Anomalous mantle transition zone beneath the Yellowstone hotspot track


The origin of the Yellowstone and Snake River Plain volcanism has been strongly debated. The mantle plume model successfully explains the age-progressive volcanic track, but a deep plume structure has been absent in seismic imaging. Here I apply diffractional tomography to receiver functions recorded at USArray stations to map high-resolution topography of mantle transition-zone discontinuities. The images reveal a trail of anomalies that closely follow the surface hotspot track and correlate well with a seismic wave-speed gap in the subducting Farallon slab. This observation contradicts the plume model, which requires anomalies in the mid mantle to be confined in a narrow region directly beneath the present-day Yellowstone caldera. I propose an alternative interpretation of the Yellowstone volcanism. About 16 million years ago, a section of young slab that had broken off from a subducted spreading centre in the mantle first penetrated the 660 km discontinuity beneath Oregon and Idaho, and pulled down older stagnant slab. Slab tearing occurred along pre-existing fracture zones and propagated northeastward. This reversed-polarity subduction generated passive upwellings from the lower mantle, which ascended through a water-rich mantle transition zone to produce melting and age-progressive volcanism.

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Fig. 1: Location of the Yellowstone hotspot track.
Fig. 2: Mantle transition-zone discontinuities from receiver function diffraction tomography.
Fig. 3: 3D rendering and re-examination of S-wave slab anomalies in the western United States.
Fig. 4: Cartoon illustration of the stages of subduction in the western United States (not to scale).
Fig. 5: Cartoon illustration of reversed subduction (not to scale).
Fig. 6: Sketch of the Pacific and Farallon fracture zones.


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This research was supported by the US National Science Foundation under Grants EAR-1737737 and EAR-1348131. Advanced Research Computing at Virginia Tech provided computational resources.

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Correspondence to Ying Zhou.

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Zhou, Y. Anomalous mantle transition zone beneath the Yellowstone hotspot track. Nature Geosci 11, 449–453 (2018).

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