The theory of plate tectonics resolved Alfred Wegener’s search for a driving force for continental drift around half a century after his discovery faced near-universal rejection for not having one that was large enough or plausible. Plate theory recognises many forces, both driving and in opposition to tectonic movement. By far the largest is the gravitational pull exerted by subducting slabs of dense oceanic lithosphere, followed in distant second place by ridge-push, another gravity-driven force that arises from the slope on the ocean floors away from sea-floor spreading centres as the oceanic lithosphere cools and shrinks as it ages. Until very recently, no place was assigned in the theory to forces associated with the apparently non-tectonic plumes that rise through the mantle from well beneath the lithosphere from which plates are made, quite possibly because it seems logical to expect a vertically upwards force, if any, from hot plumes whereas plate tectonics is mainly concerned with horizontal movements. Looking around the present state of sea-floor spreading, the maximum pace at which plates move is just over 100 mm a-1 (100 km Ma-1) in the case of the Pacific Plate. Yet, during the Late Cretaceous and Early Palaeogene Periods after India had been wrenched away from the Gondwana supercontinent to move towards eventual collision with Eurasia the subcontinent experienced an extraordinary episode beginning around 68 Ma when its pace increased to as high as 180 km Ma-1. This accelerated motion continued over some 15 Ma and then equally abruptly slowed to less than 40 km Ma-1 around the start of the Eocene (Cande, S.C. & Stegman, D.R. 2011. Indian and African plate motions driven by the push force of the Réunion plume head. Nature, v. 475, p. 47-52; see also: Müller, R.D. 2011. Plate motion and mantle plumes. . Nature, v. 475, p. 40-41). The acceleration coincided with the start of continental flood-basalt volcanism that blanketed much of western India with the Deccan Traps across the K-P boundary when the subcontinent lay over the site of the Réunion hot spot. Coincidentally, the Réunion plume head formed at that time; i.e. the Indian continental lithosphere did not drift over an active plume, but was hit from below by one that happened to be rising to the surface. Curiously, while the Indian plate was accelerated, nearby Africa was slowed, explained by a push in the same direction of India’s travel towards a subduction zone beneath Asia and one applied to Africa that opposed its motion. Africa too resumed its usual tectonic progress at the start of the Eocene. But how did a mantle plume exert such a force: was it because it caused a local bulge from which the plates slid, or did mantle motion associated with the mushroom-like structure of the horizontally growing plume head exert viscous drag on the overlying plates? Such shifts in motion of major plates inevitably have an effect on the whole plate tectonic carapace, and the authors list a number of contemporary, distant consequences, speculating that the famous bend in the Hawaii-Emperor island and sea-mount chain in the Early Eocene resulted from the final waning of the Réunion plume head’s influence and major readjustment of tectonics.
- Mantle plume propelled India towards Asia (nature.com)