Letter

Plate tectonics on the Earth triggered by plume-induced subduction initiation

  • Nature volume 527, pages 221225 (12 November 2015)
  • doi:10.1038/nature15752
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Abstract

Scientific theories of how subduction and plate tectonics began on Earth—and what the tectonic structure of Earth was before this—remain enigmatic and contentious1. Understanding viable scenarios for the onset of subduction and plate tectonics2,3 is hampered by the fact that subduction initiation processes must have been markedly different before the onset of global plate tectonics because most present-day subduction initiation mechanisms require acting plate forces and existing zones of lithospheric weakness, which are both consequences of plate tectonics4. However, plume-induced subduction initiation5,6,7,8,9 could have started the first subduction zone without the help of plate tectonics. Here, we test this mechanism using high-resolution three-dimensional numerical thermomechanical modelling. We demonstrate that three key physical factors combine to trigger self-sustained subduction: (1) a strong, negatively buoyant oceanic lithosphere; (2) focused magmatic weakening and thinning of lithosphere above the plume; and (3) lubrication of the slab interface by hydrated crust. We also show that plume-induced subduction could only have been feasible in the hotter early Earth for old oceanic plates. In contrast, younger plates favoured episodic lithospheric drips rather than self-sustained subduction and global plate tectonics.

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Acknowledgements

This study was co-funded by the ERC ITN project ZIP (T.V.G.), the SNF project Swiss-AlpArray (T.V.G.), the SNF grant 200021_149252 (T.V.G.), the ETH grant ETH-37_11-2 (T.V.G.) and a SNF short scientific visits program (R.J.S.). Simulations were performed on the ETH-Zurich Brutus cluster and on the GFZ-Potsdam cluster. Open-source software ParaView (http://www.paraview.org) was used for 3D visualization.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth Sciences, ETH-Zurich, Sonneggstrasse 5, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • T. V. Gerya
  2. Geosciences Department, University of Texas at Dallas, Richardson, Texas 75083-0688, USA

    • R. J. Stern
  3. GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences, Heinrich-Mann-Allee 18/19, 14473 Potsdam, Germany

    • M. Baes
    •  & S. V. Sobolev
  4. Institute of Earth and Environmental Science, University of Potsdam, Karl-Liebknecht-Straße 24-25, 14476 Potsdam-Golm, Germany

    • S. V. Sobolev
  5. Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Korea University, Seoul 136-701, South Korea

    • S. A. Whattam

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Contributions

T.V.G. designed the study, conducted part of the numerical experiments, interpreted the results and designed the 3D thermo-mechanical code. R.J.S. designed the study, analysed the natural data and interpreted the results. M.B. conducted part of the numerical experiments and interpreted the results. S.V.S. designed the study and interpreted the results. S.A.W. analysed the natural data and interpreted the results. All authors discussed the results, problems and methods, interpreted the data and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. V. Gerya.

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