Hotspot (geology)

In geology, hotspots (or hot spots) are volcanic locales thought to be fed by underlying mantle that is anomalously hot compared with the surrounding mantle.[1] Examples include the Hawaii, Iceland and Yellowstone hotspots. A hotspot's position on the Earth's surface is independent of tectonic plate boundaries, and so hotspots may create a chain of volcanoes as the plates move above them.

Diagram showing a cross section through the Earth's lithosphere (in yellow) with magma rising from the mantle (in red). Lower diagram illustrates a hotspot track caused by their relative movement.

There are two hypotheses that attempt to explain their origins. One suggests that hotspots are due to mantle plumes that rise as thermal diapirs from the core–mantle boundary.[2] The alternative plate theory is that the mantle source beneath a hotspot is not anomalously hot, rather the crust above is unusually weak or thin, so that lithospheric extension permits the passive rising of melt from shallow depths.[3][4]


Schematic diagram showing the physical processes inside the Earth that lead to the generation of magma. Partial melting begins above the fusion point.

The origins of the concept of hotspots lie in the work of J. Tuzo Wilson, who postulated in 1963 that the formation of the Hawaiian Islands resulted from the slow movement of a tectonic plate across a hot region beneath the surface.[5] It was later postulated that hotspots are fed by narrow streams of hot mantle rising from the Earth's core–mantle boundary in a structure called a mantle plume.[6] Whether or not such mantle plumes exist is the subject of a major controversy in Earth science.[4][7]

At any place where volcanism is not linked to a constructive or destructive plate margin, the concept of a hotspot has been used to explain its origin. In a review article by Courtillot et al.[8] listing possible hotspots, distinction is made between primary hotspots coming from deep within the mantle (possibly originating from the core/mantle boundary), creating large volcanic provinces with linear tracks (Easter Island, Iceland, Hawaii, Afar, Louisville, Reunion, Tristan confirmed, Galapagos, Kerguelen and Marquersas likely) and secondary hotspots derived from mantle plumes (Samoa, Tahiti, Cook, Pitcairn, Caroline, MacDonald confirmed, up to about 20 possible) at the upper/lower mantle boundary that do not form large volcanic provinces but form island chains. Other potential hotspots are the result of shallow mantle material surfacing in areas of lithospheric break-up caused by tension (and are thus a very different type of volcanism).

Estimates for the number of hotspots postulated to be fed by mantle plumes have ranged from about 20 to several thousand,[citation needed] with most geologists considering a few tens to exist. Hawaii, Réunion, Yellowstone, Galápagos, and Iceland are some of the most active volcanic regions to which the hypothesis is applied.


Most hotspot volcanoes are basaltic (e.g., Hawaii, Tahiti). As a result, they are less explosive than subduction zone volcanoes, in which water is trapped under the overriding plate. Where hotspots occur in continental regions, basaltic magma rises through the continental crust, which melts to form rhyolites. These rhyolites can form violent eruptions.[9][10] For example, the Yellowstone Caldera was formed by some of the most powerful volcanic explosions in geologic history. However, when the rhyolite is completely erupted, it may be followed by eruptions of basaltic magma rising through the same lithospheric fissures (cracks in the lithosphere). An example of this activity is the Ilgachuz Range in British Columbia, which was created by an early complex series of trachyte and rhyolite eruptions, and late extrusion of a sequence of basaltic lava flows.[11]

The hotspot hypothesis is now closely linked to the mantle plume hypothesis.[12]

Contrast with subduction zone island arcsEdit

Hotspot volcanoes are considered to have a fundamentally different origin from island arc volcanoes. The latter form over subduction zones, at converging plate boundaries. When one oceanic plate meets another, the denser plate is forced downward into a deep ocean trench. This plate, as it is subducted, releases water into the base of the over-riding plate, and this water mixes with the rock, thus changing its composition causing some rock to melt and rise. It is this that fuels a chain of volcanoes, such as the Aleutian Islands, near Alaska.

Hotspot volcanic chainsEdit

Over millions of years, the Pacific Plate has moved over the Hawaii hotspot, creating a trail of underwater mountains that stretches across the Pacific
Kilauea is the most active shield volcano in the world. The volcano erupted nonstop from 1983 to 2018 and it is part of the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain.
Mauna Loa is a large shield volcano. Its last eruption was in 1984 and it is part of the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain.
Bowie Seamount is a dormant submarine volcano and it is part of the Kodiak-Bowie Seamount chain.
Axial Seamount is the youngest seamount of the Cobb–Eickelberg Seamount chain. Its last eruption was on 6 April 2011.[13]
Mauna Kea is the tallest volcano in the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain. It is dormant and it has cinder cones growing on the volcano.
Hualalai is a massive shield volcano in the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain. Its last eruption was in 1801.

The joint mantle plume/hotspot hypothesis envisages the feeder structures to be fixed relative to one another, with the continents and seafloor drifting overhead. The hypothesis thus predicts that time-progressive chains of volcanoes are developed on the surface. Examples are Yellowstone, which lies at the end of a chain of extinct calderas, which become progressively older to the west. Another example is the Hawaiian archipelago, where islands become progressively older and more deeply eroded to the northwest.

Geologists have tried to use hotspot volcanic chains to track the movement of the Earth's tectonic plates. This effort has been vexed by the lack of very long chains, by the fact that many are not time-progressive (e.g. the Galápagos) and by the fact that hotspots do not appear to be fixed relative to one another (e.g. Hawaii and Iceland).[14]

In 2020, Wei et al. used seismic tomography to detect the oceanic plateau, formed about 100 million years ago by the hypothesized mantle plume head of the Hawaii-Emperor seamount chain, now subducted to a depth of 800 km under eastern Siberia.[15]

Postulated hotspot volcano chainsEdit

An example of mantle plume locations suggested by one recent group.[16] Figure from Foulger (2010).[4]

List of volcanic regions postulated to be hotspotsEdit

Distribution of hotspots in the list to the left, with the numbers corresponding to those in the list. The Afar hotspot (29) is misplaced.
Map all coordinates using: OpenStreetMap 
Download coordinates as: KML

Eurasian PlateEdit

African PlateEdit

Antarctic PlateEdit

South American PlateEdit

North American PlateEdit

Australian PlateEdit

Nazca PlateEdit

Pacific PlateEdit

Over millions of years, the Pacific Plate has moved over the Bowie hotspot, creating the Kodiak-Bowie Seamount chain in the Gulf of Alaska

Former hotspotsEdit

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ "The source of Yellowstone's heat". USGS. 16 April 2018. Retrieved 14 June 2021.
  2. ^ a b W. J. Morgan (5 March 1971). "Convection Plumes in the Lower Mantle". Nature. 230 (5288): 42–43. Bibcode:1971Natur.230...42M. doi:10.1038/230042a0. S2CID 4145715.
  3. ^ "Do plumes exist?". Retrieved 25 April 2010.
  4. ^ a b c Foulger, G.R. (2010). Plates vs. Plumes: A Geological Controversy. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 978-1-4051-6148-0.
  5. ^ Wilson, J. Tuzo (1963). "A possible origin of the Hawaiian Islands" (PDF). Canadian Journal of Physics. 41 (6): 863–870. Bibcode:1963CaJPh..41..863W. doi:10.1139/p63-094.
  6. ^ "Hotspots: Mantle thermal plumes". United States Geological Survey. 5 May 1999. Retrieved 15 May 2008.
  7. ^ Wright, Laura (November 2000). "Earth's interior: Raising hot spots". Geotimes. American Geological Institute. Retrieved 15 June 2008.
  8. ^
  9. ^ Donald Hyndman; David Hyndman (1 January 2016). Natural Hazards and Disasters. Cengage Learning. pp. 44–. ISBN 978-1-305-88818-0.
  10. ^ Wolfgang Frisch; Martin Meschede; Ronald C. Blakey (2 November 2010). Plate Tectonics: Continental Drift and Mountain Building. Springer Science & Business Media. pp. 87–. ISBN 978-3-540-76504-2.
  11. ^ Holbek, Peter (November 1983). "Report on Preliminary Geology and Geochemistry of the Ilga Claim Group" (PDF). Retrieved 15 June 2008. Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  12. ^ Mainak Choudhuri; Michal Nemčok (22 August 2016). Mantle Plumes and Their Effects. Springer. pp. 18–. ISBN 978-3-319-44239-6.
  13. ^ "Axial Seamount". PMEL Earth-Ocean Interactions Program. NOAA. Retrieved 23 September 2014.
  14. ^ "What the hell is Hawaii?". Retrieved 7 January 2011.
  15. ^ Wei, Songqiao Shawn; Shearer, Peter M.; Lithgow-Bertelloni, Carolina; Stixrude, Lars; Tian, Dongdong (20 November 2020). "Oceanic plateau of the Hawaiian mantle plume head subducted to the uppermost lower mantle". Science. 370 (6519): 983–987. Bibcode:2020Sci...370..983W. doi:10.1126/science.abd0312. ISSN 0036-8075. PMID 33214281. S2CID 227059993.
  16. ^ Courtillot, V.; Davaillie, A.; Besse, J.; Stock, J. (2003). "Three distinct types of hotspots in the Earth's mantle". Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 205 (3–4): 295–308. Bibcode:2003E&PSL.205..295C. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(02)01048-8.
  17. ^ E. V. Verzhbitsky (2003). "Geothermal regime and genesis of the Ninety-East and Chagos-Laccadive ridges". Journal of Geodynamics. 35 (3): 289. Bibcode:2003JGeo...35..289V. doi:10.1016/S0264-3707(02)00068-6.
  18. ^ Carracedo, Juan Carlos; Troll, Valentin R. (1 January 2021). "North-East Atlantic Islands: The Macaronesian Archipelagos". Encyclopedia of Geology. pp. 674–699. doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-102908-4.00027-8. ISBN 9780081029091.
  19. ^ Carracedo, Juan Carlos; Troll, Valentin R. (1 January 2021). "North-East Atlantic Islands: The Macaronesian Archipelagos". Encyclopedia of Geology. pp. 674–699. doi:10.1016/B978-0-08-102908-4.00027-8. ISBN 9780081029091.
  20. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af ag ah ai aj ak al am an ao ap aq ar as at au av aw ax ay az ba bb bc bd be bf bg bh bi W. J. Morgan and J. P. Morgan. "Plate velocities in hotspot reference frame: electronic supplement" (PDF). Retrieved 6 November 2011.
  21. ^ Nielsen, Søren B.; Stephenson, Randell; Thomsen, Erik (13 December 2007). "Letter:Dynamics of Mid-Palaeocene North Atlantic rifting linked with European intra-plate deformations". Nature. 450 (7172): 1071–1074. Bibcode:2007Natur.450.1071N. doi:10.1038/nature06379. PMID 18075591. S2CID 4428980.
  22. ^ O'Neill, C.; Müller, R. D.; Steinberger, B. (2003). "Revised Indian plate rotations based on the motion of Indian Ocean hotspots" (PDF). Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 215 (1–2): 151–168. Bibcode:2003E&PSL.215..151O. CiteSeerX doi:10.1016/S0012-821X(03)00368-6. Archived from the original (PDF) on 26 July 2011.
  23. ^ O'Connor, J. M.; le Roex, A. P. (1992). "South Atlantic hot spot-plume systems. 1: Distribution of volcanism in time and space". Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 113 (3): 343–364. Bibcode:1992E&PSL.113..343O. doi:10.1016/0012-821X(92)90138-L.
  24. ^ Smith, Robert B.; Jordan, Michael; Steinberger, Bernhard; Puskas, Christine M.; Farrell, Jamie; Waite, Gregory P.; Husen, Stephan; Chang, Wu-Lung; O'Connell, Richard (20 November 2009). "Geodynamics of the Yellowstone hotspot and mantle plume: Seismic and GPS imaging, kinematics and mantle flow" (PDF). Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. 188 (1–3): 26–56. Bibcode:2009JVGR..188...26S. doi:10.1016/j.jvolgeores.2009.08.020.
  25. ^ "Catalogue of Canadian volcanoes- Anahim volcanic belt". Natural Resources Canada. Geological Survey of Canada. Archived from the original on 16 July 2011. Retrieved 14 June 2008.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit