Towards a better understanding of African topography: a review of passive-source seismic studies of the African crust and upper mantle
Stewart Fishwick, Ian D. Bastow, 2011. "Towards a better understanding of African topography: a review of passive-source seismic studies of the African crust and upper mantle", The Formation and Evolution of Africa: A Synopsis of 3.8 Ga of Earth History, D. J. J. Van Hinsbergen, S. J. H. Buiter, T. H. Torsvik, C. Gaina, S. J. Webb
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Explaining the cause and support of Africa's varied topography remains a fundamental question for our understanding of the long-term evolution of the continent. As geodynamical modelling becomes more frequently used to investigate this problem, it is important to understand the seismological results that can be incorporated into these models. Crustal thickness estimates are crucial for calculating components of topography that are isostatically compensated. Variations in seismic velocity help constrain variations in subsurface temperature and density and thus buoyancy; measurements of anisotropy can also be used to determine the contribution of the mantle flow field to dynamic topography. In this light, we review the results of passive seismic studies across Africa. At the continental scale there are significant differences in crustal models, meaning large uncertainties in corrections for isostatic topography. In east Africa, multiple seismic experiments have provided firm constraints on crustal and mantle structure. Tomographic images illuminate a broad (c. 500 km wide) low-velocity region in the upper mantle, with possible connection to the African Superplume in the lower mantle. These observations, alongside the variations in radial anisotropy, strongly suggest that the mantle flow field contributes significantly to the uplift of the region. Beneath southern Africa, low velocities are observed near the base of the continental lithosphere; the depth to transition zone discontinuities however suggests that they are not linked to the superplume beneath. It is thus less clear what role the sublithospheric mantle plays in supporting the region's high topography. Many of Africa's secondary topographic features (e.g. Atlas, Hoggar, Bie Dome) are underlain by slow velocities at depths of 100–150 km and are adjacent to rapid changes in lithospheric thickness. Whether these variations in lithospheric structure promote small-scale convection or simply guide the larger-scale mantle flow field remains ambiguous.
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The African continent preserves a long geological record that covers almost 75% of Earth’s history. The Pan-Africanorogeny (c.600–500—Ma) brought together old continental kernels (West Africa, Congo, Kalahari and Tanzania) to form Gondwana and subsequently the supercontinent Pangaea by the late Palaeozoic. The break-up of Pangaea since the Jurassic and Cretaceous, primarily through opening of the Central Atlantic, Indian, and South Atlantic oceans, in combination with the complicated subduction history to the north, gradually shaped the African continent.
This volume contains 18 contributions that discuss the geology of Africa from the Archaean to the present day. It celebrates African geology in two ways: first, it highlights multidisciplinary Earth science research by viewing the formation and evolution of Africa from 18 different angles; second, it celebrates the work of Kevin Burke and Lewis Ashwal and portrays the wide range of interests and research angles that have characterized these two scientists throughout their careers, working in Africa, and studying African geology.