Earth’s multi-scale topographic response to global mantle flow


Earth’s surface topography is a direct physical expression of our planet’s dynamics. Most is isostatic, controlled by thickness and density variations within the crust and lithosphere, but a substantial proportion arises from forces exerted by underlying mantle convection. This dynamic topography directly connects the evolution of surface environments to Earth’s deep interior, but predictions from mantle flow simulations are often inconsistent with inferences from the geological record, with little consensus about its spatial pattern, wavelength and amplitude. Here, we demonstrate that previous comparisons between predictive models and observational constraints have been biased by subjective choices. Using measurements of residual topography beneath the oceans, and a hierarchical Bayesian approach to performing spherical harmonic analyses, we generate a robust estimate of Earth’s oceanic residual topography power spectrum. This indicates water-loaded power of 0.5 ± 0.35 km2 and peak amplitudes of up to ~0.8 ± 0.1 km at long wavelengths (~104 km), decreasing by roughly one order of magnitude at shorter wavelengths (~103 km). We show that geodynamical simulations can be reconciled with observational constraints only if they incorporate lithospheric structure and its impact on mantle flow. This demonstrates that both deep (long-wavelength) and shallow (shorter-wavelength) processes are crucial, and implies that dynamic topography is intimately connected to the structure and evolution of Earth’s lithosphere.

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Fig. 1: Predicted versus inferred topography.
Fig. 2: Power spectra obtained from simulated datasets and observational constraints using inversions regularized with ARD.
Fig. 3: Dynamic (flow-related) component of synthetic residual topography within the oceanic realm.

Data availability

The compilation of observational constraints on residual topography used herein, which builds on the database and methodology of Hoggard et al.41, is available at Synthetic topography predictions from our geodynamical simulations are also included.

Code availability

Fluidity is available under the GNU Lesser General Public License. The source code and manual can be found at: The optimal regularization routines utilized for our spherical harmonic analyses are available from:


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We acknowledge support from the Australian Research Council, under grant numbers FT140101262, DP170100058 (both D.R.D.) and DE180100040 (A.P.V.). M.J.H. acknowledges support from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration grant number NNX17AE17G. Numerical simulations were undertaken on the NCI National Facility in Canberra, Australia, which is supported by the Australian Commonwealth Government.

Author information

D.R.D. conceived this study, designed, set up and processed the geodynamical simulations and integrated all interdisciplinary components. A.P.V. developed the tools utilized for spherical harmonic analyses and provided support with their application and interpretation. S.C.K., C.R.W. and D.R.D. led the development and validation of Fluidity. N.R. produced the lithospheric thickness model, M.J.H. provided the observational constraints on residual topography, and C.M.E. provided insight on dynamic topography implications and comparisons across various datasets and models. D.R.D. and A.P.V. wrote the paper, following discussion with, and contributions from, all authors.

Correspondence to D. R. Davies.

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Davies, D.R., Valentine, A.P., Kramer, S.C. et al. Earth’s multi-scale topographic response to global mantle flow. Nat. Geosci. 12, 845–850 (2019).

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