Article | Published:

Insights into the dynamics of mantle plumes from uranium-series geochemistry


The long-standing paradigm that hotspot volcanoes such as Hawaii or Iceland represent the surface expression of mantle plumes—hot, buoyant upwelling regions beneath the Earth’s lithosphere—has recently been the focus of controversy. Whether mantle plumes exist or not is pivotal for our understanding of the thermal, dynamic and compositional evolution of the Earth’s mantle. Here we show that uranium-series disequilibria measured in hotspot lavas indicate that hotspots are indeed associated with hot and buoyant upwellings and that weaker (low buoyancy flux) hotspots such as Iceland and the Azores are characterized by lower excess temperatures than stronger hotspots such as Hawaii. This direct link between buoyancy flux and mantle temperature is evidence for the existence of mantle plumes.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1

    Foulger, G. R. et al. Seismic tomography shows that upwelling beneath Iceland is confined to the upper mantle. Geophys. J. Int. 146, 504–530 (2001)

  2. 2

    Meibom, A. et al. Are high 3He/4He ratios in oceanic basalts an indicator of deep-mantle plume components?. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 208, 197–204 (2003)

  3. 3

    McKenzie, D. et al. Source enrichment processes responsible for isotopic anomalies in oceanic island basalts. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 68, 2699–2724 (2004)

  4. 4

    Bourdon, B., Joron, J. L., Claude-Ivanaj, C. & Allegre, C. J. U-Th-Pa-Ra systematics for the Grande Comore volcanics: melting processes in an upwelling plume. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 164, 119–133 (1998)

  5. 5

    Bourdon, B. & Sims, K. W. W. in U-series Geochemistry (eds Bourdon, B., Lundstrom, C., Henderson, G. & Turner, S. P.) 215–253 (Mineralogical Society of America, 2003)

  6. 6

    Bourdon, B., Turner, S. P. & Ribe, N. M. Partial melting and upwelling rates beneath the Azores from a U-series isotope perspective. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 239, 42–56 (2005)

  7. 7

    Kokfelt, T. F., Hoernle, K. & Hauff, F. Upwelling and melting of the Iceland plume from radial variation of 238U-230Th disequilibria in postglacial volcanic rocks. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 214, 167–186 (2003)

  8. 8

    Sims, K. W. W. et al. Porosity of the melting zone and variations in the solid mantle upwelling rates beneath Hawaii: Inferences from 238U-230Th-226Ra, and 235U-231Pa disequilibria. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 4119–4138 (1999)

  9. 9

    Sigmarsson, O., Carn, S. & Carracedo, J. Systematics of U-series nuclides in primitive lavas from the 1730–36 eruption on Lanzarote, Canary islands, implications for the role of garnet-pyroxenite during oceanic basalt formations. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 162, 137–151 (1998)

  10. 10

    Stracke, A., Salters, V. J. M. & Sims, K. W. W. Assessing the presence of garnet-pyroxenite in the mantle sources of basalts through combined hafnium-neodymium-thorium isotope systematics. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 1 doi: 10.1029/1999GC000013 (1999)

  11. 11

    Stracke, A. et al. The dynamics of melting beneath Theistareykir, northern Iceland. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 4 8513 doi: 10.1029/2002GC000347 (2003)

  12. 12

    Stracke, A., Bourdon, B. & McKenzie, D. Melt extraction in the Earth’s mantle: Constraints from U-Th-Pa-Ra studies in oceanic basalts. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 244, 97–112 (2006)

  13. 13

    Bourdon, B., Langmuir, C. H. & Zindler, A. Ridge-hotspot interaction along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between 37°30' and 40°30'N: The U-Th disequilibrium evidence. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 142, 175–189 (1996)

  14. 14

    Turner, S., Hawkesworth, C., Rogers, N. & King, P. U-Th isotope disequilibria and ocean island basalt generation in the Azores. Chem. Geol. 139, 145–164 (1997)

  15. 15

    Sims, K. W. W. et al. Mechanisms of magma generation beneath Hawaii and midocean ridges—uranium/thorium and samarium/neodymium isotopic evidence. Science 267, 508–512 (1995)

  16. 16

    Lundstrom, C. C., Hoernle, K. & Gill, J. B. U-series disequilibria in volcanic rocks from the Canary Islands: Plume versus lithospheric melting. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 67, 4153–4177 (2003)

  17. 17

    Vigier, N., Bourdon, B., Joron, J. L. & Allègre, C. J. U-decay series and trace element systematics in the 1978 eruption of Ardoukoba, Asal rift: timescale of magma crystallization. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 174, 81–97 (1999)

  18. 18

    Chabaux, F. & Allègre, C. J. 238U-230Th-226Ra disequilibria in volcanics—a new insight into melting conditions. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 126, 61–74 (1994)

  19. 19

    Maclennan, J., McKenzie, D. & Groenvold, K. Plume-driven upwelling under central Iceland. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 2001, 67–82 (2002)

  20. 20

    DePaolo, D. J. & Stolper, E. M. Models of Hawaiian volcano growth and plume structure. Implications of results from the Hawaii Scientific Drilling Project. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 11643–11654 (1996)

  21. 21

    Moreira, M. et al. Helium and lead isotope geochemistry of the Azores Archipelago. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 169, 189–205 (1999)

  22. 22

    Richardson, C. & McKenzie, D. Radioactive disequilibria from 2D models of melt generation by plumes and ridges. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 128, 425–437 (1994)

  23. 23

    Albers, M. & Christensen, U. R. The excess temperature of plumes rising from the core-mantle boundary. Geophys. Res. Lett. 23, 3567–3570 (1996)

  24. 24

    Olson, P., Schubert, G. & Anderson, C. Structure of axisymmetric plumes. J. Geophys. Res. 98, 6829–6844 (1993)

  25. 25

    Courtillot, V., Davaille, A., Besse, J. & Stock, J. Three distinct types of hotspots in the Earth's mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 205, 295–308 (2003)

  26. 26

    Boehler, R., Chopelas, A. & Zerr, A. Temperature and chemistry of the core-mantle boundary. Chem. Geol. 120, 199–206 (1995)

  27. 27

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

  28. 28

    Sleep, N. H. Hotspots and mantle plumes—some phenomenology. J. Geophys. Res. 95, 6715–6736 (1990)

  29. 29

    Schilling, J.-G. Fluxes and excess temperatures of mantle plumes inferred from their interaction with migrating mid-ocean ridges. Nature 352, 397–403 (1991)

  30. 30

    Ribe, N. M., Christensen, U. R. & Theissing, J. The dynamics of plume ridge interaction, 1: Ridge centered plumes. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 134, 155–168 (1995)

  31. 31

    Ito, G., Shen, Y., Hirth, G. & Wolfe, C. J. Mantle flow, melting, and dehydration of the Iceland mantle plume. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 165, 81–96 (1999)

  32. 32

    Asimow, P. D., Dixon, J. E. & Langmuir, C. H. A hydrous melting and fractionation model for mid-ocean ridge basalts: Application to the Mid-Atlantic ridge near the Azores. Geochem. Geophys.Geosyst. 5 24 doi: 10.1029/2003GC000568 (2004)

  33. 33

    Asimow, P. D. & Langmuir, C. H. The importance of water to oceanic mantle melting regimes. Nature 421, 815–820 (2003)

  34. 34

    Montelli, R. et al. Finite-frequency tomography reveals a variety of plumes in the mantle. Science 303, 338–343 (2004)

  35. 35

    Wolfe, C., Bjarnason, I. T., Van Decar, J. & Solomon, S. C. Seismic structure of the Iceland mantle plume. Nature 385, 245–247 (1997)

  36. 36

    Murton, B. J., Taylor, R. N. & Thirlwall, M. F. Plume-ridge interaction: a geochemical perspective from the Reykjanes ridge. J. Petrol. 43, 1987–2012 (2002)

  37. 37

    Peate, D. W. et al. 238U-230Th constraints on mantle upwelling and plume-ridge interaction along the Reykjanes ridge. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 187, 259–272 (2001)

  38. 38

    Ribe, N. M. The dynamics of plume ridge interaction. 2: Off-ridge plumes. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 19195–16204 (1996)

Download references


We thank D. McKenzie for the support of A.S. during his visit to IPGP. A.E.S.’s visit to Paris was supported by IPGP funds. We also thank D. McKenzie, A. Davaille, M. Moreira and C. Farnetani for numerous discussions about plumes. We are grateful to P. Olson and T. Kokfelt for comments.

Author information

Correspondence to Bernard Bourdon.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

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

Supplementary information

Supplementary Notes

This file contains Supplementary Figure 1 and Supplementary Table 1. Supplementary Figure 1 shows the excess temperature in plumes at the base of the lithosphere as a function of the buoyancy flux. Supplementary Table 1 describes the parameters used in the modelling and their typical values. This file also contains a description of the model. (PDF 115 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading

Figure 1: U-series activity ratios versus buoyancy fluxes for recent hotspot lavas.
Figure 2: U-series activity ratios as a function of distance from the centre of hotspots.
Figure 3: Relationship between U-series activity ratios in erupted melts and mantle upwelling velocity.
Figure 4: Models of U-series activity ratios versus buoyancy flux for recent hotspot lavas.
Figure 5: 206 Pb/ 204 Pb as a function of the distance from the centre of the Azores hotspot.


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.