Remarkable Regions – The Réunion Hotspot

Remarkable Regions – The Réunion Hotspot
Eva Bredow at Réunion caldera.

Eva Bredow in front of the caldera at Réunion Island. Credit: Simon Stähler.

This week we again turn our attention to a Remarkable Region that deserves a spot in the scientific limelight. Postdoctoral researcher Eva Bredow of Kiel University shares with us her long history with Réunion Island.

At first glance, Réunion is a relatively small tropical island, located between Madagascar and Mauritius, and from my personal experience, most Germans have never even heard of it. To be fair, it is much better known in France, because Réunion is officially a French overseas department, meaning that the eleven-hour flight from Paris is technically a domestic flight and that you can pay there with Euros (and I bet you did not know that a millimetre-sized outline of the island appears on every Euro banknote!). Besides, Réunion hosts one of the most active volcanoes in the world with one eruption per year on average. However, it rarely hits the headlines because the inhabitants live far enough away not to be overly threatened. And yet, for people interested in geodynamics, the name Réunion might actually have a familiar sound, since it regularly appears in hotspot catalogues and hotspot reference frames – a sure indication that there is more to discover.

For me, Réunion has been a very special place ever since I was a high school student lucky enough to visit the island in order to learn French. And who would have thought back then that hiking in this surreal volcanic landscape would be one of the first steps towards my decision to study geophysics? And what were the odds to stumble upon a PhD project years later, centred around the Réunion hotspot? Well, that is exactly what happened and in this article, it is my pleasure to give you at least a brief overview of why Réunion deserves to be called a remarkable spot indeed and how numerical modelling can help us to explore its geodynamic history.

NW Indian Ocean crustal thickness map.

Crustal thickness map of the north-western Indian Ocean with the entire hotspot track from Réunion Island to the Deccan Traps in India. Figure from Torsvik et al. (2013).

A deep root

The hypothesis that Réunion is an intraplate hotspot possibly fed by a hot, buoyant upwelling rooted deep in the mantle was already put forward by Jason Morgan (1971, 1972) in his famous papers outlining the classical mantle plume hypothesis. And as it happens, the Réunion plume has left a number of traces that fit the plume hypothesis extremely well and make it a kind of prototype for a deep plume and its surface manifestations. A brief look at a topographic map of the north-western Indian Ocean reveals not only the currently active hotspot at Réunion and the slightly older island of Mauritius, but also a clearly continuous (and age-progressive) hotspot track on the African and Indian plates, only split due to subsequent seafloor-spreading.

According to numerous laboratory and numerical studies that describe the mushroom-like geometry of a plume, the hotspot track is considered to be caused by the long-lived plume tail, whereas the voluminous plume head is supposed to create a huge flood basalt province in a relatively short geological time (Richards et al., 1989). In the case of the Réunion plume, the hotspot track starts at the Deccan Traps, a gigantic continental Large Igneous Province (LIP) in India. The LIP was created around 65 million years ago and the environmental changes triggered by the volcanic activities might have led to the extinction of the dinosaurs (an alternative theory to the Chicxulub impact in Mexico; Courtillot and Renne, 2003).

Further indications for a deep plume beneath Réunion include the broad topographic hotspot swell around the island, a geochemical signature of the volcanic rocks that clearly deviates from mid-ocean ridge basalts, and the present-day hotspot location above the plume generation zone at the margin of the African Large Low Shear Velocity Province (LLSVP).

Plume-ridge interaction

A more puzzling observation is the geochemical anomaly at the closest segments of the Central Indian Ridge, about 1000 km away from Réunion that implies a long-distance plume-ridge interaction. Already Morgan (1978) suggested that a sublithospheric flow channel connecting the upwelling plume and the ridge is responsible for the creation of the Rodrigues Ridge, a rather eye-catching feature not at all parallel to the hotspot track or recent plate motions.

And there is one more noteworthy hypothesis associated with Réunion, based on extremely old zircons found at Mauritius; it postulates that the hotspot track has (coincidentally) been created on top of a Precambrian microcontinent (Ashwal et al., 2017).

The RHUM-RUM experiment (completely alcohol-free…)

Concerning the (present-day) state of the Réunion plume at greater depths, seismic tomography is the most promising tool to answer the question if it is indeed fed by a deep plume or not. But given that the island is rather remotely located and a classical plume tail is expected to be quite narrow, there are plenty of technical obstacles, and it was not until 2006 that Montelli published the first seismic image of a continuous plume conduit reaching into the deep mantle. More recent global tomography models also image the Réunion plume as a clearly resolved, vertically continuous conduit at depths between 1,000 and 2,800 km (French and Romanowicz, 2015).

In 2012-2013, the French-German RHUM-RUM project (Réunion Hotspot and Upper Mantle – Réunions Unterer Mantel) aimed at an even higher resolved image of the plume. Therefore, 57 German and French ocean-bottom seismometers were deployed at the seafloor around Réunion for about a year (Stähler et al., 2016) – still the largest seismological experiment to image a deep oceanic mantle plume so far.


RHUM-RUM seismic stations

All seismic stations related to the RHUM-RUM project, with the 57 ocean-bottom seismometer stations shown in red. More information on the project can be found here.

With all that in mind, and as part of the RHUM-RUM project, I set up a regional numerical model with some colleagues from the GFZ Potsdam in order to assemble Réunion’s entire dynamic history. We used time-dependent plate reconstructions and large-scale mantle flow as velocity boundary conditions as well as a laterally varying lithosphere thickness in order to specifically simulate the Réunion plume (for details, see Bredow et al., 2017). In short: altogether, we were able to reproduce a crustal thickness pattern that at first order fits the observed hotspot track (although the method is not suited to reproduce a continental LIP such as the Deccan Traps). Moreover, the interaction between the plume and the Central Indian Ridge explained both the genesis of the Rodrigues Ridge and the gap in crustal thickness between the Maldives and Chagos – both features that have not been dynamically modelled before.

After our models were published, the active long-distance plume-ridge interaction beneath the Rodrigues Ridge was additionally confirmed by seismological studies in the RHUM-RUM project: first in a three-dimensional anisotropic S-wave velocity model comprising the uppermost 300 km (Mazzullo et al., 2017), and second by SKS splitting measurements (Scholz et al., 2018). Overall, these interdisciplinary studies confirmed Morgan’s long-standing hypothesis – more than 30 years after its original publication.


Cross section geodynamic plume model of Bredow et al. 2017.

Cross section of the geodynamic plume model, showing the long-distance plume-ridge interaction as predicted by Morgan (1978). Figure after Bredow et al. (2017).

Surface wave tomography showing the Reunion plume.

Cross section of the surface wave tomography model, showing the low velocity signature of the plume rising toward the base of the lithosphere underneath Réunion and the sublithospheric flow toward the Central Indian Ridge (CIR). Figure after Mazzullo et al. (2017).

The whole-mantle P- and S-wave tomography models from the RHUM-RUM project have yet to be published, but the (almost final) results presented at this year’s EGU (Tsekhmistrenko et al., 2019) were quite intriguing: while the plume conduit can continuously be followed down to the LLSVP in the deep mantle, the conduit is not as narrow and not nearly as vertical as classically expected!

Therefore I think it is quite safe to say that we have not yet heard the last of the Réunion hotspot and I hope that the next time you hear this name, maybe you will remember it as a rather remarkable spot on our planet…


Ashwal et al. (2017), Archaean zircons in Miocene oceanic hotspot rocks establish ancient continental crust beneath Mauritius, Nat. Commun., 8, 14,086, doi: 10.1038/ncomms14086.

Bredow, E. et al. (2017), How plume-ridge interaction shapes the crustal thickness pattern of the Réunion hotspot track, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 18, doi:10.1002/2017GC006875.

Courtillot, V. E. and P. R. Renne (2003), On the ages of flood basalt events, C. R. Geosci., 335(1), 113–140, doi: 10.1016/S1631-0713(03)00006-3.

French, S. W. and B. Romanowicz (2015), Broad plumes rooted at the base of the Earth’s mantle beneath major hotspots, Nature, 525, 95–99, doi: 10.1038/nature14876.

Mazzullo, A. et al. (2017), Anisotropic tomography around Réunion Island from Rayleigh waves Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, 122, doi: 10.1002/2017JB014354.

Montelli, R. et al. (2006), A catalogue of deep mantle plumes: New results from finite-frequency tomography, Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst., 7, Q11007, doi: 10.1029/2006GC001248.

Morgan, W. J. (1971), Convection plumes in the lower mantle, Nature, 230, 42–43, doi: 10.1038/230042a0.

Morgan, W. J. (1972), Deep mantle convection plumes and plate motions, AAPG bulletin, 56(2), 203–213.

Morgan, W. J. (1978), Rodriguez, Darwin, Amsterdam, ..., A second type of Hotspot Island, J. Geophys. Res., 83(B11), 5355–5360, doi: 10.1029/JB083iB11p05355.

Richards, M. A. et al. (1989), Flood Basalts and Hot-Spot Tracks: Plume Heads and Tails, Science, 246, 103–107, doi: 10.1126/science.246.4926.103.

Scholz, J.-R. et al. (2018), SKS splitting in the Western Indian Ocean from land and seafloor seismometers: Plume, plate and ridge signatures, Earth Planet. Sci. Lett., Volume 498, 169-184, doi: 10.1016/j.epsl.2018.06.033.

Stähler, S. C. et al. (2016), Performance report of the RHUM-RUM ocean bottom seismometer network around La Réunion, western Indian Ocean, Adv. Geosci., 41, 43-63, doi: 10.5194/adgeo-41-43-2016.

Torsvik, T. H. et al. (2013), A Precambrian microcontinent in the Indian Ocean, Nat. Geosci., 6(3), 223–227, doi: 10.1038/ngeo1736.

Tsekhmistrenko, M. et al. (2019), Deep mantle upwelling under Réunion hotspot and the western Indian Ocean from P- and S-wave tomography, Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 21, EGU2019-9447, EGU GA 2019.

The Sassy Scientist – Hyde: Lithosphere Dynamics

The Sassy Scientist – Hyde: Lithosphere Dynamics

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.

Senna asks:

I’m torn between mantle dynamics and lithosphere dynamics as a research topic. Which shall I choose?

Dear Senna,

I don’t know what came over me when writing last week’s post. Must have been something I ate. Sometimes I just get some crazy idea stuck in my head. For example, I completely misconstrued ideas on the relative importance of mantle convection over lithosphere dynamics.

Last week I was babbling on about plate tectonics, and how the focus on the lithosphere shifted attention away from mantle convection. To be clear: this was for good reason. Granted, McKenzie and Parker’s (1969) concept of rigid plates on a shell was simplified. That was also the point: it explains some first-order observations like relative plate motions and seismicity. No, plate boundaries are not necessarily narrow zones of deformation (Kreemer et al. 2014). Yes, plates can also be flexed through loads on top, or radial mantle tractions from below (Watts 2001). We know that the Earth’s lithosphere can generally be considered to be a visco-elastic plate that is primarily moved by forces acting at its boundaries. Does this preclude seismicity or deviations from principal stress directions far away from such plate boundaries? Of course not.

It is obviously a great idea to base model predictions on non-unique gravity and geoid observations, seismic tomography, and Earth’s normal mode undulations for structures 2500 km away from the surface. The surface. You know, that place where we actually have direct observations. Sure, just extrapolate some rheology measured on a rock sample down to the lower mantle using some equations of state. Should be similar, right? Do you have a kinematic plate tectonic reconstruction based on loads of geological and paleomagnetic data? Just pop it into a mantle convection model to see whether it is feasible. You measured some SKS splitting data? That’s definitely a measure of present-day mantle flow. You infer instantaneous dynamic topography at the surface in the order of a couple 100 meters? Mantle convection models predict kilometers of instantaneous dynamic topography, so you must have made a mistake in your observations.

Do you want to understand what’s driving deformation of the lithosphere? Choose lithosphere as a research topic. Do you believe in fairy tales? Look into mantle convection: it’s full of magic.

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written after recovering from a major headache from reading last week’s post.

PS2: I won’t be surprised if there is going to another post on this topic next week. How well do you know your Scottish literature?

Kreemer, C., G. Blewitt, E.C. Klein (2014). A geodetic plate motion and Global Strain Rate Model, Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems, 15, 3849-3889, doi:10.1002/2014GC005407
McKenzie, D., and R. L. Parker (1967), The North Pacific: An example of tectonics on a sphere, Nature, 216, 1276
Watts, A. B. (2001), Isostasy and flexure of the lithosphere, Cambridge University Press, 458 pp.

The Sassy Scientist – Jekyll: Mantle dynamics

The Sassy Scientist – Jekyll: Mantle dynamics

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.

Senna asks:

I’m torn between mantle dynamics and lithosphere dynamics as a research topic. Which shall I choose?

Dear Senna,

This is an easy one: mantle dynamics. Don’t you want to be part of cutting edge research, utilising state-of-the-art numerical modelling codes and high performance computing facilities? You can employ every solid rock rheology known to man and generate new lithosphere through volcanism. Nowadays the lithosphere and crustal layers are implemented so convincingly that we can easily match seismic tomography slices, passive margin architectures and even subduction zones to the scale of accretionary wedges. Inherited weak zones can lead to supercontinent cycles. The sky is the limit!

I am the first to admit that mantle convection has been overshadowed for quite a while by plate tectonic theory ever since the early days of Holmes (1931). Wilson’s (1965) tessellation of the Earth’s surface and the straightforward connection to relative plate motions (e.g., McKenzie and Parker 1967) and mid-ocean magnetic anomalies (Vine and Matthews 1963) resulted in a longstanding main focus on lithosphere dynamics (Forsyth and Uyeda 1975). Even though early work, by for example Morgan (1971), showed that simplified systematic mantle convection explained first-order observations as well, it took quite a while before mantle convection became more popular. To be clear, researchers from several fields studying the mantle didn’t help very much: lingering discussions on whole mantle convection vs. separate flow cells, whether slabs or plumes can penetrate the 660 km boundary, and problems with incorporating a realistic lithosphere with proper rheologies that produced surface deformation predictions similar to the actual Earth’s surface held back widespread acceptance that mantle convection can explain everything. Nowadays, computational prowess and numerical model sophistication is at a point where we have overcome these issues: once again, the lithosphere is simply the thermal boundary layer of the mantle convection system.

Yes, the lithosphere is tessellated and undergoes continuous reorganisation — we can model this with mantle convection. Yes, there are probably thermo-chemical piles in the lower mantle — we can incorporate these. Yes, we infer that India has moved faster than any continent does at present — just add a mantle convection cell. Yes, the surface has topography that we can’t explain with isostasy and flexure — it is induced by radial mantle flow. I’m forgetting other issues here, obviously. The point is: studying lithosphere dynamics is going to be an obsolete exercise in a couple of years. Join the mantle convection party and be prepared for the future!

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written after reading quite a bunch of lithosphere dynamics papers trying to explain surface observations without using the mantle!

Forsyth, D.W. and Uyeda, S. (1975), On the relative importance of the driving forces of plate motion, Geophys. J. R. astr. Soc., 43, 163–200
Holmes, A. (1931), Radioactivity and Earth movements, Transactions of the Geological Society of Glasgow, Geological Society of Glasgow: 559–606
McKenzie, D., and R. L. Parker (1967), The North Pacific: An example of tectonics on a sphere, Nature, 216, 1276
Morgan, W. J. (1971). Convection Plumes in the Lower Mantle. Nature, 230, 42-43,
Vine, F. J., and P.M. Matthews (1963), Magnetic anomalies over ocean ridges, Nature, 199, 947
Wilson, J. T. (1965), A new class of faults and their bearing on continental drift, Nature, 207, 343

The Sassy Scientist – Key Papers

The Sassy Scientist – Key Papers

Every week, The Sassy Scientist answers a question on geodynamics, related topics, academic life, the universe or anything in between with a healthy dose of sarcasm. Do you have a question for The Sassy Scientist? Submit your question here.

Luca asks:

What is (in your opinion) the key paper in geodynamics and why?

Dear Luca,

There is not one key paper. It is simply impossible to point at one paper and say: “This is the one that changed geodynamics”. Obviously, without the early work of Wilson, McKenzie, Froidevaux, Morgan, Turcotte, and Schubert (and many others, the list is enormous, don’t be offended if you’re not on it) the field of geodynamics wouldn’t even exist. However, unless you are a bachelor student, it should be fairly clear by now that (Earth) science is an evolving beast that can take many shapes and lead to many dead-ends. Well-considered concepts are continually overturned, contradicted or adjusted.

So, it seems to me that you are looking for a shortcut. Unfortunately this shortcut doesn’t exist and you’ll just have to go through the literature. Painstakingly and critically evaluating papers. And you’re right: most of the ones you’ll come across will not be qualified as ‘key papers’. But this is a good thing. It’s better to go through an abundance of small steps to move science forward than to take major leaps while overlooking small but significant details that take you across a decades-long detour…

Still interested in science?

Yours truly,

The Sassy Scientist

PS: This post was written after getting annoyed by stupid questions.