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Arc-parallel flow in the mantle wedge beneath Costa Rica and Nicaragua


Resolving flow geometry in the mantle wedge is central to understanding the thermal and chemical structure of subduction zones, subducting plate dehydration, and melting that leads to arc volcanism, which can threaten large populations and alter climate through gas and particle emission. Here we show that isotope geochemistry and seismic velocity anisotropy provide strong evidence for trench-parallel flow in the mantle wedge beneath Costa Rica and Nicaragua. This finding contradicts classical models, which predict trench-normal flow owing to the overlying wedge mantle being dragged downwards by the subducting plate. The isotopic signature of central Costa Rican volcanic rocks is not consistent with its derivation from the mantle wedge1,2,3 or eroded fore-arc complexes4 but instead from seamounts of the Galapagos hotspot track on the subducting Cocos plate. This isotopic signature decreases continuously from central Costa Rica to northwestern Nicaragua. As the age of the isotopic signature beneath Costa Rica can be constrained and its transport distance is known, minimum northwestward flow rates can be estimated (63–190 mm yr-1) and are comparable to the magnitude of subducting Cocos plate motion (85 mm yr-1). Trench-parallel flow needs to be taken into account in models evaluating thermal and chemical structure and melt generation in subduction zones.

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Figure 1: Reference map of Central America illustrating the subduction of the Galapagos hotspot Seamount province beneath central Costa Rica and the westward migration of the volcanic arc that extends from Costa Rica to southwestern Guatemala.
Figure 2: Systematic variation in lead and neodymium isotopic composition along the volcanic front from Costa Rica to northwest Nicaragua indicates northwestward flow of mantle wedge material.
Figure 3: Model of anisotropy obtained by inverting shear-wave splitting measurements from events in the Nicaragua (NIC)-Costa Rica (CR) subduction zone.

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Reviewers (J. Walker and S. Schwartz), J. Phipps-Morgan, T. Plank, R. Werner, M. Portnyagin and members of SFB574 and MARGINS are thanked for comments/discussions that helped significantly improve the manuscript. The IRIS PASSCAL programme provided seismometers and technical assistance to the TUCAN experiment. This research was supported by the German Science Foundation Collaborative Research Centre (SFB574) and the National Science Foundation MARGINS programme.

Author Contributions K.H., D.L.A. and K.M.F. collected samples/data, processed and interpreted the data, developed the ideas and wrote the paper, with significant input from G.A.A. and discussions with other co-authors. H.N., F.H. and K.H. generated the geochemical data and P.v.d.B. age data. G.A.A., M.P. and W.S. were key in collecting the seismic data; P.v.d.B., G.A. and H.N. assisted in the collection of the volcanic samples. Central American partners provided geological overviews and logistical support.

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Correspondence to Kaj Hoernle.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information 1

The file contains Section 1 of the Supplementary Information concerning Geochemistry. It includes Supplementary Discussion on the role of sediments in influencing isotopic variation in volcanic arc lavas and Supplementary Figures S1.1-S1.2. (PDF 3503 kb)

Supplementary Information 2

The file contains Section 2 of the Supplementary Information concerning Seismology. It includes Supplementary Discussion on the interpretation of seismic anisotropy measurements and tomographic models and Supplementary Figures S2.1-S2.4. (PDF 4158 kb)

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Hoernle, K., Abt, D., Fischer, K. et al. Arc-parallel flow in the mantle wedge beneath Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Nature 451, 1094–1097 (2008).

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