EGU General Assembly 2021
© Author(s) 2021. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Revisiting Hotspots and Continental Breakup – Updating the Classical Three-arm Model

Carol Stein1, Seth Stein2, Molly Gallahue2, and Reece Elling2
Carol Stein et al.
  • 1Earth & Environmental Sciences, University of Illinois at Chicago, Chicago, United States of America (
  • 2Earth & Planetary Sciences, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, United States

In two classic papers, Burke and Dewey (1973) and Dewey and Burke (1974) proposed that continental rifting begins at hotspots - domal uplifts with associated magmatism - from which three rift arms extend. Rift arms from different hotspots link up to form new plate boundaries along which the continent breaks up, generating a new ocean basin and leaving failed arms termed aulacogens within the continent.  In subsequent studies, hotspots became increasingly viewed as manifestations of deeper upwellings or plumes, which were the primary cause of continental rifting. We revisit this conceptual model and find that it remains useful, though some aspects require updates based on subsequent results.  Many three-arm systems identified by Burke and Dewey (1973) are now recognized to be or have been boundaries of transient microplates accommodating motion between diverging major plates. Present-day examples include the East African Rift system and the Sinai microplate.  Older examples include rifts associated with the opening of the South Atlantic in the Mesozoic and the North Atlantic Ocean over the last 200 Ma,  rifts in the southern U.S associated with the breakup of Rodinia, and intracontinental rifts formed within India during the breakup of Gondwanaland. The microplates form as continents break up, and are kinematically distinct from the neighboring plates, in that they move separately. Ultimately, the microplates are incorporated into one of the major plates, leaving identifiable fossil features on land and/or offshore. In many cases the boundaries of microplates during continental breakup are located on preexisting zones of weakness and influenced by pre-existing fabric, including older collisional zones. Hotspots play at most a secondary role in continental breakup, in that most of the associated volcanism reflects plate divergence, so three-arm junction points may not reflect localized upwelling of a deep  mantle plume.

How to cite: Stein, C., Stein, S., Gallahue, M., and Elling, R.: Revisiting Hotspots and Continental Breakup – Updating the Classical Three-arm Model, EGU General Assembly 2021, online, 19–30 Apr 2021, EGU21-13564,, 2021.