Spatial and temporal variability in Hawaiian hotspot volcanism induced by small-scale convection

Journal name:
Nature Geoscience
Year published:
Published online

Volcanism far from plate boundaries is often attributed to an underlying mantle plume1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. However, enigmatic observations of Hawaiian volcanism, such as variations in the volume of erupted volcanic material through time7, 8, a geographical asymmetry in the geochemistry of the lavas9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18 and secondary volcanism that occurs far away from the hotspot15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, cannot be explained by the classical mantle plume concept. Here we present a numerical model of mantle plume upwelling beneath Hawaii. We find that small-scale convection in the ambient mantle can erode the base of the lithosphere, creating a washboard topography on the underside of the plate. As the plate migrates over the upwelling plume, the plume interacts with alternating thicker and thinner sections of lithosphere to generate temporal variations in the flux of erupted volcanic material. The pre-existing washboard topography also causes the plume to spread and melt asymmetrically. In our simulations, this asymmetry in mantle flow generates an asymmetry in the chemistry of the erupted lavas. Finally, a more vigorous type of small-scale convection develops within the spreading plume, generating localized zones of upwelling well away from the hotspot. The associated magmatism is fed by chemically distinct material originating from the edges of the plume conduit. Our results show that shallow processes have an important influence on the character of volcanism fed by deep-rooted mantle plumes.

At a glance


  1. Overview and concept.
    Figure 1: Overview and concept.

    a, Geographic overview and bathymetry of the Hawaiian Islands. Shield volcanoes are marked with triangles and arch volcanic fields with strong acoustic reflectivity19, 20 are shaded. The shallow seafloor surrounding the islands is referred to as the Hawaiian arch (black dashed). b, Conceptual illustration of small-scale convection (SSC) interacting with the Hawaiian plume. Undulations on the base of the lithosphere (washboard pattern; dashed yellow line) were created by SSC in the ambient mantle.

  2. Visualization of the central part of the reference model.
    Figure 2: Visualization of the central part of the reference model.

    a, Horizontal (at 130km depth) and vertical cross-sections are coloured by potential temperature Tpot. The hotspot and secondary melting zones are in black. Isotherms of 1,550 and 1,620°C are white. Black arrows show the direction and strength of ambient-mantle SSC 800km upstream of the plume. See also Supplementary Movie. b, Vertical cross-section of Tpot and viscosity η through the upwelling plume oriented perpendicular to plate-motion with contours denoting log10(η). Upper panel shows a blow-up of the yellow-shaded area. Light blue arrows show the schematic flow field indicating that the plume pancake spreads asymmetrically as guided by undulations in lithospheric thickness.

  3. Source and volume flux of surface volcanism.
    Figure 3: Source and volume flux of surface volcanism.

    a, Colours give the pyroxenite contribution to volcanism (grey is no volcanism), and contours denote the rate of volcanism per area of seafloor. From outside to inside, dashed contours are at 0.01, 0.1, 1, and 10km3km−2Myr−1. The solid contours follow the same log scale shifted by 100.5. Pyroxenite contribution XPX in the centre of the hotspot is ~50%, but is slightly higher and lower along the Kea and Loa trends, respectively. This distinction persists through the postshield stage, as does the geochemical distinction between the two trends10. Rejuvenated and arch volcanism shows relatively low (~40%) and high (>97%, not shown) XPX, respectively. b, Dashed lines denote volcanic fluxes (km3Myr−1 per km of distance along the chain) for the Kea trend (red), the Loa trend (blue), and the total of both trends (black). The assumed feeding zones for the two trends are denoted light grey in a. Solid lines show the pyroxenite contribution for the same colour code, and elucidate the asymmetry of shield and postshield volcanism arising from the distribution shown in the map view in a. The bold black number indicates the total flux of hotspot volcanism in (km3Myr−1). Green and grey shadings denote the predicted durations of the major phases of Hawaiian volcanism (as defined by volume flux).


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Author information


  1. School of Ocean and Earth Sciences and Technology, University of Hawaii, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • Maxim D. Ballmer &
    • Garrett Ito
  2. Institute of Geophysics, ETH Zürich, 8092 Zürich, Switzerland

    • Maxim D. Ballmer &
    • Paul J. Tackley
  3. Department of Earth Sciences, Durham University, Durham, DH1 3LE, UK

    • Jeroen van Hunen


M.D.B. carried out the numerical experiments. M.D.B. and G.I. led the interpretation of model results and writing, followed by J.v.H. and P.J.T.

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