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Melting above the anhydrous solidus controls the location of volcanic arcs


Segregation of magma from the mantle in subduction zones is one of the principal mechanisms for chemical differentiation of the Earth. Fundamental aspects of this system, in particular the processes by which melt forms and travels to the Earth’s surface, remain obscure. Systematics in the location of volcanic arcs, the surface expression of this melting, are widely considered to be a clue to processes taking place at depth, but many mutually incompatible interpretations of this clue exist (for example, see refs 1–6). We discriminate between those interpretations by the use of a simple scaling argument derived from a realistic mathematical model of heat transfer in subduction zones. The locations of the arcs cannot be explained by the release of fluids in reactions taking place near the top of the slab. Instead, the sharpness of the volcanic fronts, together with the systematics of their locations, requires that arcs must be located above the place where the boundary defined by the anhydrous solidus makes its closest approach to the trench. We show that heat carried by magma rising from this region is sufficient to modify the thermal structure of the wedge and determine the pathway through which both wet and dry melts reach the surface.

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Figure 1: Idealized cross-sections of a subduction zone, drawn perpendicular to the trench and the island arc.
Figure 2: Scaling relations for temperatures in the core of the mantle wedge, and at the top of the slab.
Figure 3: Systematic variation in depth to the slab beneath volcanic arcs, and its relation to pressure–temperature conditions beneath the arcs.
Figure 4: A sketch of the process that determines the position of volcanoes.


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We are grateful to T. Grove and E. Lev for their free exchange of ideas and data concerning their paper (ref. 6), and to C. Langmuir for comments that helped us to improve the manuscript. We thank E. Syracuse for providing hypocentral locations. Numerical models were run on computational clusters at the Oxford Supercomputing Centre.

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Authors and Affiliations



R.F.K. wrote the code for the numerical experiments; P.C.E. carried out the re-analysis of depth-to-slab (Fig. 3 and Supplementary Information). Both authors participated equally in developing the ideas presented in this paper and in writing it.

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Correspondence to Philip C. England.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Information comprising a) Depth to the top of the slab beneath volcanic arcs and b) Thermal Calculations, Supplementary Figures 1- 4 with legends, Supplementary Table 1 and additional references. (PDF 478 kb)

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England, P., Katz, R. Melting above the anhydrous solidus controls the location of volcanic arcs. Nature 467, 700–703 (2010).

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