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Mantle plumes and their role in Earth processes

Abstract

The existence of mantle plumes was first proposed in the 1970s to explain intra-plate, hotspot volcanism, yet owing to difficulties in resolving mantle upwellings with geophysical images and discrepancies in interpretations of geochemical and geochronological data, the origin, dynamics and composition of plumes and their links to plate tectonics are still contested. In this Review, we discuss progress in seismic imaging, mantle flow modelling, plate tectonic reconstructions and geochemical analyses that have led to a more detailed understanding of mantle plumes. Observations suggest plumes could be both thermal and chemical in nature, can attain complex and broad shapes, and that more than 18 plumes might be rooted in regions of the lowermost mantle. The case for a deep mantle origin is strengthened by the geochemistry of hotspot volcanoes that provide evidence for entrainment of deeply recycled subducted components, primordial mantle domains and, potentially, materials from Earth’s core. Deep mantle plumes often appear deflected by large-scale mantle flow, resulting in hotspot motions required to resolve past tectonic plate motions. Future research requires improvements in resolution of seismic tomography to better visualize deep mantle plume structures at smaller than 100-km scales. Concerted multi-proxy geochemical and dating efforts are also needed to better resolve spatiotemporal and chemical evolutions of long-lived mantle plumes.

Key points

  • Thermochemical mantle plumes are an integral part of Earth’s dynamic interior.

  • More than 18 mantle plumes appear to originate from the deepest regions in Earth’s mantle.

  • Mantle plumes influence surface processes, including continental break-up and mass extinctions.

  • The location of two large low-seismic-velocity provinces in the lowermost mantle can be associated with most present-day hotspots and ancient large igneous provinces.

  • Individual plume motions are required to resolve changes in absolute plate tectonic motions.

  • Mantle plumes are geochemically heterogeneous, incorporating deeply recycled subducted components, primordial mantle domains and, potentially, materials from Earth’s core.

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Fig. 1: Dynamic nature of Earth’s interior.
Fig. 2: Tomographic imaging of mantle plumes and LLSVPs.
Fig. 3: Examples of rising thermal and thermochemical plumes.
Fig. 4: Isotope systematics in global plume volcanics.
Fig. 5: Isotopic zonation of the Hawaiian plume.

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Acknowledgements

The authors are supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) grants OCE-1912932 (A.A.P.K., K.K.), EAR-1900652 (M.G.J.) and EAR-1758198 (B.R.); National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) grant OSP 201601412-001 (T.W.B.); Centre of Excellence project 223272 through the Research Council of Norway (RCN) and the innovation pool of the Helmholtz Association via an “Advanced Earth System Modelling Capacity (ESM)” activity (B.S.); and Australian Research Council (ARC) grant IH130200012 (R.D.M.). We thank E. Garnero and T. Jones for informal discussions that improved the manuscript.

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Supplementary information

Glossary

Hotspot

Region of intra-plate volcanism that forms an age-progressive volcanic chain (like Hawaii) or a region of excessive volcanism along plate boundaries (like Iceland), with temperatures exceeding that of ambient asthenospheric mantle by ~100 °C or more.

Large igneous provinces

(LIPs). Extremely large accumulations of intrusive and extrusive volcanic rocks (areal extents >0.1 million km2 with volumes >0.1 million km3) deposited over a short geological period of time, often in less than 1 million years.

Large low-shear-velocity provinces

(LLSVPs). A large region (several thousand kilometres in size) of low shear velocity (a few percent lower than average) in the lowermost few hundreds of kilometres of the mantle. There are two of them, beneath Africa and the Pacific.

Hadean

Geologic eon in Earth history, starting with Earth’s accretion about 4.567 billion years ago and ending 4 billion years ago at the beginning of the Archaean.

Core–mantle boundary

Boundary between the liquid metal outer core and the mostly solid lower mantle at ~2,891-km depth.

660-km Seismic discontinuity

Seismic discontinuity corresponding to a solid–solid phase transition in the mantle at ~660-km depth.

True polar wander

Reorientation of the entire solid Earth with respect to the spin axis.

Eclogite

An ultra-high pressure metamorphic rock forming at depths greater than 35 km and typically associated with the transformation of basalt during oceanic plate subduction.

Geoid

Equipotential surface of the Earth’s gravity field that most closely coincides with mean sea level.

Superswells

Regions of elevated topography too large to be attributed to a single hotspot. Two prominent superswells overlie the corresponding large low-shear-velocity provinces in the Pacific and Africa.

Ultra-low velocity zones

(ULVZs). Smaller regions (hundreds of kilometres in size) of very low shear velocity (exceeding 10% lower than average) in the lowermost few tens of kilometres of the mantle. There are perhaps a dozen or more of them.

Thermal mantle plumes

Columnar upwellings of hot material from the lowermost mantle to the base of the lithosphere.

Hotspot swells

Regions of elevated topography (several hundred kilometres wide) caused by buoyant mantle plume material rising beneath and being dragged along with a moving plate.

Thermochemical mantle plumes

Columnar upwellings of hot and chemically distinct material from the lowermost mantle to the base of the lithosphere.

Ocean island basalts

A volcanic rock type typically of basaltic composition, forming in ocean basins away from plate tectonic boundaries and associated with intra-plate hotspot volcanoes and mantle plumes.

Peridotite

The dominant mantle rock type mostly made from silicate minerals olivine and pyroxene, rich in Mg and Fe, with less than 45% silica.

Euler poles

Poles describing the rotation of a plate on a sphere. Any rigid plate motion can be described as rotation around an Euler pole.

Dynamic topography

The part of topography that is caused, supported and maintained by mantle convection.

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Koppers, A.A.P., Becker, T.W., Jackson, M.G. et al. Mantle plumes and their role in Earth processes. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 382–401 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00168-6

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