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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.

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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.

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Correspondence to Carolina Lithgow-Bertelloni.

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Further reading

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.


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