East Australian Volcanism – interaction of plumes and subduction remnants

Geodynamics Mar 26, 2021

Intra-plate volcanism in North Queensland and eastern new Guinea: A cryptic mantle plume?
Intra-plate volcanism in NE Australia, the eastern Highlands of New Guinea and along the Papuan Peninsula has been reasonably continuous over the Plio…
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Eastern Australia hosts a wide range of volcanic edifices, ranging from localised outcrops to lava fields and central volcanoes (Figure 1). In general, the older volcanics are in the north with distinct tracks of decreasing age to the south (see Figure 1 and, e.g., Davies et al., 2015). Similar age profiles are seen for two lines of seamounts through the Tasman Sea (e.g., Seton et al., 2019). This pattern of age progression reflects the rapid motion of the Australian Plate to the north (~ 7 cm/yr) over apparently stationary sources of volcanic material.

Figure 1: T­he distribution of volcanic centres in Papua New Guinea, the Torres Strait, eastern Australia and offshore. For PNG and North Queensland, Pleistocene volcanoes are shown as diamonds, Holocene volcanoes as triangles. Depth contours from the Slab2 model (Hayes et al., 2018) suggest that many of the volcanic centres in PNG are not underlain by a slab (red ellipses in the eastern highlands of New Guinea and along the Papuan Peninsula) and, hence, cannot be easily explained through subduction processes. Three age progressive tracks are marked by dashed red lines; stars represent the estimates of the current location of the hotspot centres. Approximate dates are marked along the tracks.

An exception to the patterns of age variation is the intra-plate volcanism in NE Australia, the eastern Highlands of New Guinea and along the Papuan Peninsula that has been reasonably continuous over the Pliocene and Quaternary, despite the northward movement of the Australian plate in this time frame. This volcanic zone lies slightly to the east of a large step in lithospheric thickness associated with the thick North Australian craton, which extends into New Guinea.

Seismological results can help with the understanding of the structural setting, because seismic wavespeed decreases with increasing temperature (Kennett & Davies, 2020). Hot plume material will appear slow, while cold subduction related structures have relatively fast wavespeeds. Over the last 100 Ma there has been a complex pattern of plate boundaries in the region now occupied by eastern Australia and its surroundings with many different phases of subduction. A variety of fast wavespeed features have been identified from P wave tomography by van de Meer et al. (2018) and these are corroborated by S wave results (Kennett & Gorbatov, 2004).

In a global model of S wavespeed, derived mostly from the inversion for seismic waveforms, French & Romanowicz (2015) have imaged extensive areas of reduced wavespeed just above the core-mantle boundary (at ~2800 km depth). Most of these slow-wavespeed features tie to near vertical conduits extending to 1000 km depth, but that near the Coral Sea has no obvious extensive ‘hotspot’ volcanism. Yet, we have the distinctive NE Australian and PNG volcanoes in the immediate vicinity. How then does the structure at depth link to the near surface?

To provide an independent assessment of structure we have constructed a composite tomographic model that allows us to provide high resolution images of subduction related features (Kennett & Gorbatov, 2004) and a robust rendering of long-wavelength deeper structure from the model S40RTS (Ritsema et al., 2011). There is a good correspondence in the imaged features with those in the latest high- resolution model GLAD-25 from waveform inversion (Lei et al., 2020) which has better resolution at higher southern latitudes than French & Romanowicz (2015). All three models agree in the neighbourhood of the Coral Sea.

The seismic results indicate that the passage of hot material from the lower mantle is impeded by complex fast wavespeed zones above 1000 km depth (Figures 2, 3). These subduction remnants have been in place for the last 20 Ma or more. They provide a complex network of barriers in 3-D, through which we hypothesise that a small amount of hot material has been able to penetrate. The Australian continent arrived in this region at around 10 Ma, bringing the lithospheric edge into the direct influence of the masked mantle plume at depth. The rising material that has penetrated the maze of subduction remnants has interacted with the craton edge to guide the material to the surface where it has erupted.

Figure 2: Shear wavespeed distribution in the upper mantle from the composite tomography model shown as relative variations from the ak135 model (Kennett et al., 1995) at 250 km, 465 km, 740 km and 1100 km depth. Slab remnants, identified by van der Meer et al. (2018) from P wave tomography, are indicated on the deeper sections. Welford: depth range 350-750 km, likely age 26-10 Ma. Papua: depth range 750-475 km, likely age 90-20 Ma. Carpenteria: depth range 1100-7050 km, likely age 85-30 Ma. The locations of the NE Australian and PNG volcanism is indicated with triangles on the upper surface.

What then is the origin of the distinctive age-progressive chains of volcanism to the south? It seems likely that they are again modulated by the presence of the remnants of former subducted slabs. Van der Meer et al. (2018) identify two significant subduction elements to the south: the Lake Eyre slab (depth range 750-1250 km, likely age 75-50 Ma) and the South Loyalty Basin slab (depth range 1000-1250 km, likely age 60 -30 Ma).

The current ends of the Cosgrave track (EA) and the Tasman Sea track (TS) both lie above the southern edge of the Lake Eyre feature. The Lord Howe track lies just beside the South Loyalty remnant. These slab remnants will have remained essentially fixed in the mantle for at least the last 30 Ma as the Australian plate has moved over the top. Thus, material from depth finding its way around the edges of the remnant slabs would emerge at an approximately constant location that would appear to move south as the Australian plate progresses to the North. The differences in age between the oldest materials associated with the Tasman Sea and Lord Howe hotspots (Seton et al., 2019) may well be linked to the timing of the insertion of the subducted plates into the path of rising mantle plumes.

Figure 3: Longitudinal cross sections through the shear wavespeed for the composite tomography model passing through the current hotspot locations. The dashed line indicates a depth of 1000 km.


This work was supported in part by Australian Research Council Discovery Project DP170100058.


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Brian Kennett

Along with Rhodri Davies

Brian Kennett AO FAA FRS is Emeritus Professor of Seismology at ANU. Ph.D Theoretical Seismology, Cambridge. Lindemann Fellow at UC San Diego and Lecturer at Cambridge. He moved to Australia in 1984.