Whereas subduction recycling of oceanic lithosphere is one of the central themes of plate tectonics, the recycling of continental lithosphere appears to be far more complicated and less well understood1. Delamination and convective downwelling are two widely recognized processes invoked to explain the removal of lithospheric mantle under or adjacent to orogenic belts2,3,4,5. Here we relate oceanic plate subduction to removal of adjacent continental lithosphere in certain plate tectonic settings. We have developed teleseismic body wave images from dense broadband seismic experiments that show higher than expected volumes of anomalously fast mantle associated with the subducted Atlantic slab under northeastern South America and the Alboran slab beneath the Gibraltar arc region6,7; the anomalies are under, and are aligned with, the continental margins at depths greater than 200 kilometres. Rayleigh wave analysis8,9 finds that the lithospheric mantle under the continental margins is significantly thinner than expected, and that thin lithosphere extends from the orogens adjacent to the subduction zones inland to the edges of nearby cratonic cores. Taking these data together, here we describe a process that can lead to the loss of continental lithosphere adjacent to a subduction zone. Subducting oceanic plates can viscously entrain and remove the bottom of the continental thermal boundary layer lithosphere from adjacent continental margins. This drives surface tectonics and pre-conditions the margins for further deformation by creating topography along the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary. This can lead to development of secondary downwellings under the continental interior, probably under both South America and the Gibraltar arc8,10, and to delamination of the entire lithospheric mantle, as around the Gibraltar arc11. This process reconciles numerous, sometimes mutually exclusive, geodynamic models proposed to explain the complex oceanic-continental tectonics of these subduction zones12,13,14,15,16,17.
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We thank R. Govers for suggestions that improved the clarity and quality of the manuscript, and E. Engquist for aid in using the Rice DAVinCI Visualization Laboratory. We especially thank M. Harnafi and the Scientific Institute of Rabat for their contributions to the project. This research was supported by US National Science Foundation grants EAR 0003572, 0607801 and 0808939 (A.L.), EAR 0808931 (E.D.H.), EAR 0809023 and 1054638 (M.S.M.), the Venezuelan National Fund for Science, Technology and Innovation grant G-2002000478 and PDVSA-INTEVEP-FUNVISIS cooperative agreement 2004-141 (M.S.), the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation grants CSD2006-00041, CGL2009-09727 and CGL2010-15146 (J.G. and R.C.), and by an A. v. Humboldt Foundation Research Prize (A.L.).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
Extended data figures and tables
Extended Data Figure 1 Composite seismic image showing the top of the Alboran slab and the lithosphere beneath the Gibraltar arc.
a, Top panel is viewed from above from the east-northeast. Topography is shown at the top of the panel. The bottom of the panel is a composite of a P-body wave tomography image showing the slab (magenta, with the isosurface enclosing dlnVP ≥ 1.5%), and a Rayleigh wave tomography image showing the top of the slab and the lithosphere (blue, with the isosurface enclosing VS > 4.5 km s−1). The dashed black line outlines the bottom of the lithosphere. Note that these lines do not represent depth in the perspective view. b, Same azimuthal view as a but viewed from below. The black and white dashed lines outline the bottom of the lithosphere.
Extended Data Figure 2 Surface wave tomography model and receiver function images from northern Morocco.
Top panel, Rayleigh wave tomography model along 35° N. Middle and bottom panels, 2 Hz Ps receiver function CCP stacks along 35° N (middle) and 34.75° N (bottom) showing the top of the lower crust (dashed black lines), the Moho (solid black line) and the top of the Alboran slab (dashed white line) beneath the Moroccan Rif. In the two receiver function images the Moho and the top of the Alboran slab merge at ∼50 km depth at −4.5° and diverge to the east. Moho depth from unpublished refraction profiles is shown by heavy grey line. Seismicity, shown as white diamonds, is concentrated at the Trans-Alboran shear zone (TASZ). The seismic images are shown with no vertical exaggeration.
Extended Data Figure 3 Surface wave tomography model and receiver function images from southern Spain.
Top panel, Rayleigh wave tomography model along 37° N. Middle and bottom panels, 2 Hz Ps receiver function CCP stacks along 37° N (middle) and 36.75° N (bottom) showing the top of the lower crust (dashed black lines), the Moho (black solid lines) and the top of the Alboran slab (heavy dashed white line) beneath the Betics. In the two receiver function images the Moho and the top of the Alboran slab merge at ∼50–55 km depth at −4° and diverge in either direction. Seismicity, shown as white diamonds, occurs in the upper crust and in the zone of detachment near the base of the Iberian crust and the top of the Alboran slab.
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Levander, A., Bezada, M., Niu, F. et al. Subduction-driven recycling of continental margin lithosphere. Nature 515, 253–256 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature13878
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