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.

Multiple volcanic episodes of flood basalts caused by thermochemical mantle plumes


The hypothesis that a single mushroom-like mantle plume head can generate a large igneous province within a few million years has been widely accepted1. The Siberian Traps at the Permian–Triassic boundary2 and the Deccan Traps at the Cretaceous–Tertiary boundary3 were probably erupted within one million years. These large eruptions have been linked to mass extinctions. But recent geochronological data4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 reveal more than one pulse of major eruptions with diverse magma flux within several flood basalts extending over tens of million years. This observation indicates that the processes leading to large igneous provinces are more complicated than the purely thermal, single-stage plume model suggests. Here we present numerical experiments to demonstrate that the entrainment of a dense eclogite-derived material at the base of the mantle by thermal plumes can develop secondary instabilities due to the interaction between thermal and compositional buoyancy forces. The characteristic timescales of the development of the secondary instabilities and the variation of the plume strength are compatible with the observations. Such a process may contribute to multiple episodes of large igneous provinces.

This is a preview of subscription content

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Summary of the episodic major eruptions of the large igneous provinces in the last 200 million years.
Figure 2: Dense layer entrainment for models with Δ η = 102.
Figure 3: Snapshots showing the evolution of the plume and the development of secondary instabilities.
Figure 4: Time evolution of velocity and temperature at the plume axis of 600-km depth for three representative models.


  1. 1

    Campbell, I. H. & Griffiths, R. W. Implications of mantle plume structure for the evolution of flood basalts. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 99, 79–93 (1990)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Renne, P. R., Zichao, Z., Richards, M. A., Black, M. T. & Basu, A. R. Synchrony and causal relations between Permian-Triassic boundary crises and Siberian flood volcanism. Science 269, 1413–1416 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Courtillot, V. et al. Deccan flood basalts on Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary. Nature 333, 843–846 (1988)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Morgan, W. J. in The Sea (ed. Emiliani, C.) Vol. 7, 443–487 (Wiley, New York, 1981)

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    O'Connor, J. M., Stoffers, P., Wijbrans, J. R., Shannon, P. M. & Morrissey, T. Evidence from episodic seamount volcanism for pulsing of the Iceland plume in the past 70 Myr. Nature 408, 954–958 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Revillon, S., Arndt, N. T., Chauvel, C. & Hallot, E. Geochemical study of ultramafic volcanic and plutonic rocks from Gorgona Island, Colombia: the Plumbing system of an oceanic plateau. J. Petrol. 41, 1127–1153 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Coffin, M. F. et al. Kerguelen hotspot magma output since 130 Ma. J. Petrol. 43, 1121–1139 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Neal, C. R., Mahoney, J. J., Kroenke, L. W., Duncan, R. A. & Petterson, M. G. in Large Igneous Provinces: Continental, Oceanic, and Planetary Flood Volcanism (eds Mahoney, J. J. & Coffin, M. F.) 183–216 (Geophys. Monogr. 100, American Geophysical Union, Washington, DC, 1997)

    Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Fitton, J. G. & Godard, M. in Origin and Evolution of the Ontong Java Plateau (eds Fitton, J. F., Mahoney, J. J., Wallace, P. J. & Saunders, A. D.) 151–178 (Geol. Soc. Spec. Pub. 229, Geological Society, London, 2004)

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    O'Connor, J. M. & Duncan, R. A. Evolution of the Walvis Ridge-Rio Grande Rise hot spot system: Implications for African and South American Plate motions over plumes. J. Geophys. Res. 95, 17475–17502 (1990)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Stewart, K. et al. 3-D, 40Ar-39Ar geochronology in the Parana flood basalt province. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 143, 95–109 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Bercovici, D. & Mahoney, J. Double flood basalts and plume head separation at 660-kilometer discontinuity. Science 266, 1367–1369 (1994)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    van Keken, P. E. Evolution of starting mantle plumes: a comparison between numerical and laboratory models. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 148, 1–14 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Olson, P., Schubert, G. & Anderson, C. Plume formation in the D″-layer and the roughness of the core–mantle boundary. Nature 327, 409–413 (1987)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Hieronymus, C. F. & Bercovici, D. Discrete alternating hotspot islands formed by interaction of magma transport and lithospheric flexure. Nature 397, 604–607 (1999)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

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

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Condie, K. C. Mantle Plumes and Their Record in Earth History Ch. 3–5 (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 2001)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Leitch, A. M. & Davies, G. F. Mantle plumes and flood basalts: Enhanced melting from plume ascent and an eclogite component. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 2047–2060 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Rudnick, R. L., Barth, M., Horn, I. & McDonough, W. F. Rutile-bearing refractory eclogites: missing link between continents and depleted mantle. Science 287, 278–281 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    van Keken, P. E. & Ballentine, C. J. Whole-mantle versus layered mantle convection and the role of a high-viscosity lower mantle in terrestrial volatile evolution. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 156, 19–32 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    van Keken, P. E. et al. A comparison of methods for the modeling of thermochemical convection. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 22477–22495 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Irifune, T. & Ringwood, A. E. Phase transformations in subducted oceanic crust and buoyancy relationships at depths of 600–800 km in the mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 117, 101–110 (1993)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    van Keken, P. E., Karato, S. & Yuen, D. A. Rheological control of oceanic crust separation in the transition zone. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 1821–1824 (1996)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Ono, S., Ito, E. & Katsura, T. Mineralogy of subducted basaltic crust (MORB) from 25 to 37 GPa, and chemical heterogeneity of the lower mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 190, 57–63 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Farnetani, C. G. Excess temperature of mantle plumes: The role of chemical stratification across D. Geophys. Res. Lett. 24, 1583–1586 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This research is supported in part by the National Science Foundation and the National Science Council of Taiwan, Republic of China.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Shu-Chuan Lin.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Legends

Full text to accompany the Supplementary Video S1 and Supplementary Figures S1 and S2. (DOC 22 kb)

Supplementary Video S1

Evolution of the thermochemical plume for model in figure 3, showing two types of instabilities in the transitional regime for the formation of the thermochemical plumes. (GIF 1291 kb)

Supplementary Figures S1

Supplementary Figure S1 details the profile of reference excess density (eclogite). (JPG 6 kb)

Supplementary Figures S2

Supplementary Figure S2 shows time evolution of the plume strength for five representative models showing the diverse relative strengths of the following pulses with respect to the first event. (JPG 12 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Lin, SC., van Keken, P. Multiple volcanic episodes of flood basalts caused by thermochemical mantle plumes. Nature 436, 250–252 (2005).

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.


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