Lithospheres of different thicknesses are often juxtaposed by movement on a continental-transform boundary. Such a boundary with a step change in densities may trigger a gravitational instability as lateral pressure gradients are created where normal mantle lithosphere terminates against less dense asthenospheric mantle. Here we show, for plausible values of the lithospheric viscosity, a mechanism by which the thicker mantle lithosphere will drip off into the lower density asthenosphere. As the mantle deforms it also progressively thickens and then thins the overlying crust, creating a topographic wave that migrates in concert with the removal of mantle lithosphere. Within western North Island, New Zealand, geophysical data define a sharp lithospheric step across the Taranaki-Ruapehu line, and geological observations provide a history of uplift and subsidence that has propagated southward in the past 12 m.y. The rate of observed north to south migration of the wave (∼30 mm/yr), its wavelength (∼250 km), and amplitude (∼±1 km) are compatible with it being caused by progressive removal of mantle lithosphere, if the viscosity of the uppermost lithospheric mantle is ∼5 × 1020 Pa·s, providing one of the clearest examples yet of this fundamental geological process.

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