Letter | Published:

Subduction controls the distribution and fragmentation of Earth’s tectonic plates

Nature volume 535, pages 140143 (07 July 2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The theory of plate tectonics describes how the surface of Earth is split into an organized jigsaw of seven large plates1 of similar sizes and a population of smaller plates whose areas follow a fractal distribution2,3. The reconstruction of global tectonics during the past 200 million years4 suggests that this layout is probably a long-term feature of Earth, but the forces governing it are unknown. Previous studies3,5,6, primarily based on the statistical properties of plate distributions, were unable to resolve how the size of the plates is determined by the properties of the lithosphere and the underlying mantle convection. Here we demonstrate that the plate layout of Earth is produced by a dynamic feedback between mantle convection and the strength of the lithosphere. Using three-dimensional spherical models of mantle convection that self-consistently produce the plate size–frequency distribution observed for Earth, we show that subduction geometry drives the tectonic fragmentation that generates plates. The spacing between the slabs controls the layout of large plates, and the stresses caused by the bending of trenches break plates into smaller fragments. Our results explain why the fast evolution in small back-arc plates7,8 reflects the marked changes in plate motions during times of major reorganizations. Our study opens the way to using convection simulations with plate-like behaviour to unravel how global tectonics and mantle convection are dynamically connected.

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Acknowledgements

The research leading to these results was funded by the European Research Council within the framework of the SP2-Ideas Programme ERC-2013-CoG under ERC grant agreement 617588. We thank S. Durant and E. Debayle for helping to make Fig. 1e, i and E. J. Garnero for his inputs. Calculations were performed on the AUGURY supercomputer at P2CHPD Lyon. N.C. was supported by the Institut Universitaire de France. R.D.M and M.S are supported by ARC grants DP130101946 and FT130101564.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Laboratoire de Géologie de Lyon, École Normale Supérieure, UMR 5276 CNRS, Université de Lyon 1, 69622 Villeurbanne, France

    • Claire Mallard
    •  & Nicolas Coltice
  2. Institut Universitaire de France, 103 Boulevard Saint Michel, 75005 Paris, France

    • Nicolas Coltice
  3. EarthByte Group, School of Geosciences, Madsen Building F09, University of Sydney, New South Wales 2006, Australia

    • Maria Seton
    •  & R. Dietmar Müller
  4. Institute of Geophysics, Department of Earth Sciences, ETH Zürich, Sonneggstrasse 5, 8092 Zurich, Switzerland

    • Paul J. Tackley

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Contributions

C.M. developed the methodology for analysing the convection models, conducted the plate analysis, contributed to the interpretation and wrote the manuscript. N.C. conducted the convection calculations, contributed to the development of the methodology and analysis, contributed to the interpretation and wrote the manuscript. M.S. and R.D.M. provided guidance with GPlates and scripts, contributed to the interpretation and wrote the manuscript. P.J.T. provided the StagYY convection code, guidance on using it and wrote the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Claire Mallard.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature17992

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