Constraints on mantle viscosity structure from continental drift histories in spherical mantle convection models

T. Rolf, F. A. Capitanio, Paul J Tackley

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


Earth's continents drift in response to the force balance between mantle flow and plate tectonics and actively change the plate-mantle coupling. Thus, the patterns of continental drift provide relevant information on the coupled evolution of surface tectonics, mantle structure and dynamics. Here, we investigate rheological controls on such evolutions and use surface tectonic patterns to derive inferences on mantle viscosity structure on Earth. We employ global spherical models of mantle convection featuring self-consistently generated plate tectonics, which are used to compute time-evolving continental configurations for different mantle and lithosphere structures. Our results highlight the importance of the wavelength of mantle flow for continental configuration evolution. Too strong short-wavelength components complicate the aggregation of large continental clusters, while too stable very long wavelength flow tends to enforce compact supercontinent clustering without reasonable dispersal frequencies. Earth-like continental drift with episodic collisions and dispersals thus requires a viscosity structure that supports long-wavelength flow, but also allows for shorter-wavelength contributions. Such a criterion alone is a rather permissive constraint on internal structure, but it can be improved by considering continental-oceanic plate speed ratios and the toroidal-poloidal partitioning of plate motions. The best approximation of Earth's recent tectonic evolution is then achieved with an intermediate lithospheric yield stress and a viscosity structure in which oceanic plates are ∼ 103 × more viscous than the characteristic upper mantle, which itself is ∼ 100-200 × less viscous than the lowermost mantle. Such a structure causes continents to move on average ∼ (2.2 ± 1.0) × slower than oceanic plates, consistent with estimates from present-day and from plate reconstructions. This does not require a low viscosity asthenosphere globally extending below continental roots. However, this plate speed ratio may undergo strong fluctuations on timescales of several 100Myr that may be linked to periods of enhanced continental collisions and are not yet captured by current tectonic reconstructions.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)339-351
Number of pages13
Publication statusPublished - 30 Oct 2018


  • Continental drift
  • Mantle convection
  • Plate motions
  • Viscosity structure

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