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data, Supplementary Figures 1-6 with legends, additional references and Supplementary Tables 1-2.

Excel files

  1. Supplementary Table 3 (2.3M)

    This table contains the compositions of olivine and host lavas.


  1. Supplementary Movie 1 (3.5M)

    This animated movie shows the evolution of the potential temperature (°C) in the model of the lithospheric destruction by the hot thermo-chemical plume. Model time in mln years is shown in the left corner. The solid curve marks the boundary of the depleted lithosphere.

  2. Supplementary Movie 2 (4.1M)

    This animated movie shows the evolution of the chemical composition of the mantle (content of the pyroxenitic/eclogitic component), in the model of the lithospheric destruction by the hot thermo-chemical plume. Model time in mln years is shown in the left corner.


  1. Report this comment #27255

    Gregory Ryskin said:

    A fascinating, and cogent, picture of the interaction of the mantle plume with the lithosphere. However, the connection with the mass extinction is tenuous at best. Twenty years ago David Raup pointed out that the Big Five extinctions are not fundamentally different from the extinctions that define the stage boundaries of the geological time scale (see his book Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? and article The role of extinction in evolution ; see also the recent review ). In other words, hundreds of mass extinctions occurred over the last 542 Myr (the Phanerozoic eon). An attempt to explain a particular mass extinction without a mechanism that could conceivably cause all of them, is not likely to succeed because the question it answers is not properly posed. As emphasized by Karl Popper, the "highest attainable level of universality" must be a goal of a scientific theory.

  2. Report this comment #28314

    Martin Zähle said:

    This looks absolutly fantastic but relies on very simple thermodynamic data, running an average of your deep sample composition through thermodynamic software results in a density 200 kg/m^3 higher at 1600 °C than lherzolith at 1200 °C, so in more complex scenario your plume lacks buoyancy

  3. Report this comment #32840

    Stephan Sobolev said:

    Density difference between typical MORB eclogite and peridotite at the depth between 100 and 300 km (processed through the thermodynamic software by Sobolev and Babeyko, 1994) is about 150 kg/m3 at T=1350°C. That is used in our model and agrees well with experimental data (Aoki and Takahashi, PEPI 2004) and other thermodynamic-based calculations (Nakagawa et al, EPSL 2010). Deeper than about 300 km this difference is changing, first increasing and then decreasing.

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