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Seismic evidence for convection-driven motion of the North American plate


Since the discovery of plate tectonics, the relative importance of driving forces of plate motion has been debated1,2. Resolution of this issue has been hindered by uncertainties in estimates of basal traction, which controls the coupling between lithospheric plates and underlying mantle convection2,3,4. Hotspot tracks preserve records of past plate motion5 and provide markers with which the relative motion between a plate’s surface and underlying mantle regions may be examined. Here we show that the 115–140-Myr surface expression of the Great Meteor hotspot track in eastern North America is misaligned with respect to its location at 200 km depth, as inferred from plate-reconstruction models and seismic tomographic studies6. The misalignment increases with age and is consistent with westward displacement of the base of the plate relative to its surface, at an average rate of 3.8 ± 1.8 mm yr-1. Here age-constrained ‘piercing points’ have enabled direct estimation of relative motion between the surface and underside of a plate. The relative displacement of the base is approximately parallel to seismic fast axes and calculated mantle flow7, suggesting that asthenospheric flow may be deforming the lithospheric keel and exerting a driving force on this part of the North American plate.

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Figure 1: Schematic diagram showing near-surface manifestations of a hotspot and shear sense from different polarities of basal traction.
Figure 2: Inferred track of the Great Meteor hotspot.
Figure 3: Modelled evolution of the thermal anomaly from a hotspot.


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This work was supported by NSERC Discovery grants and benefited from discussions with J. Adams, D. Moser, P. McCausland, D. Jiang and F. Darbyshire. A review by M. Savage improved the clarity of this manuscript.

Author Contributions D.W.E. performed thermal modelling and data analysis; A.F. provided seismic tomography results and interpretation.

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Correspondence to David W. Eaton.

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Eaton, D., Frederiksen, A. Seismic evidence for convection-driven motion of the North American plate. Nature 446, 428–431 (2007).

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