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Reconciling surface plate motions with rapid three-dimensional mantle flow around a slab edge


The direction of tectonic plate motion at the Earth’s surface and the flow field of the mantle inferred from seismic anisotropy are well correlated globally, suggesting large-scale coupling between the mantle and the surface plates1,2. The fit is typically poor at subduction zones, however, where regional observations of seismic anisotropy suggest that the direction of mantle flow is not parallel to3,4,5,6,7 and may be several times faster than6 plate motions. Here we present three-dimensional numerical models of buoyancy-driven deformation with realistic slab geometry for the Alaska subduction–transform system and use them to determine the origin of this regional decoupling of flow. We find that near a subduction zone edge, mantle flow velocities can have magnitudes of more than ten times the surface plate motions, whereas surface plate velocities are consistent with plate motions8 and the complex mantle flow field is consistent with observations from seismic anisotropy5. The seismic anisotropy observations constrain the shape of the eastern slab edge and require non-Newtonian mantle rheology. The incorporation of the non-Newtonian viscosity9,10 results in mantle viscosities of 1017 to 1018 Pa s in regions of high strain rate (10-12 s-1), and this low viscosity enables the mantle flow field to decouple partially from the motion of the surface plates. These results imply local rapid transport of geochemical signatures through subduction zones and that the internal deformation of slabs decreases the slab-pull force available to drive subducting plates.

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Figure 1: Schematic of full model domain and slab geometry.
Figure 2: Maps of flow field.
Figure 3: 3D mantle flow field and viscosity structure.
Figure 4: Velocity and ISA orientations at 100-km depth.


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This work was supported by US National Science Foundation grant EAR-0537995. High-resolution models were run on the TeraGrid cluster Lonestar at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, through grant TG-EAR080015N. We thank Computational Infrastructure for Geodynamics for the CitcomCU source code and C. Conrad and M. Behn for the source code used to calculate the ISAs. 3D data were visualized at the W. M. Keck Center for Active Visualization in the Earth Sciences at the University of California, Davis. We thank D. Christensen and G. Abers (shear-wave splitting data) and N. Ruppert (earthquake hypocentral data). We thank D. Turcotte, L. Kellogg, O. Kreylos, D. Eberhart-Phillips, S. M. Roeske, J. Dewey, T. Taylor, L. Moresi and G. Hirth for comments and discussions.

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Both authors contributed equally to the overall development of the project, model design considerations, analysis and interpretations. M.A.J. performed all of the numerical modelling, except for the ISA calculations, which were done by M.I.B.

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Correspondence to Margarete A. Jadamec.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Supplementary Information

This files contains Supplementary Notes comprising Model design; Slab structure; Thermal structure; Rheology; Model results; Pacific plate motion and Comparisons of ISA and SKS; Supplementary Figures 1-8 with legends; Supplementary Tables 1-4 and References. (PDF 2775 kb)

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Jadamec, M., Billen, M. Reconciling surface plate motions with rapid three-dimensional mantle flow around a slab edge. Nature 465, 338–341 (2010).

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