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.

Origin of Columbia River flood basalt controlled by propagating rupture of the Farallon slab


The origin of the Steens–Columbia River (SCR) flood basalts, which is presumed to be the onset of Yellowstone volcanism, has remained controversial, with the proposed conceptual models involving either a mantle plume1,2,3,4,5 or back-arc processes6,7,8. Recent tomographic inversions based on the USArray data reveal unprecedented detail of upper-mantle structures of the western USA9 and tightly constrain geodynamic models simulating Farallon subduction, which has been proposed to influence the Yellowstone volcanism5,6. Here we show that the best-fitting geodynamic model10 depicts an episode of slab tearing about 17 million years ago under eastern Oregon, where an associated sub-slab asthenospheric upwelling thermally erodes the Farallon slab, leading to formation of a slab gap at shallow depth. Driven by a gradient of dynamic pressure, the tear ruptured quickly north and south and within about two million years covering a distance of around 900 kilometres along all of eastern Oregon and northern Nevada. This tear would be consistent with the occurrence of major volcanic dikes during the SCR–Northern Nevada Rift flood basalt event both in space and time. The model predicts a petrogenetic sequence for the flood basalt with sources of melt starting from the base of the slab, at first remelting oceanic lithosphere and then evolving upwards, ending with remelting of oceanic crust. Such a progression helps to reconcile the existing controversies on the interpretation of SCR geochemistry and the involvement of the putative Yellowstone plume. Our study suggests a new mechanism for the formation of large igneous provinces.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Prices vary by article type



Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Development of the Farallon slab rupture beneath the western USA during the mid-Miocene epoch.
Figure 2: Mantle flow associated with the slab tearing at latitude 44 °N from 18 to 14 Myr ago.
Figure 3: Three-dimensional view of the tearing slab.


  1. Brandon, A. D. & Goles, G. G. A Miocene subcontinental plume in the Pacific Northwest: geochemical evidence. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 88, 273–283 (1988)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  2. Pierce, K. L. & Morgan, L. A. in Regional Geology of Eastern Idaho and Western Wyoming (eds Link, P. K. et al.) 179, 1–53 (Geological Society of America Memoir, 1992)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Hooper, P. R., Camp, V. E., Reidel, S. P. & Ross, M. E. The origin of the Columbia River flood basalt province: plume versus nonplume models. GSA Spec. Pap. 430, 635–668 (2007)

    Google Scholar 

  4. Camp, V. E. & Ross, M. E. Mantle dynamics and genesis of mafic magmatism in the intermontane Pacific Northwest. J. Geophys. Res. 109, B08204 (2004)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Smith, R. B. et al. Geodynamics of the Yellowstone hotspot and mantle plume: seismic and GPS imaging, kinematics, and mantle flow. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 188, 26–56 (2009)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  6. Carlson, R. W. & Hart, W. K. Crustal genesis on the Oregon plateau. J. Geophys. Res. 92, 6191–6206 (1987)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  7. Christiansen, R. L., Foulger, G. R. & Evans, J. R. Upper mantle origin of the Yellowstone hot spot. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 114, 1245–1256 (2002)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Hales, T. C., Abt, D. L., Humphreys, E. D. & Roering, J. J. Delamination origin for the Columbia River flood basalts and Wallowa Mountain uplift in NE Oregon, USA. Nature 438, 842–845 (2005)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  9. Sigloch, K. Mantle provinces under North America from multifrequency P wave tomography. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 12, Q02W08 (2011)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Liu, L. & Stegman, D. R. Segmentation of the Farallon slab. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 311, 1–10 (2011)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  11. Bunge, H.-P. & Grand, S. P. Mesozoic plate-motion history below the northeast Pacific Ocean from seismic images of the subducted Farallon slab. Nature 405, 337–340 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  12. Liu, L., Spasojević, S. & Gurnis, M. Reconstructing Farallon plate subduction beneath North America back to the Late Cretaceous. Science 322, 934–938 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  13. Atwater, T. & Stock, J. in Integrated Earth and Environmental Evolution of the Southwestern United States (eds Ernst, W. G. & Nelson, C. A. ) 393–420 (Bellwether Publishing, 1998)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Schellart, W. P., Stegman, D. R., Farrington, R. J., Freeman, J. & Moresi, L. Cenozoic tectonics of western North America controlled by evolving width of Farallon slab. Science 329, 316–319 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  15. Wortel, M. J. R. & Spakman, W. Subduction and slab detachment in the Mediterranean–Carpathian region. Science 290, 1910–1917 (2000)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. McQuarrie, N. & Wernicke, B. An animated tectonic reconstruction of southwestern North America since 36 Ma. Geosphere 1, 147–172 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Priest, G. R. Volcanic and tectonic evolution of the cascade volcanic arc, central Oregon. J. Geophys. Res. 95, 19583–19599 (1990)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Hirth, G. & Kohlstedt, D. Water in the oceanic upper mantle: implications for rheology, melt extraction and the evolution of the lithosphere. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 144, 93–108 (1996)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  19. Camp, V. & Hanan, B. A plume-triggered delamination origin for the Columbia River basalt group. Geosphere 4, 480–495 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Carlson, R. W. Isotopic constraints on Columbia River flood basalt genesis and the nature of the subcontinental mantle. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 48, 2357–2372 (1984)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  21. Dodson, A., Kennedy, B. M. & DePaolo, D. J. Helium and neon isotopes in the Imnaha Basalt, Columbia River basalt group: evidence for a Yellowstone plume source. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 150, 443–451 (1997)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Takahahshi, E., Nakajima, K. & Wright, T. L. Origin of the Columbia River basalts: melting model of a heterogeneous mantle plume head. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 162, 63–80 (1998)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  23. Duncan, R. A. A captured island chain in the coast range of Oregon and Washington. J. Geophys. Res. 87, 10827–10837 (1982)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Beck, M. E. Has the Washington-Oregon coast range moved northward? Geology 12, 737–740 (1984)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Geist, D. & Richards, M. Origin of the Columbia Plateau and Snake River plain: deflection of the Yellowstone plume. Geology 21, 789–792 (1993)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  26. Humphreys, E. D., Dueker, K. G., Schutt, D. L. & Smith R. B Beneath Yellowstone: evaluating plume and nonplume models using teleseismic images of the upper mantle. GSA Today 10, 1–6 (2000)

    Google Scholar 

  27. Glen, J. & Ponce, D. Large-scale fractures related to inception of the Yellowstone hotspot. Geology 30, 647–650 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Zhong, S., Zuber, M. T., Moresi, L. N. & Gurnis, M. The role of temperature dependent viscosity and surface plates in spherical shell models of mantle convection. J. Geophys. Res. 105, 11063–11082 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Humphreys, E. Post-Laramide removal of the Farallon slab, western United States. Geology 23, 987–990 (1995)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Sigloch, K., McQuarrie, N. & Nolet, G. Two-stage subduction history under North Amercia inferred from multiple-frequency tomography. Nature Geosci. 1, 458–462 (2008)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

  31. Müller, R. D., Sdrolias, M., Gaina, C. & Roest, W. R. Age, spreading rates and spreading asymmetry of the world’s ocean crust. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 9, Q04006 (2008a)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. Schmeling, H. et al. A benchmark comparison of spontaneous subduction models—towards a free surface. Phys. Earth Planet. Inter. 171, 198–223 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  33. Schmandt, B. & Humphreys, E. Complex subduction and small-scale convection revealed by body-wave tomography of the western United States upper mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 297, 435–445 (2010)

    Article  ADS  CAS  Google Scholar 

Download references


We thank R. Carlson and D. Blackman for discussions. Computational resources were provided by XSEDE project EAR100021. L.L. was funded by the John Miles Fellowship and the Cecil and Ida Green Foundation. D.R.S. was supported in part by the G. Unger Vetlesen Foundation.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



L.L. designed and performed the numerical models. Both authors contributed equally to idea development and result interpretation.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figures 1-3 with legends and additional references. (PDF 581 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Liu, L., Stegman, D. Origin of Columbia River flood basalt controlled by propagating rupture of the Farallon slab. Nature 482, 386–389 (2012).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


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