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Electrical image of passive mantle upwelling beneath the northern East Pacific Rise


Melt generated by mantle upwelling is fundamental to the production of new oceanic crust at mid-ocean ridges, yet the forces controlling this process are debated1,2. Passive-flow models predict symmetric upwelling due to viscous drag from the diverging tectonic plates, but have been challenged by geophysical observations of asymmetric upwelling3,4,5 that suggest anomalous mantle pressure and temperature gradients2,6,7, and by observations of concentrated upwelling centres8 consistent with active models where buoyancy forces give rise to focused convective flow2. Here we use sea-floor magnetotelluric soundings at the fast-spreading northern East Pacific Rise to image mantle electrical structure to a depth of about 160 kilometres. Our data reveal a symmetric, high-conductivity region at depths of 20–90 kilometres that is consistent with partial melting of passively upwelling mantle9,10,11. The triangular region of conductive partial melt matches passive-flow predictions, suggesting that melt focusing to the ridge occurs in the porous melting region rather than along the shallower base of the thermal lithosphere. A deeper conductor observed east of the ridge at a depth of more than 100 kilometres is explained by asymmetric upwelling due to viscous coupling across two nearby transform faults. Significant electrical anisotropy occurs only in the shallowest mantle east of the ridge axis, where high vertical conductivity at depths of 10–20 kilometres indicates localized porous conduits. This suggests that a coincident seismic-velocity anomaly12 is evidence of shallow magma transport channels13,14 rather than deeper off-axis upwelling. We interpret the mantle electrical structure as evidence that plate-driven passive upwelling dominates this ridge segment, with dynamic forces being negligible.

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Figure 1: Location of the magnetotelluric survey across the fast spreading East Pacific Rise.
Figure 2: Magnetotelluric resistivity image of mantle upwelling beneath the East Pacific Rise.
Figure 3: Three-dimensional passive-flow simulation of the EPR kinematics, including ridge migration, sea-floor spreading and the Clipperton and Siqueiros transform offsets.


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We thank the captain and crew of R/V Roger Revelle, members of the scientific party (J. Behrens, G. Boran, G. Heinson, J. King, A. Massarweh, L. Terzi and C. Weiss), and the technical team (C. Armerding, P. Cheng, C. Berger, G. Englehorn, G. Howe, K. Callaway and J. Lemire). We thank D. Myer for assistance with the data processing and R. Katz for reviewing the manuscript. This work was funded by US NSF award OCE-0241597 and the Seafloor Electromagnetic Methods Consortium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

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Authors and Affiliations



K.K. and S.C. collected and analysed the field data. A.P. and K.K. performed the melt calculations. L.L. carried out the mantle flow simulations. K.K. wrote most of the manuscript. All authors discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kerry Key.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Key, K., Constable, S., Liu, L. et al. Electrical image of passive mantle upwelling beneath the northern East Pacific Rise. Nature 495, 499–502 (2013).

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