One of the pioneers of plate tectonics, W. Jason Morgan, recognised in the 1970s that chains of volcanic islands and seamounts that rise from the ocean floor may have formed as the movement of lithospheric plates passed over sources of magma that lay in the mantle beneath the plates. He suggested that such hotspots were fixed relative to plate movements at the surface and likened the formation of chains such as that to the west of the volcanically active of the Hawaiian ‘Big Island’ to linear scorching of a sheet of paper moved over a candle flame. If true, it should be possible to use hotspots as a framework for the absolute motion of lithospheric plates rather than the velocities of individual plates relative to the others. But Morgan’s hypothesis has been debated ever since he formulated it. A test would be to see whether or not plumes of rising hot material in the deep part of the mantle can be detected. This became one of the first objectives of seismic tomography when it was devised in the last decade of the 20th century: a method that uses global earthquakes records to detect parts of the mantle where seismic waves traveled faster or slower than the norm: effectively patches of hot (probably rising) and cold rock. The first such evidence was equally hotly debated, one view being that the magma sources beneath oceanic islands such as Hawaii and Iceland were actually related to plate tectonics and that the hotspot hypothesis had become a kind of belief system.
The problem was that mantle plumes supposedly linked to magmatic hotspots in the upper mantle would be so thin that they would be difficult to detect even with seismic tomography. Geophysicists have been trying to sharpen up seismic resolution partly by using supercomputers to analyse more and more seismic records and also by improving the theory about how seismic waves interact with 3-D mantle structure. This has culminated in more believable visualisation of mantle structure (French, S.W. & Romanowicz, B. 2015. Broad plumes rooted at the base of the Earth’s mantle beneath major hotspots). The two researchers from the University of California at Berkeley in fact showed something different, but still robust support for Morgan’s 40-year old ideas. Instead of thin plumes, they have been able to show much broader conduits beneath at least 5 and maybe more active ends of hotspot chains. The zones extend upwards from the core-mantle boundary to about 1000 km below the Earth’s surface, where some bend sideways towards hotspots, perhaps as a result of another kind of upper mantle circulation.
The sources of these hot columns at the core-mantle boundary appear to be zones of very low shear-wave velocities; i.e. almost, but not quite molten blobs. French and Romanowicz suggest that the columns are extremely long-lived and may even have a chemical dimension – as in the hypothesis of mantle heterogeneity. Another interesting feature of their results is that the striking vertical linearity of the columns could indicate that the overall motion of the lower mantle is extremely sluggish and punctured by discrete convection.