Upper mantle temperature and the onset of extension and break-up in Afar, Africa

John Armitage, David Ferguson, Saskia Goes, James Hammond, Eric Calais, Catherine Rychert, Nicholas Harmon

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It is debated to what extent mantle plumes play a role in continental rifting and eventual break-up. Afar lies at the northern end of the largest and most active present-day continental rift, where the East African Rift forms a triple junction with the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden rifts. It has a history of plume activity yet recent studies have reached conflicting conclusions on whether a plume still contributes to current Afar tectonics. A geochemical study concluded that Afar is a mature hot rift with 80 km thick lithosphere, while seismic data have been interpreted to reflect the structure of a young, oceanic rift basin above mantle of normal temperature. We develop a self-consistent forward model of mantle flow that incorporates melt generation and retention to test whether predictions of melt chemistry, melt volume and lithosphere–asthenosphere seismic structure can be reconciled with observations. The rare-earth element composition of mafic samples at the Erta Ale, Dabbahu and Asal magmatic segments can be used as both a thermometer and chronometer of the rifting process. Low seismic velocities require a lithosphere thinned to 50 km or less. A strong positive impedance contrast at 50 to 70 km below the rift seems linked to the melt zone, but is not reproduced by isotropic seismic velocity alone. Combined, the simplest interpretation is that mantle temperature below Afar is still elevated at 1450 ◦C, rifting started around 22–23 Ma, and the lithosphere has thinned from 100 to 50 km to allow significant decompressional melting.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)78-90
Number of pages13
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Early online date13 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - 15 May 2015

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