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Lower-mantle plume beneath the Yellowstone hotspot revealed by core waves


The Yellowstone hotspot, located in North America, is an intraplate source of magmatism the cause of which is hotly debated. Some argue that a deep mantle plume sourced at the base of the mantle supplies the heat beneath Yellowstone, whereas others claim shallower subduction or lithospheric-related processes can explain the anomalous magmatism. Here we present a shear wave tomography model for the deep mantle beneath the western United States that was made using the travel times of core waves recorded by the dense USArray seismic network. The model reveals a single narrow, cylindrically shaped slow anomaly, approximately 350 km in diameter that we interpret as a whole-mantle plume. The anomaly is tilted to the northeast and extends from the core–mantle boundary to the surficial position of the Yellowstone hotspot. The structure gradually decreases in strength from the deepest mantle towards the surface and if it is purely a thermal anomaly this implies an initial excess temperature of 650 to 850 °C. Our results strongly support a deep origin for the Yellowstone hotspot, and also provide evidence for the existence of thin thermal mantle plumes that are currently beyond the resolution of global tomography models.

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Fig. 1: Diagram of S, SKS and SKKS ray paths and a map of station and event locations with geologic features of the Yellowstone hotspot.
Fig. 2: Tomographic images of the lower mantle.
Fig. 3: Depth cross-section through the plume structure showing its connection with the Yellowstone hotspot.
Fig. 4: Resolution test results for 250-km-diameter plume structures.


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We like to thank K. Tao and F. Zhang for helpful discussions about finite frequency tomography and S.-H. Hung for providing the tomography code. We also thank S. Yu and E. Garnero for providing the adaptive stacking travel time measurement code and B. Steinberger for useful discussion. Lastly, we thank P. Crotwell for help with S.O.D (Standing Order for Data) and the IRIS (Incorporated Research Institution for Seismology) Data Center and the Canadian National Data Center for providing the waveforms used in this experiment. This work was supported by the National Science Foundation grant EAR 1648770.

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S.P.G. designed the project. P.L.N. undertook the data measurements and tomography. P.L.N. and S.P.G cowrote the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Peter L. Nelson.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary figures showing the results of inversions using different starting models, the upper mantle results for the preferred model and additional resolution tests

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Nelson, P.L., Grand, S.P. Lower-mantle plume beneath the Yellowstone hotspot revealed by core waves. Nature Geosci 11, 280–284 (2018).

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