Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Long-term interaction between mid-ocean ridges and mantle plumes


Plate tectonic motions are commonly considered to be driven by slab pull at subduction zones and ridge push at mid-ocean ridges, with motion punctuated by plumes of hot material rising from the lower mantle1,2. Within this model, the geometry and location of mid-ocean ridges are considered to be independent of lower-mantle dynamics, such as deeply sourced plumes that produce voluminous lava eruptions—termed large igneous provinces2. Here we use a global plate model3 to reconstruct the locations of large igneous provinces relative to plumes and mid-ocean ridges at the time they formed. We find that large igneous provinces repeatedly formed at specific locations where mid-ocean ridges and plumes interact. We calculate how much mantle material was converted to oceanic lithosphere at the mid-ocean ridges and find that slowly migrating ridge systems that have been stabilized by upwelling plumes have extracted large volumes of material from the same part of the upper mantle over periods up to 180 million years. The geochemical signatures of mid-ocean ridge basalts and seismic tomographic data show that upper-mantle temperatures are elevated at significant distances from ridge–plume interactions, indicating a far-field, indirect influence of plume–ridge interactions on the upper-mantle structure. We conclude that strong feedbacks exist between the dynamics of slowly migrating ridges and deeply sourced plumes.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Global data sets.
Figure 2: Regional spatio-temporal MOR migration patterns and comparison of VEM with MOR basalt geochemistry and seismic velocity.
Figure 3: Schematic representation of the deep plume and shallow mantle upwelling processes at mid-ocean ridges.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Davies, G. F. Plates and plumes: Dynamos of the Earth’s mantle. Science 257, 493–494 (1992).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Coffin, M. F. & Eldholm, O. Large igneous provinces—crustal structure, dimensions, and external consequences. Rev. Geophys. 32, 1–36 (1994).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Seton, M. et al. Global continental and ocean basin reconstructions since 200 Ma. Earth-Sci. Rev. 113, 212–270 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Dickson, G. O., Pitman, W. C. & Heintzler, J. R. Magnetic anomalies in the South Atlantic and ocean floor spreading. J. Geophys. Res. 73, 2087–2100 (1968).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Zhong, S. J. & Gurnis, M. Mantle convection with plates and mobile, faulted plate margins. Science 267, 838–843 (1995).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Stein, S., Melosh, H. J. & Minster, J. B. Ridge migration and asymmetric sea-floor spreading. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 36, 51–62 (1977).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Davis, E. E. & Karsten, J. L. On the cause of the asymmetric distribution of seamounts about the Juan De Fuca ridge—ridge-crest migration over a heterogeneous asthenosphere. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 79, 385–396 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Carbotte, S. M., Small, C. & Donnelly, K. The influence of ridge migration on the magmatic segmentation of mid-ocean ridges. Nature 429, 743–746 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Scheirer, D. S., Forsyth, D. W., Cormier, M. H. & Macdonald, K. C. Shipboard geophysical indications of asymmetry and melt production beneath the East Pacific Rise near the MELT experiment. Science 280, 1221–1224 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Small, C. & Danyushevsky, L. V. Plate-kinematic explanation for mid-ocean-ridge depth discontinuities. Geology 31, 399–402 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Wilson, J. T. Evidence from ocean islands suggesting movement in the Earth. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 258, 145–165 (1965).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Müller, R. D., Roest, W. R. & Royer, J-Y. Asymmetric seafloor spreading expresses ridge–plume interactions. Nature 396, 455–459 (1998).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Dalton, C. A., Langmuir, C. H. & Gale, A. Geophysical and geochemical evidence for deep temperature variations beneath mid-ocean ridges. Science 344, 80–83 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Husson, L. & Conrad, C. P. On the location of hotspots in the framework of mantle convection. Geophys. Res. Lett. 39, L17304 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Jellinek, A. M., Gonnermann, H. M. & Richards, M. A. Plume capture by divergent plate motions: Implications for the distribution of hotspots, geochemistry of mid-ocean ridge basalts, and estimates of the heat flux at the core–mantle boundary. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 205, 361–378 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Ribe, N. M. The dynamics of plume–ridge interaction. 2. Off-ridge plumes. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 16195–16204 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Richards, M. A., Duncan, R. A. & Courtillot, V. E. Flood basalts and hot-spot tracks: Plume heads and tails. Science 246, 103–107 (1989).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Garnero, E. J., Lay, T. & McNamara, A. Implications of lower-mantle structural heterogeneity for the existence and nature of whole-mantle plumes. Geol. Soc. Am. Spec. Pap. 430, 79–101 (2007).

    Google Scholar 

  19. Courtillot, V., Davaille, A., Besse, J. & Stock, J. Three distinct types of hotspots in the Earth’s mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 205, 295–308 (2003).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Montelli, R. et al. Finite-frequency tomography reveals a variety of plumes in the mantle. Science 303, 338–343 (2004).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Coffin, M. F. et al. Kerguelen hotspot magma output since 130 Ma. J. Petrol. 43, 1121–1139 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Torsvik, T. H., Burke, K., Steinberger, B., Webb, S. J. & Ashwal, L. D. Diamonds sampled by plumes from the core-mantle boundary. Nature 466, 352–355 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Müller, R. D., Sdrolias, M., Gaina, C. & Roest, W. R. Age, spreading rates and spreading asymmetry of the world’s ocean crust. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 9, Q04006 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Simmons, N. A., Forte, A. M., Boschi, L. & Grand, S. P. GyPSuM: A joint tomographic model of mantle density and seismic wave speeds. J. Geophys. Res. 115, B12310 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Gale, A., Dalton, C. A., Langmuir, C. H., Su, Y. J. & Schilling, J. G. The mean composition of ocean ridge basalts. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 14, 489–518 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Schilling, J-G. Fluxes and excess temperatures of mantle plumes inferred from their interaction with migrating mid-ocean ridges. Nature 352, 397–403 (1991).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Torsvik, T. H. et al. Deep mantle structure as a reference frame for movements in and on the Earth. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 111, 8735–8740 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Becker, T. W. & Boschi, L. A comparison of tomographic and geodynamic mantle models. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 3, 1003 (2002).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Wessel, P. & Kroenke, L. W. Pacific absolute plate motion since 145 Ma: An assessment of the fixed hot spot hypothesis. J. Geophys. Res. 113, B06101 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Gerya, T. Introduction to Numerical Geodynamic Modelling (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2009).

    Book  Google Scholar 

Download references


The figures in this paper were created using GPlates, GMT, ArcGIS and Matlab. J.M.W. was supported by ARC grant DE140100376. S.E.W. and R.D.M. were supported by ARC grant FL0992245. The work of J.C.A. was supported by ARC grant DP120102372. This is contribution 608 from the ARC CoE CCFS ( M.S. was supported by ARC grant DP0987713. J.M.W. and M.S. acknowledge the support of Statoil. P.W. was supported by a University of Sydney International Visiting Research Fellowship.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



J.M.W., M.S., R.D.M. and P.W. conceived the hypothesis. S.M., J.C.A., J.M.W. and S.E.W. carried out computations and workflow development. The bulk of the text was written by J.M.W. All authors participated in planning, discussion throughout the project, and editing of the manuscript and figures.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to J. M. Whittaker.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 7970 kb)

Supplementary Table 1

Supplementary Information (XLSX 40 kb)

Supplementary Table 2

Supplementary Information (XLSX 93 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Whittaker, J., Afonso, J., Masterton, S. et al. Long-term interaction between mid-ocean ridges and mantle plumes. Nature Geosci 8, 479–483 (2015).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing