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Origin of Indian Ocean Seamount Province by shallow recycling of continental lithosphere


The origin of the Christmas Island Seamount Province in the northeast Indian Ocean is enigmatic. The seamounts do not form the narrow, linear and continuous trail of volcanoes that would be expected if they had formed above a mantle plume1,2. Volcanism above a fracture in the lithosphere3 is also unlikely, because the fractures trend orthogonally with respect to the east–west trend of the Christmas Island chain. Here we combine 40Ar/39Ar age, Sr, Nd, Hf and high-precision Pb isotope analyses of volcanic rocks from the province with plate tectonic reconstructions. We find that the seamounts are 47–136 million years old, decrease in age from east to west and are consistently 0–25 million years younger than the underlying oceanic crust, consistent with formation near a mid-ocean ridge. The seamounts also exhibit an enriched geochemical signal, indicating that recycled continental lithosphere was present in their source. Plate tectonic reconstructions show that the seamount province formed at the position where West Burma began separating from Australia and India, forming a new mid-ocean ridge. We propose that the seamounts formed through shallow recycling of delaminated continental lithosphere entrained in mantle that was passively upwelling beneath the mid-ocean ridge. We conclude that shallow recycling of continental lithosphere at mid-ocean ridges could be an important mechanism for the formation of seamount provinces in young ocean basins.

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Figure 1: Bathymetric map31 of the Christmas Island Seamount Province (CHRISP) summarizing seafloor morphology and Ar/Ar ages in millions of years.
Figure 2: The CHRISP volcanism displays a large range in isotopic composition.
Figure 3: Plate tectonic reconstructions using GPlates12.
Figure 4: Model explaining the origin of the CHRISP through shallow recycling of continental lithosphere.


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We thank the captain and crew of the RV Sonne for a successful cruise; J. Sticklus, S. Hauff and J. Fietzke for analytical support; T. Falloon for sharing an unpublished manuscript on Christmas Island with us; J. Geldmacher and U. Barckhausen for comments and C. Class and S. Gibson for constructive reviews; and the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) for financial support of the SO199 CHRISP project.

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K.H., F.H. and R.W. conceived the project; K.H. interpreted the data and wrote the paper with intellectual input from all co-authors except S.C.; K.H., R.W., F.H., A.D.G. and S.C. organized and carried out the SO199 cruise; P.v.d.B. generated the age data; F.H. and S.C. generated the isotope data; A.D.G. and R.D.M. generated the plate tectonic reconstructions.

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Correspondence to K. Hoernle.

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Hoernle, K., Hauff, F., Werner, R. et al. Origin of Indian Ocean Seamount Province by shallow recycling of continental lithosphere. Nature Geosci 4, 883–887 (2011).

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