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The effect of energy feedbacks on continental strength


The classical strength profile of continents1,2 is derived from a quasi-static view of their rheological response to stress—one that does not consider dynamic interactions between brittle and ductile layers. Such interactions result in complexities of failure in the brittle–ductile transition and the need to couple energy to understand strain localization. Here we investigate continental deformation by solving the fully coupled energy, momentum and continuum equations. We show that this approach produces unexpected feedback processes, leading to a significantly weaker dynamic strength evolution. In our model, stress localization focused on the brittle–ductile transition leads to the spontaneous development of mid-crustal detachment faults immediately above the strongest crustal layer. We also find that an additional decoupling layer forms between the lower crust and mantle. Our results explain the development of decoupling layers that are observed to accommodate hundreds of kilometres of horizontal motions during continental deformation.

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Figure 1: Strength profiles of the lithosphere.
Figure 2: Strain localization feedbacks in upper and lower crust.
Figure 3: Model results.

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We thank V. Lyakhovsky for comments on the manuscript. K.R.-L. acknowledges support from the Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz and the Predictive Mineral Discovery Cooperative Research Centre.

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Correspondence to Klaus Regenauer-Lieb.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Notes 1

This file contains Appendix 1, which is details of the Supplementary Equations. (DOC 166 kb)

Supplementary Notes 2

Appendix 2. Results of an extension model similar to Figure 3 but with surface heat flow of 60mW/m2. (PDF 543 kb)

Supplementary Notes 3

Appendix 3. Profiles at two time steps for the 70mW/m2 extension model (profile locations are indicated in Figure 3). (PDF 404 kb)

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Regenauer-Lieb, K., Weinberg, R. & Rosenbaum, G. The effect of energy feedbacks on continental strength. Nature 442, 67–70 (2006).

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