Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Failure of plume theory to explain midplate volcanism in the southern Austral islands


It has long been recognized that the properties of the Cook–Austral chain (Fig. 1) of volcanoes in the South Pacific are difficult to reconcile with the theory that volcanic activity in plate interiors is produced by the drift of tectonic plates over narrow, stationary plumes1 of hot mantle material upwelling from depth. Radiometric dates2,3 from many island samples are younger or older than would be predicted if a single plume currently located at volcanically active Macdonald seamount4 was responsible for all of the volcanoes. Indeed, only the southernmost part of the Austral volcanic line has hitherto appeared to be consistent with plume activity, and then only within the past 6 million years (Myr)5,6. Here we report radiometric dates that demonstrate that these southern Austral volcanoes are actually composed of three distinct volcanic chains with a range of ages spanning 34 Myr and with inconsistent age progressions. Gravity anomalies and seafloor fabric suggest that the volume and location of volcanism in this region is controlled by stress in the lithosphere rather than the locus of narrow plumes rising from the deep Earth.

The solid red line is the locus of present-day sea-floor spreading in the Pacific. The broken red line is the 30-Myr isochron25. The box shows the location of the region surveyed in the southern Austral islands. Open circles (Ngatemato), triangles (Taukina) and stars (Macdonald) indicate the location of dredge sites for dated volcanic rocks; filled counterparts show the reconstructed positions of the dated volcanic rocks when they erupted using Pacific-hotspot finite rotation poles7. The thick black line gives the location of the profile shown in Fig. 3.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 2: Perspective view of the southern Austral islands showing the three distinct lines of volcanoes.
Figure 3: Flexural modelling of lithospheric loading at two distinct times.
Figure 4: Schematic representation of a model for volcanism in the Austral islands.


  1. Morgan, W. J. Convection plumes in the lower mantle. Nature 230, 42–43 (1971).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Dalrymple, G. B., Jarrad, R. D. & Clague, D. A. K-Ar ages of some volcanic rocks from the Cook and Austral Islands. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 86, 1463–1467 (1975).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Turner, D. L. & Jarrard, R. D. K-Ar dating of the Cook-Austral Island chain: A test of the hot spot hypothesis. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 12, 187–220 (1982).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Johnson, R. H. Active submarine volcanism in the Austral Islands. Science 167, 977–979 (1970).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Krummenacher, D. & Noetzlin, J. Ages isotopiques K/Ar de roches prélevées dans les possessions françaises du Pacifique. Soc. Géol. Fr. Bull. 8, 173–175 (1966).

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Duncan, R. A. & MacDougall, I. Linear volcanism in French Polynesia. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 1, 197–227 (1976).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Duncan, R. A. & Clague, D. A. in The Pacific Oceans (eds Nairn, A. E. M., Stehli, F. G. & Uyeda, S.) (Plenum, New York, (1985)).

    Google Scholar 

  8. Mammerickx, J. The Foundation Seamounts: tectonic setting of a newly discovered seamount chain in the South Pacific. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 113, 293–306 (1992).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Watts, A. B., Bodine, J. H. & Ribe, N. R. Observations of flexure and the geological evolution of the Pacific basin. Nature 283, 532–537 (1980).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. McNutt, M. K. & Menard, H. W. Lithospheric flexure and uplifted atolls. J. Geophys. Res. 83, 1206–1212 (1978).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Calmant, S. & Cazenave, A. Anomalous elastic thickness of the oceanic lithosphere in the south-central Pacific. Nature 328, 236–238 (1987).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Goodwillie, A. M. & Watts, A. B. An altimetric and bathymetric study of elastic thickness of the central Pacific Ocean. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 118, 311–326 (1993).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Sleep, N. H. Lateral flow and ponding of starting plume material. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 10001–10012 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Cande, S. C. & Haxby, W. F. Eocene propagating rifts in the southwest Pacific and their conjugate features on the Nazca plate. J. Geophys. Res. 96, 19609–19622 (1991).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Johnson, R. H. in Research Reports (eds Oehser, P. H., Lea, J. S. & Powars, N. L.) 389–405 (National Geographic Society, Washington DC, (1971)).

    Google Scholar 

  16. Hart, S. R. Alarge-scale isotope anomaly in the southern hemisphere mantle. Nature 309, 753–757 (1984).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Barsczus, H. G. Les isles Australes (Polynesie Francaise) et la theorie des points chauds (Office de la Recherche Scientifique et Technique Outre-Mer, (1980)).

    Google Scholar 

  18. Menard, H. W. & McNutt, M. K. Evidence for and consequences of thermal rejuvenation of the lithosphere. J. Geophys. Res. 87, 8570–8580 (1982).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Su, W.-J. The Three-Dimensional Shear-Wave Velocity Structure of the Earth's Mantle (Harvard Univ. Press, (1992)).

    Google Scholar 

  20. McNutt, M. K. & Judge, A. V. The superswell and mantle dynamics beneath the South Pacific. Science 248, 969–975 (1990).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Hedge, C. E. Strontium isotopes in basalts from the Pacific Ocean basin. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 38, 88–94 (1978).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Richter, F. M. & Ribe, N. M. On the importance of advection in determining the local isotopic composition of the mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 43, 212–222 (1979).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Hofmann, A. W. Mantle geochemistry: the message from oceanic volcanism. Nature 385, 219–229 (1997).

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Smith, W. H. F. & Sandwell, D. T. New global seafloor topography from satellite altimetry. Eos 77, F315 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Müller, R. D., Roest, W. R., Royer, J.-Y., Gahagan, L. M. & Sclater, J. G. Digital isochrons of the world's ocean floor. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 3211–3214 (1997).

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank W. Smith for providing the predicted bathymetry data, and J.-G. Schilling, M. Maia and N. Sleep for reviews. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to M. K. McNutt.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

McNutt, M., Caress, D., Reynolds, J. et al. Failure of plume theory to explain midplate volcanism in the southern Austral islands. Nature 389, 479–482 (1997).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

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.


Quick links

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