The many surface expressions of mantle dynamics

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
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Plate tectonic theory suggests that present-day topography can be explained by the repeated interactions between the tectonic plates moving along Earth's surface. However, mounting evidence indicates that a significant proportion of Earth's topography results from the viscous stresses created by flow within the underlying mantle, rather than by the moving plates. This dynamic topography is transient, varying as mantle flow changes, and is characterized by small amplitudes and long wavelengths. It is therefore often hidden by or confused with the more obvious topographic anomalies resulting from horizontal tectonic movements. However, dynamic topography can influence surface processes and thus enter the geological record; it has, for example, played a role in the establishment of Amazon drainage patterns. In turn, surface processes such as the erosion of topographical anomalies could affect mantle flow. This emerging view of dynamic topography suggests that the concept of plate tectonics as the driver of surface deformation needs to be extended to include the vertical coupling between the mantle and the surface. Unravelling this coupling back in time with the help of models and the geological record can potentially provide unprecedented insights into past mantle dynamics.

At a glance


  1. Dynamic topography.
    Figure 1: Dynamic topography.

    a, Simple sketch illustrating how flow in the mantle generates dynamic surface topography. The red and blue circles represent low (hot) and high (cold) density anomalies in the mantle; the black arrows represent the induced mantle flow; resulting dynamic topography is also shown. b, Normal, isostatically compensated, tectonic topography is created by thinning or thickening of the crust and lithosphere in response to tectonic plate motions (yellow arrows). Where plates converge, the crust is thickened and mountains (or positive topography) are created; where plates diverge, the crust is thinned and a basin forms. Note that the deflections of the surface and crust are highly exaggerated in both diagrams. Real Earth topography is only a few kilometres high, which is very small in comparison to its 6,700 km radius.

  2. Estimates of present-day dynamic topography.
    Figure 2: Estimates of present-day dynamic topography.

    a, Observed dynamic or 'residual' topography as computed by removing the isostatically compensated, tectonically driven component of surface topography. b, Dynamic topography as computed by a numerical model of mantle convection driven by density anomalies derived from seismic tomography images. c, Distribution of computed dynamic topography and its rate of change, as a function of wavelength (R. Moucha, personal communication). Parts a and b reproduced with permission from: a, ref. 6, © 2007 Elsevier; b, ref. 10, © 2008 Elsevier.

  3. Components needed to compute past dynamic topography.
    Figure 3: Components needed to compute past dynamic topography.

    a, Recent seismic station network recording large, distant earthquakes. Red dots correspond to seismic recording stations used to construct a global three-dimensional seismic image of the mantle as shown in b. The colour indicates the speed of seismic waves, blue is fast, red is slow. c, Example of the complex relationship between rock density (ρ) and seismic shear wave speed (Vs) as a function of depth, used to convert seismic tomography maps into density anomaly maps and drive mantle convection models, where R is the scaling between seismic velocity heterogeneity and density perturbations; for a discussion on the range of possible value for these parameters see refs 52, 56. d, Example of a radial viscosity profile used in numerical convection models. Figures reproduced with permission from: a,b, ref. 47, © 2008 Elsevier; c, ref. 55, © 2007 AGU; d, ref. 56, © 2007 Elsevier.

  4. The advection of present-day mantle-flow models backwards in time.
    Figure 4: The advection of present-day mantle-flow models backwards in time.

    Results of a numerical convection model (achieved following the steps illustrated in Fig. 3) showing computed temperature and velocity fields beneath North America (top panels), as well as the evolving dynamic topography over the past 100 Myr (bottom panels). In the top panels, the blue curve shows the model-predicted dynamic topography along the cross-section shown in the bottom panels; the red curve shows the predicted horizontal surface velocity (or plate motion) along the cross-section. Reproduced with permission from ref. 29, © 2009 AGU.

  5. Example of computed dynamic topography and its comparison to the geological record.
    Figure 5: Example of computed dynamic topography and its comparison to the geological record.

    Computed palaeogeographic maps (a,b) and corresponding dynamic topography (c,d) beneath Australia30, shown in a system of reference where Australia is fixed in its present-day position. The contours of dynamic topography (in metres) illustrate the rapid northward motion of the Australian plate relative to a large mantle downwelling that is responsible for the apparent sea-level variations along most of the continental margins. Magenta line corresponds to Pliocene palaeo-shoreline72. Red dots and labels correspond to the locations of wells used to constrain the model. Reproduced with permission from ref. 30, © 2010 Elsevier.

  6. How eroding dynamic topography can affect mantle flow.
    Figure 6: How eroding dynamic topography can affect mantle flow.

    Results of a three-dimensional viscous-flow numerical model illustrating the importance of how surface processes can accelerate flow in an isoviscous mantle. The time steps at which the results are shown are identical in the two experiments. In the first simulation, where surface processes are turned off (panels a–e), the rigid, light sphere rises almost twice as slowly as in the second simulation (panels f–j) where surface processes are sufficiently efficient to erode dynamic topography at the rate it is being created by mantle flow. See supplementary information for animations of these simulations.

  7. Earth's erosion rate compared with mantle anomalies' rising velocity.
    Figure 7: Earth's erosion rate compared with mantle anomalies' rising velocity.

    a, Sphere rising velocity versus imposed erosion rate (both normalized by the maximum rising velocity, that is measured in the full erosion experiment) as obtained in four separate numerical experiments, similar to those shown in Fig. 6. The rising velocity is the maximum value achieved by the sphere during the experiment. b, Rate of rise of a light sphere rising in the Earth's mantle, as a function of its radius. The Stokes velocity VStokes = 2/9((Drga2)/m) of an object is the rate at which a light, rigid sphere of equivalent volume rises in a viscous fluid, which depends only on its radius, a, the density contrast between the sphere and the fluid, Dr, the acceleration due to gravity, g, and the fluid viscosity, m. I have assumed a mean mantle viscosity of 5×1021 Pa·s and a density anomaly of 10 kg m−3, based on our best estimates of these values for the Earth's mantle as shown in Fig. 3b,c,d.


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  1. Laboratoire de Géodynamique des Chaînes Alpines, Université Joseph Fourier de Grenoble, 38041 Grenoble, France.

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