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Faulting induced by precipitation of water at grain boundaries in hot subducting oceanic crust

Abstract

Dehydration embrittlement has been proposed to explain both intermediate- and deep-focus earthquakes in subduction zones1,2,3,4,5. Because such earthquakes primarily occur at shallow depths or within the core of the subducting plate, dehydration at relatively low temperatures has been emphasized6,7,8. However, recent careful relocation of subduction-zone earthquakes9,10 shows that at depths of 100–250 km, earthquakes continue in the uppermost part of the slab (probably the former oceanic crust that has been converted to eclogite) where temperatures are higher. Here we show that at such pressures and temperatures, eclogite lacking hydrous phases but with significant hydroxyl incorporated as defects in pyroxene and garnet develops a faulting instability associated with precipitation of water at grain boundaries and the production of very small amounts of melt. This new faulting mechanism satisfactorily explains high-temperature earthquakes in subducting oceanic crust and could potentially be involved in much deeper earthquakes in connection with similar precipitation of water in the mantle transition zone (400–700 km depth). Of potential importance for all proposed high-pressure earthquake mechanisms is the very small amount of fluid required to trigger this instability.

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Figure 1: Faulted specimen.
Figure 2: Microstructural details of faulted specimen of Fig. 1.

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Acknowledgements

We thank L. Dobrzhinetskaya and H. Jung for discussions; F. Forgit for preparation of high-pressure assemblies and apparatus maintenance; and D. Borchardt for advice and assistance with the FTIR spectroscopy. This work was supported by the US National Science Foundation and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China.

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Correspondence to Harry W. Green II.

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Zhang, J., Green, H., Bozhilov, K. et al. Faulting induced by precipitation of water at grain boundaries in hot subducting oceanic crust. Nature 428, 633–636 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature02475

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