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Hotspot trails in the South Atlantic controlled by plume and plate tectonic processes


The origin of hotspot trails is controversial1. Explanations range from deep mantle plumes rising from the core–mantle boundary2 (CMB) to shallow plate cracking. However, these mechanisms cannot explain uniquely the scattered hotspot trails distributed across a 2,000-km-wide swell in the sea floor of the southeast Atlantic Ocean3. This swell projects down to one of the two largest and deepest distinct regions at the CMB, the Africa Low Shear Wave Velocity Province4,5,6. Here we use 40Ar/39Ar isotopic analyses to date lava samples erupted at several hotspot trails across the Atlantic swell. We combine the eruption ages with an analysis of the structure and age of the sea floor, and find that the trails formed synchronously, in a pattern consistent with movement of the African Plate over plumes rising from the edge of the Africa Low Shear Wave Velocity Province. However, we also find that the seamounts initially formed only at the edge of the swell, where the oceanic crust was spreading apart. Later, about 44 million years ago, the hotspot trails began to cross the swell, but only in locations where the lithosphere was sufficiently young and thin that magma could reach the surface. We conclude that the distribution of hotspot trails in the southeast Atlantic Ocean is controlled by the interplay between deep-sourced mantle plumes and the motion and structure of the African Plate.

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Figure 1: South Atlantic hotspot trails and sample site locations.
Figure 2: Parallel synchronous age-progressive hotspot trails in the South Atlantic.
Figure 3: Hotspot trails formed by African Plate motion relative to the edge of the African LLSVP.
Figure 4: Plate-tectonic- and plume-controlled formation of hotspot trails in the South Atlantic.


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We gratefully acknowledge the help during the RV Polarstern Expedition ANT XXIII/5 of Captain S. Schwarze, First Officer S. Spielke, their crew and P. le Roux, J. Hanley, D. Long, A. Nakashole and C. Tinguely and other members of the scientific party. N. Sleep provided valuable comments on the manuscript. Financial support was provided by the German Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung (BMBF), the Dutch Science Foundation (NWO), the South African National Research Foundation and the iKaba yAfrika project (A.P.l.R.) and by US National Science Foundation grant OCE07-38437 (C.C.).

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W.J., J.M.O., A.P.l.R. and C.C. conceived the project and secured financial support. J.M.O. wrote the paper with W.J., A.P.l.R., C.C. and S.K. Chief Scientist W.J. and J.M.O. carried out geophysics and sampling during the RV Polarstern cruise ANT-XXIII/5. O.N. and J.M.O. prepared the samples and J.R.W., K.F.K. and J.M.O. carried out the analytical work.

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Correspondence to John M. O’Connor.

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O’Connor, J., Jokat, W., le Roex, A. et al. Hotspot trails in the South Atlantic controlled by plume and plate tectonic processes. Nature Geosci 5, 735–738 (2012).

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