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Changes in African topography driven by mantle convection


The topography of the African continent is characterized by large-scale extensional features such as the East African Rift, widespread volcanic activity, and anomalously subsided basins and uplifted domes1. These enigmatic surface features have long suggested that the African continent is shaped by significant dynamic forcing originating in the underlying mantle2,3,4. Here we simulate mantle convection backwards in time to reconstruct the evolution of dynamic topography of Africa over the past 30 million years. We show that the current high topography of the East African Rift system is due to the southward propagation of a topographic swell that encompassed the western margin of Arabia and the Afar region before 30 million years ago. We suggest that this dominant swell formed in response to the upwelling of the African superplume and the relative northward motion of the African tectonic plate over it. We also find that the adjacent Congo Basin has gradually subsided over the same time period in response to convective drawdown in the mantle. We conclude that much of Africa’s recent geological history is driven by buoyancy forces in the mantle. Our findings have important implications for African volcanism, erosion, sediment transport and river-basin drainage patterns4,5,6.

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Figure 1: Present-day and 30-Myr-before-present mantle temperature structure, calculated flow and African dynamic topography.
Figure 2: Reconstructed African dynamic topography with respect to 30 Myr.
Figure 3: Reconstructed African dynamic topography with respect to 10 Myr.

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The joint seismic–geodynamic tomography modelling was carried out in previous work with N. Simmons and S. Grand, and we are indebted to them for their support and contributions. We also thank D. Rowley for providing his Indo-Atlantic plate reconstruction model. The authors acknowledge funding provided by CIFAR, NSERC and the Canada Research Chair support provided to AMF. Finally, we also thank S. Fishwick and M. Yoshida for their detailed and constructive comments and suggestions.

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R.M. and A.M.F. both developed the scientific concepts presented herein, and jointly wrote the paper. R.M. created the figures.

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Correspondence to Robert Moucha.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Moucha, R., Forte, A. Changes in African topography driven by mantle convection. Nature Geosci 4, 707–712 (2011).

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