Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

  • Letter
  • Published:

Subduction-driven recycling of continental margin lithosphere


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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Access options

Buy this article

Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

Figure 1: Colour topography and bathymetry of the southeastern Caribbean showing plate boundaries and significant tectonic features.
Figure 2: Composite three-dimensional seismic images of the Atlantic plate and South American lithosphere.
Figure 3: Map of lithospheric thickness in northeastern South America and restoration of the Atlantic slab P-wave anomaly to the surface.
Figure 4: Gibraltar arc region tectonic features, lithosphere thickness, positive P-wave tomography anomalies, and P-wave anomaly restored to the surface.

Similar content being viewed by others


  1. Gao, S. et al. Recycling deep cratonic lithosphere and generation of intraplate magmatism in the North China Craton. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 270, 41–53 (2008)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  2. Houseman, G. & Molnar, P. in Continental Reactivation and Reworking (eds Miller, J. A., Holdsworth, R. E., Buick, I. S. & Hand, M. ) 13–38 (Spec. Publ. 184, Geological Society of London, 2001)

    Google Scholar 

  3. Zandt, G. et al. Active foundering of a continental arc root beneath the southern Sierra Nevada in California. Nature 431, 41–46 (2004)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  4. Kay, R. W. & Kay, S. M. Delamination and delamination magmatism. Tectonophysics 219, 177–189 (1993)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  5. Levander, A. et al. Continuing Colorado plateau uplift by delamination-style convective lithospheric downwelling. Nature 472, 461–465 (2011)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  6. Bezada, M. J., Levander, A. & Schmandt, B. Subduction in the southern Caribbean: Images from finite-frequency P wave tomography. J. Geophys. Res. 115 B12333 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  7. Bezada, M. J. et al. Evidence for slab rollback in westernmost Mediterranean from improved upper mantle imaging. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 368, 51–60 (2013)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  8. Masy, J., Levander, A., Niu, F. & Schmitz, M. Lithospheric expressions of Cenozoic subduction, Mesozoic rifting and the Precambrian Shield in Venezuela. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett (in the press)

  9. Palomeras, I., Levander, A., Liu, K., Thurner, V. A. & Gallart, J. Finite-frequency Rayleigh wave tomography of the western Mediterranean. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 15, 140–160 (2014)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  10. Bezada, M. J., Humphreys, E. D., Palomeras, I., Levander, A. & Carbonell, R. Piecewise delamination of Moroccan lithosphere from beneath the Atlas Mountains. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 15, 975–985 (2014)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  11. Thurner, S. M., Palomeras, I., Levander, A., Carbonell, R. & Lee, C. T. A. Ongoing lithospheric removal in the Western Mediterranean: Ps receiver function results from the PICASSO project. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 15, 1113–1127 (2014)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  12. Lonergan, L. & White, N. Origin of the Betic-Rif mountain belt. Tectonics 16, 504–522 (1997)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  13. Platt, J. P. & Vissers, R. L. M. Extensional collapse of thickened continental lithosphere: a working hypothesis for the Alboran Sea and Gibraltar arc. Geology 17, 540–543 (1989)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  14. Duggen, S., Hoernle, K., Bogaard, P. d. & Harris, C. Magmatic evolution of the Alboran region: the role of subduction in forming the western Mediterranean and causing the Messinian Salinity Crisis. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 218, 91–108 (2004)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  15. Pindell, J. & Kennan, L. in The Geology and Evolution of the Region Between North and South America (eds James, K., Lorente, M. A. & Pindell, J. ) 1–55 (Spec. Publ. 328, Geological Society of London, 2009)

    Google Scholar 

  16. VanDecar, J. C., Russo, R. M., James, D. E., Ambeh, W. B. & Franke, M. Aseismic continuation of the Lesser Antilles slab beneath continental South America. J. Geophys. Res. 108 2043 (2003)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  17. Calvert, A., Sandvol, E., Seber, D. & Barazangi, M. Geodynamic evolution of the lithosphere and upper mantle beneath the Alboran region of the western Mediterranean: constraints from travel time tomography. J. Geophys. Res. 105, 10871–10898 (2000)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  18. Burke, K. Tectonic evolution of the Caribbean. Annu. Rev. Earth Planet. Sci. 16, 201–230 (1988)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  19. Govers, R. & Wortel, M. J. R. Lithosphere tearing at STEP faults: response to edges of subduction zones. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 236, 505–523 (2005)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  20. Clark, S. et al. Eastern Venezuelan tectonics driven by lithospheric tear geodynamics, not oblique collision. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 9 Q11004 (2008)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  21. Pindell, J., Kennan, L., Stanek, K.-P., Maresch, W. & Draper, G. Foundations of Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean evolution: eight controversies resolved. Geol. Acta 4, 303–341 (2006)

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Müller, R. D., Royer, J.-Y., Cande, S. C., Roest, W. R. & Maschenkov, S. in Sedimentary Basins of the World Vol. 4 (ed. Mann, P. ) 33–59 (Elsevier, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  23. Sleep, N. H. Thermal effects of the formation of Atlantic continental margins by continental break up. Geophys. J. R. Astron. Soc. 24, 325–350 (1971)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  24. Sclater, J. G., Parsons, B. & Jaupart, C. Oceans and continents: similarities and differences in the mechanisms of heat loss. J. Geophys. Res. 86, 11535–11552 (1981)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  25. Rosenbaum, G. Tectonic Reconstruction of the Alpine Orogen in the Western Mediterranean Region PhD thesis, Monash Univ. (2003)

  26. Royden, L. H. Evolution of retreating subduction boundaries formed during continental collision. Tectonics 12, 629–638 (1993)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  27. Seber, D., Barazangi, M., Ibembrahim, A. & Demnati, A. Geophysical evidence for lithospheric delamination beneath the Alboran Sea and Rif-Betic mountains. Nature 379, 785–790 (1996)

    Article  CAS  ADS  Google Scholar 

  28. Pérouse, E., Vernant, P., Chéry, J., Reilinger, R. & McClusky, S. Active surface deformation and sub-lithospheric processes in the western Mediterranean constrained by numerical models. Geology 38, 823–826 (2010)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  29. Gutscher, M.-A. et al. Evidence for active subduction beneath Gibraltar. Geology 30, 1071–1074 (2002)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  30. Mancilla, F. L. et al. Delamination in the Betic Range: deep structure, seismicity, and GPS motion. Geology 41, 307–310 (2013)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  31. Ayarza, P. et al. Crustal thickness and velocity structure across the Moroccan Atlas from long offset wide-angle reflection seismic data: the SIMA experiment. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 15, 1698–1717 (2014)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  32. Tao, W. C. & O'Connell, R. J. Ablative subduction: a two-sided alternative to convectional subduction model. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 8877–8904 (1992)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  33. Kaislaniemi, L. & van Hunen, J. Dynamics of lithospheric thinning and mantle melting by edge-driven convection: application to Moroccan Atlas mountains. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 15, 3175–3189 (2014)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  34. Forsyth, D. W. & Li, A. in Seismic Earth: Array Analysis of Broadband Seismograms (eds Levander, A. & Nolet, G. ) 81–97 (Geophys. Monogr. Ser. Vol. 157, American Geophysical Union, 2005)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  35. Yang, Y. & Forsyth, D. W. Rayleigh wave phase velocities, small-scale convection and azimuthal anisotropy beneath southern California. J. Geophys. Res. 111 B07306 (2006)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  36. Rondenay, S. Upper mantle imaging with array recordings of converted and scattered teleseismic waves. Surv. Geophys. 30, 377–405 (2009)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  37. Dueker, K. G. & Sheehan, A. F. Mantle discontinuity structure from midpoint stacks of converted P to S waves across the Yellowstone hotspot track. J. Geophys. Res. 102, 8313–8327 (1997)

    Article  ADS  Google Scholar 

  38. Levander, A. & Miller, M. S. Evolutionary aspects of lithospheric discontinuity structure in the western U.S. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 13 Q0AK07 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



M.S., J.G., R.C., E.D.H., F.N., M.S.M. and A.L. oversaw different aspects of the field data acquisition. A.L., F.N., S.M.T., J.M., M.S. and R.C. contributed to the receiver function data analysis. I.P., F.N., J.M., M.S.M., J.G. and A.L. contributed to the Rayleigh tomography analysis. M.J.B., E.D.H. and A.L. contributed to the body wave tomography analysis. M.S., R.C. and J.G. provided geologic, tectonic and geophysical background, which allowed A.L. and E.D.H. to pose the lithosphere removal hypothesis for testing. M.J.B., I.P., S.M.T., J.M. and A.L. constructed and interpreted the 3D images. A.L primarily wrote the manuscript, with substantive input from E.D.H., M.J.B. and F.N. and with additional input from all of the co-authors.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to A. Levander.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

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.

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and permissions

About this article

Check for updates. Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Levander, A., Bezada, M., Niu, F. et al. Subduction-driven recycling of continental margin lithosphere. Nature 515, 253–256 (2014).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing