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Plate tectonics, damage and inheritance


The initiation of plate tectonics on Earth is a critical event in our planet’s history. The time lag between the first proto-subduction (about 4 billion years ago) and global tectonics (approximately 3 billion years ago) suggests that plates and plate boundaries became widespread over a period of 1 billion years. The reason for this time lag is unknown but fundamental to understanding the origin of plate tectonics. Here we suggest that when sufficient lithospheric damage (which promotes shear localization and long-lived weak zones) combines with transient mantle flow and migrating proto-subduction, it leads to the accumulation of weak plate boundaries and eventually to fully formed tectonic plates driven by subduction alone. We simulate this process using a grain evolution and damage mechanism with a composite rheology (which is compatible with field and laboratory observations of polycrystalline rocks1,2), coupled to an idealized model of pressure-driven lithospheric flow in which a low-pressure zone is equivalent to the suction of convective downwellings. In the simplest case, for Earth-like conditions, a few successive rotations of the driving pressure field yield relic damaged weak zones that are inherited by the lithospheric flow to form a nearly perfect plate, with passive spreading and strike-slip margins that persist and localize further, even though flow is driven only by subduction. But for hotter surface conditions, such as those on Venus, accumulation and inheritance of damage is negligible; hence only subduction zones survive and plate tectonics does not spread, which corresponds to observations. After plates have developed, continued changes in driving forces, combined with inherited damage and weak zones, promote increased tectonic complexity, such as oblique subduction, strike-slip boundaries that are subparallel to plate motion, and spalling of minor plates.

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Figure 1: Lithospheric flow model with damage driven by intermittent proto-subduction.
Figure 2: Lithospheric flow model for Venus.
Figure 3: Lithospheric flow model with Pacific-like rotation.


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D.B. acknowledges support from the National Science Foundation; Y.R. acknowledges support from the Agence Nationale de la Recherche. This work benefitted from discussions with S. Karato, G. Hirth, N. Coltice and B. J. Foley.

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Authors and Affiliations



D.B. and Y.R. conceived the physical and mathematical model together. D.B. developed and deployed the computational model and was the lead author for the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Bercovici.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Horizontal two-dimensional lithospheric flow calculations impose a driving force (that is, high and low pressures akin to ridge push and slab pull) P, to generate a poloidal divergent/convergent ‘source-sink’ field S, toroidal strike-slip vorticity Ω, and horizontal velocity field v.

For a Newtonian lithospheric fluid (first row), S simply mirrors the pressure P, there is no vorticity and the velocity field follows dipolar field lines and is very un-plate-like. For a basic non-Newtonian dislocation-creep power-law (strain-rate  stressn, where n = 3; see second row), divergence is slightly altered, a weak vorticity field is generated and the velocity is still largely dipolar. Using the full two-phase grain damage with and without Zener pinning1 (ZP; third and fourth rows), S is sharpened considerably, a significant Ω field is generated, and the velocity is more plate-like; however, the approach to plate-like behaviour is more profound with Zener pinning. Contours are evenly spaced between extrema, except for S and Ω, which are between ±min(max(Q), |min(Q)|), where Q = S or Ω, and saturate at indigo (for negative values) or light red (positive values). The extremal values are indicated below each frame (except for P which is always between −1 and 1).

Extended Data Figure 2 Case where the driving pressure field P rotates by 90° and the vorticity field Ω inherits the weak zone of the prior divergence field.

The topmost row shows a sample initial condition before rotation (in particular for the case with grain-damage but no Zener pinning). The subsequent three rows are for simple dislocation creep, grain damage without pinning, and grain damage with pinning. The bottom-most frames show the time evolution for minimum grain sizes of each phase (green for the primary ‘olivine’ phase, blue for the secondary ‘pyroxene’ one), interface roughness r, and maximum divergence S and vorticity Ω, for the grain-damage cases with and without Zener pinning. See also Extended Data Fig. 1 for a description of contoured variables.

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Bercovici, D., Ricard, Y. Plate tectonics, damage and inheritance. Nature 508, 513–516 (2014).

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