The dispersal of mantle plumes in the shallow mantle causes excess volcanism and surface uplift over thousands of kilometres. These phenomena result primarily from a mantle plume’s excess temperature with respect to ambient mantle, which will be the main reason a plume is buoyantly ascending through the mantle in the first place. However, mantle plumes also tend to produce basalts that have distinct trace element and isotopic compositions, that are unlikely to be due solely to changing mantle potential temperature. Like surface uplift, these geochemical characteristics of a mantle plume can be used to trace its dispersal in the shallow mantle if it intersects passive melting features like mid-ocean ridges.
In the simplest model of plume dispersal, the geophysical and geochemical observables recording the presence of a mantle plume will track each other, so that when a mid-ocean ridge is shallow because of underlying hot mantle, it will also erupt trace element enriched basalts. However, in two classic cases of plume-ridge interaction, the Galapagos and Iceland, geophysical and geochemical tracers of plume dispersal in the shallow mantle are decoupled and apparently asymmetric about the plume axis. These observations have led to models of asymmetric plume flow in response to prevailing mantle convection, fracture zone blocking of plume outflow, or tilted mantle plumes.
In this paper we show that by allowing a realistically located centre of plume symmetry to be found for Iceland and the Galapagos, geophysical indicators of plume dispersal can be shown to be radially symmetric. However, geochemical enrichment along the ridges either side of the Iceland and Galapagos plumes remain highly asymmetric. These observations can be reconciled by considering that the enriched plume component, carrying much of the trace element load that gives the plume its distinctive geochemical character, is more fusible (i.e. is a pyroxenitic heterogeneity) than ambient mantle. The implication of this is that partial melting during outflow of the plume material will preferentially deplete it in the enriched component, leaving any basalts that the source goes on to produce relatively depleted. It is then the asymmetry in the distribution of spreading centres about the Iceland and Galapagos plumes that ingrows asymmetry in the chemistry of the plume material (see figure above for Iceland), as spreading centres cause the laterally flowing plume material to decompress and undergo small degrees of melting.
Our model therefore explains decoupling between geophysical and geochemical indicators of plume dispersal without requiring complex dynamics, just the observation that enriched mantle domains will be more readily extracted from a source than depleted mantle.
Online [Department repository, full text]: http://eprints.esc.cam.ac.uk/1400/2/G3_Shorttle_Maclennan.pdf
Online [publisher]: http://dx.doi.org/10.1029/2009GC002986
Reference: Shorttle, Oliver, J. Maclennan, and S. M. Jones. Control of the symmetry of plume‐ridge interaction by spreading ridge geometry. Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems 11, no. 7 (2010).