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Galápagos hotspot is a volcanic hotspot in the East Pacific Oceanmarker responsible for the creation of the Galapagos Islandsmarker as well as three major aseismic ridge systems, Carnegie, Cocos and Malpelso which are on two tectonic plates. The hotspot is located near the Equator on the Nazca Plate not far from the divergent plate boundary with the Cocos Plate. The tectonic setting of the hotspot is complicated by the Galapagos Triple Junction of the Nazca and Cocos plates with the Pacific Plate. The movement of the plates over the hotspot is determined not solely by the spreading along the ridge but also by the relative motion between the Pacific Plate and the Cocos and Nazca Plates.

The hotspot is believed to be over 20 million years old and in that time there has been interaction between the hotspot both of these plates and the divergent plate boundary, at the Galapagos Spreading Centre. Lavas from the hotspot do not exhibit the homogenous nature of many hotspots; instead there is evidence of four major reservoirs feeding the hotspot. These mix to varying degrees at different locations on the archipelago and also within the Galapagos Spreading Centre.

Hotspot theory

The Galápagos hotspot is marked 10 on the map.
In 1963, Canadian geophysicist J. Tuzo Wilson came up with the "hotspot" theory to explain why although most earthquake and volcanic activity happened at plate boundaries, there is some that was located well away from any plates. The theory claimed that small, long-lasting, exceptionally "hot" areas of magma are located under certain points on Earth. These places, dubbed "hotspots," provide localized heat and energy systems (thermal plumes) that sustain long-lasting volcanic activity on the surface. This volcanism builds up seamounts that eventually rise above the ocean current, forming volcanic islands.As the islands slowly moved away from the hotspot, by the motion of sliding plates as described by the theory of plate tectonics, the magma supply is cut, and the volcano goes dormant. Meanwhile, the process repeats all over again, this time forming a new island, on and on until the hotspot collapses. The theory was developed to explain the Hawaiian-Emperor seamount chainmarker, where historic islands could be traced to the North West in the direction that the Pacific Plate is moving. The early theory put these fixed sources of heat for the plumes deep within the Earth; however, recent research has led scientists to believe that hotspots are actually dynamic, and able to move on their own accord.

Tectonic setting

The Galapagos hotspot has a very complicated tectonic setting. It is located very close to the spreading ridge between the Cocos and Nazca plates; the hotspot interacts with both plates and the spreading ridge over the last twenty million years as the relative location of the hotspot in relation to the plates has varied. Based on similar seismic velocity gradients of the lavas of the Carnegie, Cocos and Malpelos Ridges there is evidence that the hotspot activity has been the result of a single long mantle melt rather than multiple periods of activity and dormancy.

In Hawaii the evidence suggests that each volcano has a distinct period of activity as the hotspot moves under that portion of the Pacific plate before becoming dormant and then extinct and eroding under the ocean. This does not appear to be the case in the Galapagos, instead there is evidence of concurrent volcanism over a wide area. Nearly all Galapagos Islands show volcanism in the recent geological past, not just at the current location of the hotspot at Fernandina. The list below gives the last eruption dates for the Galapagos volcanoes, ordered from West to East.

Name Last Eruption
Darwin Islandmarker Extinct
Fernandinamarker 2009
Ecuador (volcano) 1150
Wolf Islandmarker Extinct
Cerro Azulmarker 2008
Wolf marker 1982
Darwin (volcano) 1813
Alcedomarker 1993
Sierra Negramarker 2005
Santiago Islandmarker 1906
Pinta Islandmarker 1928
Marchena Islandmarker 1991
Santa Cruz Islandmarker Unknown
Floreana Islandmarker Extinct
Genovesa Islandmarker Unknown
San Cristóbal Islandmarker Unknown

The movement of the Nazca and Cocos plates have been tracked. The Nazca plate moves at 90 degrees at a rate of 58±2 km per million years. The Cocos Plate moves at 41 degrees at a rate of 83±3 km per million years. The location of the hotspot over time is recorded in the oceanic plate as the Carnegie and Cocos Ridges.

The Carnegie Ridge is on the Nazca plate is long and up to wide. It is orientated parallel to the plate movement, and its eastern end is approximately 20 million years old. There is a prominent saddle in the ridge at 86 degrees West where the height drops much closer to the surrounding ocean floor. The Malpelo Ridge, which is long was once believed to be part of the Carnegie Ridge.

The Cocos Ridge is 1000 km long located on the Cocos plate and is orientated parallel to the plates motion from the 91 degree west transform fault at the Galapagos Spreading Centre towards the Panamanian cost. The north eastern end of the ridge dates from about 13-14.5 million years ago. However the Cocos Islands to the northern end of the ridge are only 2 million years old, and were therefore created at a time well after the ridge had moved away from the hotspot.

The current model for the interaction of the hotspot and the spreading centre between the Cocos and Nazca plates attempts to explain the ridges on both plates; the split between the Carnegie and Malpelo Ridge and subsequent volcanic activity away from the hotspot. There have been eight major phases in the last 20 million years.

(1) 19.5 million years - 14.5 million years ago: the hotspot was located on the Nazca plate, forming a combined Carnegie and Malpelo Ridge. The type of lava erupted was a mix of plume material and depleted upper mantle, similar to the type of lava found in the central Galapagos islands at the current time.

(2) From 14.5 million years to 12.5 million years ago: the Galapagos Spreading Centre moved south and the ridge overlay the southern edge of the hotspot. Less material is erupted over the Nazca plate resulted in the saddle being formed in the Carnegie Ridge. The movement of the location of the Galapagos Spreading Centre starts to rift the Malpelo Ridge away from the Carnegie Ridge. The majority of the hotspot lavas are created on the Cocos plate resulting in the formation of the Cocos Ridge. The lavas formed here are similar to the types erupted on the western shield volcanoes of the Galapagos, which are predominantly plume.

(3) 12 million years to 11 million years: The Galapagos hotspot is centred under the Galapagos Spreading Centre. plume-type lavas are now abundant on the Cocos Ridge.

(4) 9.5 million years ago: the rifting between the Carnegie and Malpelo Ridges ends.

(5) 5.2 million years ago to 3.5 million years ago: the Galapagos Spreading Centre has another ridge jump, moving northwards with the plume now erupting on the Nazca plate, similar to the present orientation.

(6) 3.5 million to 2 million years ago: A short lived east west trending spreading centre is formed north of the Galapagos Spreading Centre. This new rift fails but leads to post abandonment volcanic activity and the subsequent formation of the Cocos Islands and surrounding seamounts. Around the hotspot plume lavas predominate.

(7) 2.6 million years ago: a major transform fault occurs north of the Galapagos hotspot. This results in widespread volcanism in the northern Galapagos along the Wolf Darwin Lineament and around Genovesa Islandmarker.

(8) Present : The Galapagos hotspot is south of the spreading centre and there is geochemical zonation of the plume.

Chemical structure of the Galapagos lavas

Analysis of the radioactive isotopes of the lavas on the islands of the Galapagos archipelago and on the Carnegie Ridge shows that there is four major reservoirs of magma that mix in varying combinations to form the volcanic province.

The four types are:PLUME – this is magma associated with the plume itself and is similar to magmas from other ocean islands within the Pacific. It has the characteristics of intermediate Strontium (Sr), Neodymium (Nd) and Lead (Pb) ratios. The PLUME lavas are found predominately in the west of the islands, around Ferdinandinamarker and Isabela Islandsmarker, which is near to the current position of the hotspot. The PLUME lavas erupted on Fernandina and Isabela are relatively cool. Analysis shows that they are as much as 100 degrees Celsius cooler than those in Hawaii. The cause of this is not fully understood but may be due to cooling in the lithosphere or being relatively cool at formation in the mantle. They are then found in lower quantities in a horseshoe pattern north and south of the central islands mixing with the other reservoirs as it progresses east. PLUME lavas are also found in the lavas from the Galapagos Spreading Centre due to convection and mixing of all of these lavas. In the upper mantle convection currents bring in mantle material at shallow angles from the south of the Galapagos Spreading Centre. These convection current will draw in some PLUME type magma to the spreading centre where it is then erupted.

DGM – (Depleted Galapagos Mantle), this has similar characteristics to ocean ridge basalts throughout the Pacific and the Galapagos Spreading Centre. Partial melting of the upper mantle as a result of the spreading centre will leave mantle material depleted in some compounds. It has low Sr and Pb isotope ratios and high Nd ratios. DGM is found in the central islands of the Galapagos such as Santiagomarker, Santa Cruzmarker, San Cristobalmarker and Santa Femarker. It fills in the centre of the horseshoe formed by the PLUME lavas to the west, north and south.

FLO – (Floreanamarker), characteristic of that islands lavas. It is thought that this reservoir came from subducted ocean crust that has been entrained by the mantle plume. It has enriched Sr and Pb ratios and is enriched with trace elements. FLO is associated principally with the island of Floreana and shows up on the mixing of lavas within the Galapagos along the southern side archipelago and is diluted to the east and north of there.

WD – (Wolf Darwin) is unique in the Pacific and resembles material from an Indian Ocean Ridge system. It is found on the Wolfmarker and Darwin Islandsmarker and the seamounts that connect them along the Wolf Darwin Lineament. It has a unique Pb ratio. WD is located along the northern side of the archipelago and dilutes to the east and south.


  1. Harpp et al., Cocos Carnegie Aseismic Ridges
  3. Harpp, Northern Galapagos Province Hotspot Near Ridge Volcanism
  5. Darwin Foundation, Harp & Geist

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