We present new and reprocessed seismic reflection data from the area where the southeast and southwest Greenland margins intersected to form a triple junction south of Greenland in the early Tertiary. During breakup at 56 Ma, thick igneous crust was accreted along the entire 1300-km-long southeast Greenland margin from the Greenland Iceland Ridge to, and possibly ~ 100 km beyond, the triple junction into the Labrador Sea. However, highly extended and thin crust 250 km to the west of the triple junction suggests that magmatically starved crustal formation occurred on the southwest Greenland margin at the same time. Thus, a transition from a volcanic to a non-volcanic margin over only 100-200 km is observed. Magmatism related to the impact of the Iceland plume below the North Atlantic around 61 Ma is known from central-west and southeast Greenland. The new seismic data also suggest the presence of a small volcanic plateau of similar age close to the triple junction. The extent of initial plume-related volcanism inferred from these observations is explained by a model of lateral flow of plume material that is guided by relief at the base of the lithosphere. Plume mantle is channelled to great distances provided that significant melting does not take place. Melting causes cooling and dehydration of the plume mantle. The associated viscosity increase acts against lateral flow and restricts plume material to its point of entry into an actively spreading rift. We further suggest that thick Archaean lithosphere blocked direct flow of plume material into the magma-starved southwest Greenland margin while the plume was free to flow into the central west and east Greenland margins. The model is consistent with a plume layer that is only moderately hotter, ~ 100-200°C, than ambient mantle temperature, and has a thickness comparable to lithospheric thickness variations, ~ 50-100 km. Lithospheric architecture, the timing of continental rifting and viscosity changes due to melting of the plume material are therefore critical parameters for understanding the distribution of magmatism.
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