Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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


  1. Raleigh, C. B. & Paterson, M. S. Experimental deformation of serpentinite and its tectonic implications. J. Geophys. Res. 70, 3965–3985 (1965)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Green, H. W. & Houston, H. The mechanics of deep earthquakes. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 23, 169–213 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Silver, P. G. et al. Rupture characteristics of the deep Bolivian earthquake of 1994 and the mechanism of deep-focus earthquakes. Science 268, 69–73 (1995)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Dobson, D., Meredith, P. G. & Boon, S. A. Simulation of subduction zone seismicity by dehydration of serpentine. Science 298, 1407–1410 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Green, H. W. & Marone, C. Instability of deformation. Rev. Mineral. Geochem. 51, 181–199 (2002)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Peacock, S. M. Are the lower planes of double seismic zones caused by serpentine dehydration in subducting oceanic mantle? Geology 29, 299–302 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Omori, S., Kamiya, S., Maruyama, S. & Zhao, D. Morphology of the intraslab seismic zone and devolatilization phase equilibria of the subducting slab peridotite. Bull. Earthq. Res. Inst. 76, 455–478 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  8. Hacker, B. R., Peacock, S. M., Abers, G. A. & Holloway, S. D. Subduction factory -2. Are intermediate-depth earthquakes in subducting slabs linked to metamorphic dehydration reactions? J. Geophys. Res. B 108, doi:10.1029/2001JB001129 (2003)

  9. Igarashi, T., Matsuzawa, T., Umino, N. & Hasegawa, A. Spatial distribution of focal mechanisms for interplate and intraplate earthquakes associated with the subducting Pacific Plate beneath the northeastern Japan Arc; a triple-planed deep seismic zone. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 2177–2191 (2001)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Shelly, D. R. & Beroza, G. C. Downgoing slab seismicity in Japan examined through high precision earthquake hypocenters. Eos 83, F1257 (2002)

    Google Scholar 

  11. Kirby, S. H., Engdahl, E. R. & Denlinger, R. P. in Subduction: Top to Bottom (eds Bebout, G. E. et al.) 195–214 (Geophysical Monograph 96, American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  12. Rushmer, T. in Subduction: Top to Bottom (eds Bebout, G. E. et al.) 299–306 (Geophysical Monograph 96, American Geophysical Union, Washington DC, 1996)

    Google Scholar 

  13. Poli, S. & Schmidt, M. W. Petrology of subducted slabs. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 30, 207–235 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Rossman, G. Studies of OH in nominally anhydrous minerals. Phys. Chem. Miner. 23, 299–304 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Jin, Z.-M., Zhang, J., Green, H. W. II & Jin, S. Eclogite rheology: implications for subducted lithosphere. Geology 29, 667–670 (2001)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Green, H. W. II & Borch, R. S. The pressure dependence of creep. Acta Metall. 35, 1301–1305 (1987)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Rauch, M. & Keppler, H. Water solubility in orthopyroxene. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 143, 525–536 (2002)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Ingrin, J. & Skogby, H. Hydrogen in nominally anhydrous upper-mantle minerals: concentration levels and implications. Eur. J. Mineral. 12, 543–570 (2000)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Lu, R. & Keppler, H. Water solubility in pyrope to 100 kbar. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 129, 35–42 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Karato, S. Does partial melting reduce the creep strength of the upper mantle? Nature 319, 309–310 (1986)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Hirth, G. & Kohlstedt, D. L. Water in the oceanic upper mantle: implications for rheology, melt extraction and the evolution of the lithosphere. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 144, 93–108 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Scholz, C. H. The Mechanics of Earthquakes and Faulting 2nd edn, 37–39 (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 2002)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  23. Smyth, J. R., Bell, D. R. & Rossman, R. G. Incorporation of hydroxyl in upper-mantle clinopyroxenes. Nature 351, 732–735 (1991)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Katayama, I. & Nakashima, S. Hydroxyl in clinopyroxene from the deep subducted crust: evidence for H2O transport into the mantle. Am. Mineral. 88, 229–234 (2003)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Smyth, J. R. & Kawamoto, T. Wadsleyite II: A new high pressure hydrous phase in the peridotite-H2O system. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 146, E9–E16 (1997)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Kohlstedt, D. L., Keppler, H. & Rubie, D. C. Solubility of water in the alpha, beta and gamma phases of (Mg,Fe)2SiO4 . Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 123, 345–357 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Ulmer, P. & Trommsdorff, V. in Mantle Petrology: Field Observations and High-pressure Experimentation (eds Fei, Y., Bertka, C. M. & Mysen, B. O.) 259–281 (Special Publication 6, Geochemical Society, Houston, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  28. Hogrefe, A., Rubie, D. C., Sharp, T. G. & Seifert, F. Metastability of enstatite in deep subducting lithosphere. Nature 372, 351–353 (1994)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Harry W. Green II.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing