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A rapid burst in hotspot motion through the interaction of tectonics and deep mantle flow


Volcanic hotspot tracks featuring linear progressions in the age of volcanism are typical surface expressions of plate tectonic movement on top of narrow plumes of hot material within Earth’s mantle1. Seismic imaging reveals that these plumes can be of deep origin2—probably rooted on thermochemical structures in the lower mantle3,4,5,6. Although palaeomagnetic and radiometric age data suggest that mantle flow can advect plume conduits laterally7,8, the flow dynamics underlying the formation of the sharp bend occurring only in the Hawaiian–Emperor hotspot track in the Pacific Ocean remains enigmatic. Here we present palaeogeographically constrained numerical models of thermochemical convection and demonstrate that flow in the deep lower mantle under the north Pacific was anomalously vigorous between 100 million years ago and 50 million years ago as a consequence of long-lasting subduction systems, unlike those in the south Pacific. These models show a sharp bend in the Hawaiian–Emperor hotspot track arising from the interplay of plume tilt and the lateral advection of plume sources. The different trajectories of the Hawaiian and Louisville hotspot tracks arise from asymmetric deformation of thermochemical structures under the Pacific between 100 million years ago and 50 million years ago. This asymmetric deformation waned just before the Hawaiian–Emperor bend developed, owing to flow in the deepest lower mantle associated with slab descent in the north and south Pacific.

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Figure 1: Time evolution of model plume trajectories in a model of thermochemical convection.
Figure 2: Longitudinal cross-sections.
Figure 3: Predicted hotspot tracks.

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M.G. was supported by the NSF (awards EAR-1161046 and EAR-1247022). R.D.M. and N.F. were supported by an ARC grant (IH130200012). This research was undertaken with the assistance of resources from the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), which is supported by the Australian Government.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



R.H. and R.D.M. developed the concept of the study. R.H. and M.G. designed the numerical experiments and developed the technical aspects of the study. All authors contributed both intellectually and to the writing of the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Rakib Hassan.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Comparison of model LLSVPs with tomography.

The Savani tomography model41, showing shear velocity (vs) perturbations at 2,818 km depth. Contours of the 75% chemical concentration isosurface, at labelled heights above the CMB, show the present-day shapes of the model LLSVPs in case M3 (Extended Data Table 2). The red triangle and purple cross symbols mark the locations of the actual and model Hawaiian plumes at present-day, respectively.

Extended Data Figure 2 Evolution of mean poloidal flow.

In each panel, the magnitude of mean poloidal velocity in a 300-km-thick shell above the CMB is shown in grey shading and corresponding flow directions are shown by black arrows at the age labelled, for case M3 (Extended Data Table 2). Edges of the model LLSVPs are marked by contours of the 75% chemical concentration isosurface, at labelled heights above the CMB. Subduction zones are shown in yellow and the white rectangular region marks the extent of the three-dimensional plots in Extended Data Fig. 3. In the bottom row of each panel, cross-sections along cyan profiles through the Pacific LLSVP show the evolution of its edges driven by subduction-induced flow. Velocity vectors in these cross-sections have been clipped to 6 cm yr−1 and the black contours show 75% chemical concentration.

Extended Data Figure 3 Trajectory of model Hawaiian plume.

Three-dimensional (Cartesian projection of spherical geometry) perspectives showing the southward motion and evolution of tilt for model plume corresponding to Hawaii (Hm) in case M3 (Extended Data Table 2). The black contour marks the 75% chemical concentration isosurface 100 km above the CMB. The temperature field above layer averages, δT, is isosurfaced at a value of 0.1 to delineate plume conduits. The top 200 km of the domain is not rendered, in order to avoid visual clutter.

Extended Data Figure 4 Inter-model comparisons.

a, For case M1 (Extended Data Table 2), the background shading, velocity vectors and subduction zones shown are as described in Fig. 1a. The model plume trajectory for Hawaii (Hm) at a depth of 350 km is coloured by age. b, For case M2. c, For case M4. d, For case M5. e, For case M6. f, For case M7.

Extended Data Table 1 Physical parameters and constants
Extended Data Table 2 Model cases

Supplementary information

Evolution of mean poloidal flow in the deep lower mantle.

The video shows the evolution of mean poloidal flow in a 300 km thick shell above the core mantle boundary over the last 140 million years. Cross sections along profiles through the Pacific LLSVP show the evolution of its edges driven by subduction-induced flow. (MP4 10037 kb)

Trajectory of modelled Hawaiian plume.

The video shows the southward motion of the modelled Hawaiian plume and the evolution of its tilt. The black contour marks the 75% chemical concentration isosurface 100 km above the core mantle boundary. (MP4 4316 kb)

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Hassan, R., Müller, R., Gurnis, M. et al. A rapid burst in hotspot motion through the interaction of tectonics and deep mantle flow. Nature 533, 239–242 (2016).

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