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Asymmetric three-dimensional topography over mantle plumes


The role of mantle–lithosphere interactions in shaping surface topography has long been debated1,2,3. In general3,4, it is supposed that mantle plumes and vertical mantle flows result in axisymmetric, long-wavelength topography, which strongly differs from the generally asymmetric short-wavelength topography created by intraplate tectonic forces. However, identification of mantle-induced topography is difficult3, especially in the continents5. It can be argued therefore that complex brittle–ductile rheology and stratification of the continental lithosphere result in short-wavelength modulation and localization of deformation induced by mantle flow6. This deformation should also be affected by far-field stresses and, hence, interplay with the ‘tectonic’ topography (for example, in the ‘active/passive’ rifting scenario7,8). Testing these ideas requires fully coupled three-dimensional numerical modelling of mantle–lithosphere interactions, which so far has not been possible owing to the conceptual and technical limitations of earlier approaches. Here we present new, ultra-high-resolution, three-dimensional numerical experiments on topography over mantle plumes, incorporating a weakly pre-stressed (ultra-slow spreading), rheologically realistic lithosphere. The results show complex surface evolution, which is very different from the smooth, radially symmetric patterns usually assumed as the canonical surface signature of mantle upwellings9. In particular, the topography exhibits strongly asymmetric, small-scale, three-dimensional features, which include narrow and wide rifts, flexural flank uplifts and fault structures. This suggests a dominant role for continental rheological structure and intra-plate stresses in controlling dynamic topography, mantle–lithosphere interactions, and continental break-up processes above mantle plumes.

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Figure 1: Mantle–lithosphere interactions and topography.
Figure 2: Initial stages of end-member 3D numerical experiments.
Figure 3: Surface fault patterns and strain distributions in the case of plume–lithosphere interaction in the presence of a weak tectonic far-field stress field (Vx = 3 mm yr−1).
Figure 4: Summary of time evolution of representative topography profile x, y.


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B. Evans and P. Molnar are thanked for discussions. A. B. Watts is thanked for comments on the manuscript and corrections to it. This study was co-funded by an Advanced ERC grant RHEOLITH (E.B.), by INSU-CNRS, by a UPMC Invited Professor grant (T.G.) and by an ETH Invited Professor grant (E.B.). Numerical simulations were performed on the ETH Brutus cluster and on the ERC-funded SGI Ulysse cluster of ISTEP (UPMC). Open source software ParaView ( was used for 3D visualization.

Author information




E.B. designed the study, conducted some of the 3D experiments, designed the 2D thermo-mechanical code and conducted 2D experiments. T.G. designed the 3D thermo-mechanical code and conducted some of the 3D experiments. Both authors discussed problems and methods, interpreted the data and wrote the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Evgueni Burov.

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Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Numerical model set-up and tests of 3D and 2D models.

Top panel shows the numerical model set-up. The initial plume–mantle temperature contrast ΔT is 300 °C. Lateral velocities (for example, Vx, Vy, Vz) are applied at two or four opposite sides of the model. Bottom panels, comparison of 2D implementation of I3DELVIS (left) with FLAMAR (right), for the experiment of Fig. 4 at t ≈ 1.5 Myr. Middle panel a presents topographies (red and blue curves) generated by the models shown in the bottom panel. Green curve in a shows conventional dynamic topography (that is, filtered non-isostatic topography)2. Middle panel b shows Crameri’s topography precision benchmark test36 (100-km-diameter plume rising below an isoviscous lithosphere36). Star in b corresponds to ‘sticky air’ thickness and viscosity retained for computations (30 km,1018 Pa s); colour curves in b correspond to tested sticky-air viscosities. See Methods for further details.

Extended Data Figure 2 2D experiment showing time evolution of surface topography for the reference case (lithosphere with a thermo-tectonic age of 250 Myr).

Top, set-up of this 2D experiment is identical to that of the 3D experiments shown in Fig. 3. Far-field extension (Vx = 3 mm yr−1) is applied at both sides of the lithosphere. The red-grey circles mark major stages of topography evolution (initial subsidence followed by large-scale doming, then by a more localized higher amplitude doming that progressively gets overprinted by rifting patterns). Note persistent short-wavelength features. Bottom, snapshot of density anomaly field at 10 Myr since the onset of plume initiation. Inset at left shows reference yield–stress envelope of the lithosphere.

Extended Data Figure 3 2D experiment equivalent to that shown in Extended Data Fig. 2 but under the assumption of strong, dry, diabase lower crustal rheology.

See Extended Data Fig. 2 legend for notation. Top, note the difference in the surface and sub-surface dynamics (double-width rifting) from the case of Extended Data Fig. 2 with weaker lower crustal rheology. Bottom, note also phase density changes at the 410-km phase boundary.

Extended Data Figure 4 2D experiment equivalent to that shown in Extended Data Fig. 2 but under the assumption of hot, young, lithosphere with a thermo-tectonic age of 60 Myr.

Top, note crucial differences in the dynamic topography compared to the cases of colder and stronger lithosphere. Bottom, material field evolution (large-scale delamination of mantle lithosphere). Note delamination of the major part of the continental lithosphere mantle, which is being replaced by new lithosphere mantle formed from mantle plume material.

Extended Data Figure 5 3D deformation patterns at the bottom of the lithosphere in the case of plume impingement.

a, 3D deformation patterns at lithosphere bottom in the absence of tectonic forcing (experiment similar to that of Fig. 2b at 0.5 Myr). Note periodic axisymmetric undulations with short wavelengths λ (30–250 km), in agreement with 2D models (Extended Data Fig. 2, Methods). Central down-warping is caused by Rayleigh–Taylor instability in dense mantle lithosphere, which is destabilized by plume ascent. b, Time evolution of plume–lithosphere interaction in the case of unidirectional far-field stretching (Vx = 3 mm yr−1, experiment of Fig. 3). Note progressive channelized alignment of plume head material along the rift axis accelerating localization of the rifting zone.

Extended Data Figure 6 Stages of surface topography and Moho topography evolution in the case of the 3D experiment shown in Fig. 3.

The left column (‘topo’) shows surface topography evolution, and the right column (‘moho’) shows the Moho topography evolution, with time increasing from top to bottom. The experiment of Fig. 3 considers plume impingement on a lithosphere with a thermo-tectonic age of 250 Myr experiencing ultra-slow far-field extension at Vx = 3 mm yr−1. Note the large difference between the surface and Moho topography and wavelengths.

Extended Data Figure 7 Ultra-high-resolution 3D experiment (grid cell size 2 × 2 × 2 km, spatial grid dimensions 1,000 × 1,000 × 600 km).

Shown is surface evolution in the absence of a plume, in the case of bi-directional horizontal boundary conditions representing a combination of extensional and compressional pure shear far-field forcing (lateral velocities Vx, Vz of respectively +3 mm yr−1 and −3 mm yr−1 applied on the pairs of opposite sides). In these settings, small-scale distributed conjugated fault patterns form at the surface (different to the distributed parallel linear faults observed in the case of uni-directional extension shown in Fig. 2).

Extended Data Figure 8 3D surface evolution in the case of plume–lithosphere interactions with bi-directional boundary conditions representing a combination of simple and pure shear far-field forcing.

Lateral velocities with oblique Vx,Vz components, 3 mm yr−1. Dark-blue shaded zone shows the plume geometry. The resulting surface topography resembles an early stage of a segmented spreading centre with a strong strike-slip component and Riedel shear (for example, the Dead Sea rift, the Gulf of Aden).

Extended Data Table 1 Thermomechanical parameters and boundary conditions used in numerical experiments38
Extended Data Table 2 Dislocation (A,n,E) and diffusion (A,n,E,a,m) ductile creep parameters used in this study

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Burov, E., Gerya, T. Asymmetric three-dimensional topography over mantle plumes. Nature 513, 85–89 (2014).

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