Letter | Published:

Evolution and diversity of subduction zones controlled by slab width

Nature volume 446, pages 308311 (15 March 2007) | Download Citation

Abstract

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.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    Sea-floor spreading as thermal convection. J. Geophys. Res. 76, 1101–1112 (1971)

  2. 2.

    & On the relative importance of the driving forces of plate motion. Geophys. J. R. Astron. Soc. 43, 163–200 (1975)

  3. 3.

    & Mantle convection with plates and mobile, faulted plate margins. Science 267, 838–843 (1995)

  4. 4.

    Quantifying the net slab pull force as a driving mechanism for plate tectonics. Geophys. Res. Lett. 31 L07611 doi: 10.1029/2004GL019528 (2004)

  5. 5.

    & Controls on the structure of subducted slabs. Nature 335, 317–321 (1988)

  6. 6.

    The influence of trench migration on slab penetration into the lower mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 140, 27–39 (1996)

  7. 7.

    & Interaction of weak faults and non-newtonian rheology produces plate tectonics in a 3D model of mantle flow. Nature 383, 245–247 (1996)

  8. 8.

    & An experimental study of subduction and slab migration. J. Geophys. Res. 92, 13832–13840 (1987)

  9. 9.

    , & A laboratory investigation of effects of trench migration on the descent of subducted slabs. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 133, 1–17 (1995)

  10. 10.

    & Trench-parallel flow beneath the Nazca Plate from seismic anisotropy. Science 263, 1105–1111 (1994)

  11. 11.

    & Subduction and slab detachment in the Mediterranean-Carpathian region. Science 290, 1910–1917 (2000)

  12. 12.

    et al. Mantle flow at a slab edge; seismic anisotropy in the Kamchatka region. Geophys. Res. Lett. 28, 379–382 (2001)

  13. 13.

    & Using geochemistry to map mantle flow beneath the Lau Basin. Geology 26, 1019–1022 (1998)

  14. 14.

    & The formation of Mount Etna as the consequence of slab rollback. Nature 401, 782–785 (1999)

  15. 15.

    , , & Geochemical tracing of Pacific-to-Atlantic upper mantle flow through the Drake passage. Nature 410, 457–461 (2001)

  16. 16.

    & Lithosphere tearing at STEP faults: Response to edges of subduction zones. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 236, 505–523 (2005)

  17. 17.

    Kinematics of subduction and subduction-induced flow in the upper mantle. J. Geophys. Res. 109 B07401 doi: 10.1029/2004JB002970 (2004)

  18. 18.

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

  19. 19.

    , , & Narrow subducting slabs and the origin of backarc basins. Tectonophysics 227, 63–79 (1993)

  20. 20.

    , & A Late Cretaceous and Cenozoic reconstruction of the Southwest Pacific region: Tectonics controlled by subduction and slab rollback processes. Earth-Sci. Rev. 76, 191–233 (2006)

  21. 21.

    , , , & Influence of trench width on subduction hinge retreat rates in 3-D models of slab rollback. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7 Q03012 doi: 10.1029/2005GC001056 (2006)

  22. 22.

    Subduction and aseismic ridges. Nature 241, 189–191 (1973)

  23. 23.

    & The effects of shape on crystal settling and on the rheology of magmas. J. Geol. 99, 457–467 (1991)

  24. 24.

    & Tectonic shortening and crustal thickness in the Central Andes; how good is the correlation? Geology 26, 723–726 (1998)

  25. 25.

    & Analysis of the South American intraplate stress field. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 8643–8657 (1996)

  26. 26.

    , & Rapid uplift of the Altiplano revealed through 13C-18O bonds in paleosol carbonates. Science 311, 511–515 (2006)

  27. 27.

    , , & Effect of recent revisions to the geomagnetic reversal time scale on estimates of current plate motions. Geophys. Res. Lett. 21, 2191–2194 (1994)

  28. 28.

    , & On the uncertainties in hot spot reconstructions and the significance of moving hot spot reference frames. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 6 Q04003 doi: 10.1029/2004GC000784 (2005)

  29. 29.

    Scotia Sea regional tectonic evolution: implications for mantle flow and palaeocirculation. Earth-Sci. Rev. 55, 1–39 (2001)

  30. 30.

    & Controls on back-arc basin formation. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7 Q04016 doi: 10.1029/2005GC001090 (2006)

Download references

Acknowledgements

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.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Research School of Earth Sciences, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 0200, Australia

    • W. P. Schellart
    •  & J. Freeman
  2. School of Mathematical Sciences, Monash University, Melbourne, Victoria 3800, Australia

    • D. R. Stegman
    • , L. Moresi
    •  & D. May

Authors

  1. Search for W. P. Schellart in:

  2. Search for J. Freeman in:

  3. Search for D. R. Stegman in:

  4. Search for L. Moresi in:

  5. Search for D. May in:

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to W. P. Schellart.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    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.

Videos

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Movie 1

    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).

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Movie 2

    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).

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Movie 3

    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).

About this article

Publication history

Received

Accepted

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05615

Further reading

Comments

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.