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Indian Ocean floor deformation induced by the Reunion plume rather than the Tibetan Plateau


The central Indian Ocean is considered the archetypal diffuse oceanic plate boundary. Data from seismic stratigraphy and deep-sea drilling indicate that the contractional deformation of the Indian Ocean lithosphere commenced at 15.4–13.9 Ma, but experienced a sharp increase at 8–7.5 Ma. This has been maintained through to the present day, with over 80% of the shortening accrued over the past 8 Myr. Here we build on previous efforts to refine the form, timing and magnitude of the regional plate-motion changes by mitigating the noise in reconstructed Indian and Capricorn plate motions relative to Somalia. Our noise-mitigated reconstructions tightly constrain the significant speed up of the Capricorn plate over the past 8 Myr and demonstrate that the history of the Indian Ocean floor deformation cannot be explained without this plate-motion change. We propose that the Capricorn plate-motion change is driven by an increase in the eastward-directed asthenospheric flow associated with the adjacent Reunion plume, and quantitatively demonstrate the viability of this hypothesis. Our inference is supported by volcanic age distributions along the Reunion hotspot track, the anomalously high residual bathymetry of the Central Indian Ridge, full-waveform seismic tomography of the underlying asthenosphere and geochemical observations from the Central Indian Ridge. These findings challenge the commonly accepted link between the deformation of the Indian Ocean floor and the Tibetan Plateau’s orogenic evolution and demonstrate that temporal variations in upwelling mantle flow can drive major tectonic events at the Earth’s surface.

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G.I. acknowledges support from the Department of Geosciences and Natural Resource Management at the University of Copenhagen. D.R.D. acknowledges support from the Australian Research Council, under grant nos FT140101262 and DP170100058. The authors are grateful to R. Gordon and A. Whitchurch for constructive comments that improved this study.

Author information

G.I. conceived the study. G.I. and C.D. undertook the noise-mitigation analysis. G.I. performed the calculations of lithosphere shortening, residual bathymetry and torque changes. D.R.D. undertook the analysis of volcanism along the Reunion hotspot track and tied in associated interdisciplinary observational constraints. All the authors contributed to discussing and writing the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Correspondence to G. Iaffaldano.

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Fig. 1: Topography/bathymetry of the central Indian Ocean region.
Fig. 2: Noise-mitigated analyses of IN/SO and CP/SO Neogene plate kinematics.
Fig. 3: History of shortening within the central Indian Ocean.
Fig. 4: Mechanism that drives the 8 Ma CP-motion change.