Subducting slabs provide the main driving force for plate motion and flow in the Earth’s mantle1,2,3,4, and geodynamic, seismic and geochemical studies offer insight into slab dynamics and subduction-induced flow3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11,12,13,14,15. Most previous geodynamic studies treat subduction zones as either infinite in trench-parallel extent3,5,6 (that is, two-dimensional) or finite in width but fixed in space7,16. Subduction zones and their associated slabs are, however, limited in lateral extent (250–7,400 km) and their three-dimensional geometry evolves over time. Here we show that slab width controls two first-order features of plate tectonics—the curvature of subduction zones and their tendency to retreat backwards with time. Using three-dimensional numerical simulations of free subduction, we show that trench migration rate is inversely related to slab width and depends on proximity to a lateral slab edge. These results are consistent with retreat velocities observed globally, with maximum velocities (6–16 cm yr-1) only observed close to slab edges (<1,200 km), whereas far from edges (>2,000 km) retreat velocities are always slow (<2.0 cm yr-1). Models with narrow slabs (≤1,500 km) retreat fast and develop a curved geometry, concave towards the mantle wedge side. Models with slabs intermediate in width (∼2,000–3,000 km) are sublinear and retreat more slowly. Models with wide slabs (≥4,000 km) are nearly stationary in the centre and develop a convex geometry, whereas trench retreat increases towards concave-shaped edges. Additionally, we identify periods (5–10 Myr) of slow trench advance at the centre of wide slabs. Such wide-slab behaviour may explain mountain building in the central Andes, as being a consequence of its tectonic setting, far from slab edges.
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We thank O. Oncken, R. Kerr, G. Davies and V. Toy for discussions on subduction processes, mantle dynamics, Andean geology and plate kinematics. We also thank R. Griffiths, M. Sandiford, B. Kennett and D. Müller for providing comments on an early version of the manuscript. Finally, we thank APAC, ACcESS, and VPAC for computational resources and staff from VPAC for technical assistance.
Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.
This file contains Supplementary Methods with one subsection describing the trench migration calculations and slab width calculations and one subsection describing the numerical method; Supplementary Figures 1-4 with Legends, the Supplementary Figure 1 illustrating trench migration velocities for incipient subduction zones, the Supplementary Figure 2 showing the trench velocities for a 6000 km wide slab at different locations from the slab edge, the Supplementary Figure 3 showing the numerical model set-up, and the Supplementary Figure 4 showing the trench velocity for two simulations with a different mantle depth ; Supplementary Movie 1-3 Legends; important summarizing Supplementary Tables 1-4 and additional references. (PDF 1435 kb)
This file contains Supplementary Movie 1 illustrating the progressive evolution of a wide-slab subduction experiment (W = 6000 km) from a three-dimensional perspective. Note that only half of the model is shown (and calculated), because the experiment is symmetrical with respect to a plane through the centre of the subduction zone. Subduction is driven by buoyancy forces only, reflecting natural subduction systems. Black vectors are located at 200 km depth and illustrate the horizontal flow pattern in the mantle. Colour indicates non-dimensional strain-rate (log-scale). (MOV 5675 kb)
This file contains Supplementary Movie 2 illustrating the progressive evolution of an intermediate-width-slab subduction experiment (W = 2000 km) from a three-dimensional perspective. Note that only half of the model is shown (and calculated), because the experiment is symmetrical with respect to a plane through the centre of the subduction zone. Subduction is driven by buoyancy forces only, reflecting natural subduction systems. Black vectors are located at 200 km depth and illustrate the horizontal flow pattern in the mantle. Colour indicates non-dimensional strain-rate (log-scale). (MOV 7750 kb)
This file contains Supplementary Movie 3 illustrating the progressive evolution of a narrow-slab subduction experiment (W = 600 km) from a three-dimensional perspective. Note that only half of the model is shown (and calculated), because the experiment is symmetrical with respect to a plane through the centre of the subduction zone. Subduction is driven by buoyancy forces only, reflecting natural subduction systems. Black vectors are located at 200 km depth and illustrate the horizontal flow pattern in the mantle. Colour indicates non-dimensional strain-rate (log-scale). (MOV 9421 kb)
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Schellart, W., Freeman, J., Stegman, D. et al. Evolution and diversity of subduction zones controlled by slab width. Nature 446, 308–311 (2007). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05615
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