New research suggests magma floods erupt from much deeper sources than previously believed

Large magma eruptions have produced great floods of basalt lava on the continents during Earth’s history. Conventionally, the largest flood basalt eruptions are thought to be possible only in regions where the continental tectonic plates are unusually thin, so that deep mantle material is able to rise close to the Earth’s surface. In such low-pressure environments, melting of hot mantle can generate very large amounts of magma.

A new study by researchers from the University of Helsinki and Aarhus University challenges this widely held view.

Lead author Dr Jussi Heinonen, of the University of Helsinki, said: “The idea that flood basalt eruptions generally require melting of mantle under low-pressure conditions is largely based on the trace element compositions of the erupted magmas.”

He specifies further that the relative amounts of rare earth elements in many flood basalts point to magma formation in the presence of low-pressure mantle minerals.

See also: Reinterpretation of magma chambers ‘challenged’ by South African geoscientists

support from computer simulation

The new study was carried out as part of a research project focusing on the origin of flood basalts that erupted in southern Africa and Antarctica when these continents were attached to each other as parts of Pangaea some 180 million years ago.

Dr Arto Luttinen, leader of the University of Helsinki team, said: “We became curious about the occurrence of most flood basalts in regions where the African and Antarctic tectonic plates are thick rather than thin.

“Moreover, we found that many flood basalts that have rare earth element compositions, suggesting high-pressure formation conditions, are actually located in thin regions of the tectonic plates.”

The idea of an alternative hypothesis started forming after the team’s discovery of a type of flood basalt in Mozambique that shows compositional evidence for exceptionally high eruption temperatures.

high-pressure magmas

University of Helsinki PhD student Sanni Turunen added: “These flood basalts made us consider the possibility that melting of exceptionally hot mantle could lead to the formation of high-pressure magmas with trace element features similar to those of low-pressure magmas.”

The researchers decided to test their hypothesis using the geochemical modelling tool REEBOX PRO, which enables realistic simulation of the behaviour of minerals, melts and their trace element contents during mantle melting.

Co-author, and one of the developers of the REEBOX PRO tool, Aarhus University’s Dr Eric Brown, said: “We were thrilled to find out that the simulations supported our hypothesis by predicting total consumption of garnet, a diagnostic mineral of high-pressure conditions, when mantle melting occurred at the high temperatures indicated by the flood basalts.”

Magmas formed at high pressure can thus chemically resemble low-pressure magmas when the mantle source is very hot. Furthermore, the results indicated survival of garnet at relatively low pressures when a different kind of mantle source was selected for the modelling.

The authors concluded: “Our results help us to understand the apparent controversy between the occurrences of southern African and Antarctic flood basalts and their trace element characteristics.

“Most importantly, we show that voluminous flood basalts can form in regions of thick tectonic plates and that the trace element compositions of flood basalts are unreliable messengers of magma generation depths, unless the influences of mantle temperature and composition are accounted for.”

The research is published in the Journal of Petrology.

The flood basalts in Dronning Maud Land, Antarctica, originate from exceptionally deep mantle source. © Arto Luttinen.