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Plates vs Plumes: A Geological Controversy

Gillian R. Foulger

ISBN: 978-1-405-16148-0 September 2010 Wiley-Blackwell 340 Pages


Since the advent of the mantle plume hypothesis in 1971, scientists have been faced with the problem that its predictions are not confirmed by observation. For thirty years, the usual reaction has been to adapt the hypothesis in numerous ways. As a result, the multitude of current plume variants now amounts to an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

In the early 21st century demand became relentless for a theory that can explain melting anomalies in a way that fits the observations naturally and is forward-predictive. From this the Plate hypothesis emerged–the exact inverse of the Plume hypothesis. The Plate hypothesis attributes melting anomalies to shallow effects directly related to plate tectonics. It rejects the hypothesis that surface volcanism is driven by convection in the deep mantle.

Earth Science is currently in the midst of the kind of paradigm-challenging debate that occurs only rarely in any field. This volume comprises its first handbook. It reviews the Plate and Plume hypotheses, including a clear statement of the former. Thereafter it follows an observational approach, drawing widely from many volcanic regions in chapters on vertical motions of Earth's crust, magma volumes, time-progressions of volcanism, seismic imaging, mantle temperature and geochemistry.

This text:

  • Deals with a paradigm shift in Earth Science - some say the most important since plate tectonics
  • Is analogous to Wegener's The Origin of Continents and Oceans
  • Is written to be accessible to scientists and students from all specialities

This book is indispensable to Earth scientists from all specialties who are interested in this new subject. It is suitable as a reference work for those teaching relevant classes, and an ideal text for advanced undergraduates and graduate students studying plate tectonics and related topics.

Visit Gillian's own website at

Preface, ix

1 From plate tectonics to plumes, and back again, 1

1.1 Volcanoes, and exceptional volcanoes, 1

1.2 Early beginnings: Continental drift and its rejection, 1

1.3 Emergence of the Plume hypothesis, 6

1.4 Predictions of the Plume hypothesis, 11

1.5 Lists of plumes, 13

1.6 Testing plume predictions, 21

1.7 A quick tour of Hawaii and Iceland, 23

1.8 Moving on: Holism and alternatives, 26

1.9 The Plate hypothesis, 26

1.10 Predictions of the Plate hypothesis, 35

1.11 Testing the Plate hypothesis, 35

1.12 Revisiting Hawaii and Iceland, 36

1.13 Questions and problems, 37

1.14 Exercises for the student, 37

2 Vertical motions, 38

2.1 Introduction, 38

2.2 Predictions of the Plume hypothesis, 39

2.3 Predictions of the Plate hypothesis, 40

2.4 Comparison of the predictions of the Plume and Plate hypotheses, 43

2.5 Observations, 43

2.6 Plume variants, 73

2.7 Discussion, 74

2.8 Exercises for the student, 76

3 Volcanism, 78

3.1 Introduction, 78

3.2 Predictions of the Plume hypothesis, 84

3.3 Predictions of the Plate hypothesis, 86

3.4 Comparison of the predictions of the Plate and Plume hypotheses, 91

3.5 Observations, 92

3.6 Plume variants, 113

3.7 Discussion, 114

3.8 Exercises for the student, 116

4 Time progressions and relative fi xity of melting anomalies, 118

4.1 Introduction, 118

4.2 Methods, 120

4.3 Predictions of the Plume hypothesis, 122

4.4 Predictions of the Plate hypothesis, 122

4.5 Observations, 123

4.6 Hotspot reference frames, 134

4.7 Plume variants, 1370

4.8 Discussion, 140

4.9 Exercises for the student, 141

5 Seismology, 143

5.1 Introduction, 143

5.2 Seismological techniques, 148

5.3 Predictions of the Plume hypothesis, 153

5.4 Predictions of the Plate hypothesis, 154

5.5 Observations, 155

5.6 Global observations, 179

5.7 Plume variants, 184

5.8 Discussion, 185

5.9 Exercises for the student, 188

6 Temperature and heat, 189

6.1 Introduction, 189

6.2 Methods, 195

6.3 Predictions of the Plume hypothesis, 203

6.4 Predictions of the Plate hypothesis, 205

6.5 Observations, 206

6.6 Variants of the Plume hypothesis, 222

6.7 Discussion, 223

6.8 Exercises for the student, 225

7 Petrology and geochemistry, 227

7.1 Introduction, 227

7.2 Some basics, 230

7.3 Predictions of the Plume hypothesis, 245

7.4 Predictions of the Plate hypothesis, 246

7.5 Proposed deep-mantle- and coremantle-boundary tracers, 246

7.6 A few highlights from melting anomalies, 252

7.7 Plume variants, 261

7.8 Discussion, 263

7.9 Exercises for the student, 265

8 Synthesis, 267

8.1 Introduction, 267

8.2 Mantle convection, 275

8.3 An unfalsifi able hypothesis, 277

8.4 Diversity: a smoking gun, 284

8.5 The need for joined-up science, 284

8.6 The future, 286

8.7 Exercises for the student, 287

References, 288

Index, 319

Colour plate section (starting after page 180)

“Nevertheless I strongly recommend this book both for students and researchers. It is ideal for use in classroom discussion projects, or in “lunch time discussion” meetings. It is clearly written and well illustrated and includes hundreds of useful references as recent as 2010.”  (Bull Volcanol, 3 April 2012)

“As such, it is a valuable work for advanced undergraduate and graduate students, but also for researchers from many specialties in geology, geophysics, geochemistry and geography.”  (Pure and Applied Geophysics, 1 April 2013)

"It is highly recommended to all OUGS members, who could consider reading the first and last chapters, together with one or two of the main chapters, as a minimum." (Open University Geological Society Journal, 1 November 2011)

"This is knee-deep geophysics, but too fascinating to put down. As the title says, there are conflicting views of how and why the earth recycles itself...very strong views. . . It goes to great lengths to explain the theories of continental drift through plate tectonics that took half a century to be accepted by mainstream geology." (Janet Tanaka, 2011)

"This new textbook is ideal for a graduate-level seminar, a book club that doubles as a credit-granting course." (Andrew's Geology Blog, 18 November 2010)