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Laboratory models of the thermal evolution of the mantle during rollback subduction


The subduction of oceanic lithosphere plays a key role in plate tectonics, the thermal evolution of the mantle and recycling processes between Earth's interior and surface. Information on mantle flow, thermal conditions and chemical transport in subduction zones come from the geochemistry of arc volcanoes1,2,3, seismic images4,5 and geodynamic models6,7,8,9,10. The majority of this work considers subduction as a two-dimensional process, assuming limited variability in the direction parallel to the trench. In contrast, observationally based models increasingly appeal to three-dimensional flow associated with trench migration and the sinking of oceanic plates with a translational component of motion11 (rollback). Here we report results from laboratory experiments that reveal fundamental differences in three-dimensional mantle circulation and temperature structure in response to subduction with and without a rollback component. Without rollback motion, flow in the mantle wedge is sluggish, there is no mass flux around the plate and plate edges heat up faster than plate centres. In contrast, during rollback subduction flow is driven around and beneath the sinking plate, velocities increase within the mantle wedge and are focused towards the centre of the plate, and the surface of the plate heats more along the centreline.

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Figure 1: Subduction zone geometry and experimental set-up.
Figure 2: Streak patterns for tracers moving passively with the fluid over a time lapse interval (Δtp) reveal circulation patterns (see Methods).
Figure 3: Displacement of passive Delrin beads in the shallow wedge owing to rollback.
Figure 4: SST perturbation versus lateral distance across the plate.

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This work benefited from the Margins TEI, held in August 2000 in Eugene, Oregon. We thank the Equipment Development Laboratory at URI-GSO, and T. Beasley and C. Morgan for technical assistance.

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Correspondence to C. Kincaid.

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Kincaid, C., Griffiths, R. Laboratory models of the thermal evolution of the mantle during rollback subduction. Nature 425, 58–62 (2003).

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