Dynamic topography, plate driving forces and the African superswell


Discovering the connection between processes observed to occur at the surface of the Earth and its internal dynamics remains an essential goal in the Earth sciences. Deep mantle structure, as inferred from seismic tomography or subduction history, has been shown to account well for the observed surface gravity fieldand motions of tectonic plates1,2,3. But the origin of certain large-scale features, such as the anomalous elevation of the southern and eastern African plateaux, has remained controversial. Whereas the average elevation of most cratons is between 400 and 500 m, the southern African plateau stands more than 1 km above sea level, with the surrounding oceans possessing a residual bathymetry in excess of 500 m (ref. 4). Global seismic tomography studies have persistently indicated the existence of a large-scale low-velocity anomaly beneath the African plate5,6,7,8,9,10 and here we show that mantle flow induced by the density variations inferred from these velocity anomalies can dynamically support the excess elevation of the African ‘superswell’. We also find that this upwelling mantle flow—which is most intense near the core–mantle boundary—constitutes a significant driving force for tectonic plates in the region.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Comparison of the residual topography over Africa and the predicted dynamic topography given by the subduction history model and Grand's tomographic model9.
Figure 2: Torque magnitudes of individual driving forces for plates in the Atlantic basin.


  1. 1

    Hager, B. H.et al. Lower mantle heterogeneity, dynamic topography and the geoid. Nature 313, 541–454 (1985).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Ricard, Y., Richards, M., Lithgow-Bertelloni, C. & LeStunff, Y. Ageodynamical model of mantle density heterogeneity. J. Geophys. Res. 98, 21895–21909 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Lithgow-Bertelloni, C. & Richards, M. A. Cenozoic plate driving forces. Geophys. Res. Lett. 22, 1317–1320 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Nyblade, A. A. & Robinson, S. W. The African superswell. Geophys. Res. Lett. 21, 765–768 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Dziewonski, A. M. Mapping the lower mantle: determination of lateral heterogeneity in P velocity up to degree and order 6. J. Geophys. Res. 89, 5929–5952 (1984).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Su, W.-J., Woodward, R. L. & Dziewonski, A. M. Degree 12 model of shear velocity heterogeneity in the mantle. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 6945–6980 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Li, X. D. & Romanowicz, B. Global shear-velocity model developed using nonlinear asymptotic coupling theory. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 22245–22272 (1996).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Masters, G., Johnson, S., Laske, G. & Bolton, H. Ashear-velocity model of the mantle. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 354, 1385–1411 (1996).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Grand, S. P., van der Hilst, R. D. & Widiyantoro, S. Global seismic tomography: a snapshot of convection in the Earth. GSA Today 7, 1–7 (1997).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    van der Hilst, R., Widiyantoro, S. & Engdahl, R. Evidence for deep mantle circulation from global tomography. Nature 386, 578–584 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Gurnis, M. Phanerozoic marine inundation of continents driven by dynamic tomography above subducting slabs. Nature 364, 589–593 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Nyblade, A. A.et al. Terrestrial heat flow in east and southern Africa. J. Geophys. Res. 95, 17371–17384 (1990).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Brown, C. & Girdler, R. W. Interpretation of African gravity and its implication for the breakup of the continents. J. Geophys. Res. 85, 6443–6455 (1980).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Cazenave, A., Souriau, A. & Dominh, K. Global coupling of Earth surface topography with hotspots, geoid and mantle heterogeneities. Nature 340, 54–57 (1989).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Colin, P. & Fleitout, L. Topography of the ocean floor: thermal evolution of the lithosphere and interaction of mantle heterogeneities with the lithosphere. Geophys. Res. Lett. 11, 1961–1964 (1990).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    LeStunff, Y. & Ricard, Y. Topography and geoid due to lithospheric mass anomalies. Geophys. J. Int. 122, 982–990 (1995).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Thoraval, C., Machetel, P. & Cazenave, A. Locally layered convection inferred from dynamic models of the earth's mantle. Nature 375, 777–780 (1995).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    LeStunff, Y. & Ricard, Y. Partial advection of equidensity surfaces: a solution for the dynamic topography problems?. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 24655–24667 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Christensen, U. R. Dynamic phase boundary topography by latent heat effects. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 154, 295–306 (1998).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Hager, B. H. & O'Connell, R. J. Asimple global model of plate dynamics and mantle convection. J.Geophys. Res. 86, 4843–4867 (1981).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    Lithgow-Bertelloni, C. & Gurnis, M. Cenozoic subsidence and uplift of continents from time-varying dynamic topography. Geology 25, 735–738 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Farnetani, C. G. & Richards, M. A. Numerical investigations of the mantle plume initiation model for flood basalt events. J. Geophys. Res. 99, 13813–13833 (1994).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Richards, M. A. & Hager, B. H. Geoid anomalies in a dynamic earth. J. Geophys. Res. 89, 5987–6002 (1984).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Ricard, Y., Fleitout, L. & Froidevaux, C. Geoid heights and lithospheric stresses for a dynamic earth. Ann. Geophys. 2, 267–286 (1984).

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Mitrovica, J. X. & Forte, A. M. Radial profile of mantle viscosity: results from the joint inversion of convection and postglacial rebound observables. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 2751–2769 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Karato, S.-I. Importance of anelasticity in the interpretation of seismic tomography. Geophys. Res. Lett. 20, 1623–1626 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Forte, A. M., Peltier, W. R., Dziewonski, A. M. & Woodward, R. L. Dynamic surface topography—a new interpretation based upon mantle flow models derived from seismic tomography. Geophys. Res. Lett. 19, 1555–1558 (1993).

    Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    White, N. & Lovell, B. Measuring the pulse of a plume with the sedimentary record. Nature 387, 888–891 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank S. Grand for providing his model, and A. Nyblade for providing the data for Fig. 1a. We also thank H. Pollack and A. Nyblade for comments. The manuscript was significantly improved by comments from U. Christensen and Y. Ricard. C.L.-B. was supported by a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellowship; P.G.S. and C.L.-B. were supported by the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Carolina Lithgow-Bertelloni.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 39 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Lithgow-Bertelloni, C., Silver, P. Dynamic topography, plate driving forces and the African superswell. Nature 395, 269–272 (1998). https://doi.org/10.1038/26212

Download citation

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing