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Large-scale subduction of continental crust implied by India–Asia mass-balance calculation

An Addendum to this article was published on 02 May 2017

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Continental crust is buoyant compared with its oceanic counterpart and resists subduction into the mantle. When two continents collide, the mass balance for the continental crust is therefore assumed to be maintained. Here we use estimates of pre-collisional crustal thickness and convergence history derived from plate kinematic models to calculate the crustal mass balance in the India–Asia collisional system. Using the current best estimates for the timing of the diachronous onset of collision between India and Eurasia, we find that about 50% of the pre-collisional continental crustal mass cannot be accounted for in the crustal reservoir preserved at Earth’s surface today—represented by the mass preserved in the thickened crust that makes up the Himalaya, Tibet and much of adjacent Asia, as well as southeast Asian tectonic escape and exported eroded sediments. This implies large-scale subduction of continental crust during the collision, with a mass equivalent to about 15% of the total oceanic crustal subduction flux since 56 million years ago. We suggest that similar contamination of the mantle by direct input of radiogenic continental crustal materials during past continent–continent collisions is reflected in some ocean crust and ocean island basalt geochemistry. The subduction of continental crust may therefore contribute significantly to the evolution of mantle geochemistry.

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Figure 1: Palaeo-geographic and -thickness reconstructions of the Himalaya–Tibet orogen.
Figure 2: Continental thickness and mass convergence.
Figure 3: Schematic tectonic cross-section of India, the Himalayan orogenic prism north of the Main Frontal Thrust (MFT) and southern Tibet during lower crustal subduction31.

Change history

  • 27 March 2017

    The authors omitted to cite a paper5 that used a crustal mass-balance approach, but alternative constraints on paleogeography and pre-collisional crustal geometries, to argue that about 40 to 50% of Indian crust is missing from the present-day crustal reservoir of the Himalayan–Tibetan system and may have been recycled into the mantle. Given limited constraints on the uncertainty of this estimate, the authors chose to focus their comparison on the later work of Yakovlev and Clark (2014). Nevertheless, the authors have decided the work of Replumaz and colleagues merits citation. References 5. Replumaz, A., Negredo, A.M., Guillot, S., van der Beek, P. & Villaseñor, A. Crustal mass budget and recycling during the India/Asia collision. Tectonophysics 492, 99–107 (2010).


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We thank P. Yakovlev for generously sharing both crustal thickness and domain polygon boundary with us. Fieldwork was funded by the National Science Foundation Grant EAR no. 0609782 and EAR no. 1111274 awarded to D.B.R. and EAR no. 0609756 awarded to B.C. Supporting geochemical analyses were enabled by NSF EAR no. 0923831 awarded to A.S.C. and D.B.R.

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D.B.R. and M.I. completed mass-balance calculations. M.I., D.B.R., B.C. and A.S.C. contributed to the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Miquela Ingalls or David B. Rowley.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Ingalls, M., Rowley, D., Currie, B. et al. Large-scale subduction of continental crust implied by India–Asia mass-balance calculation. Nature Geosci 9, 848–853 (2016).

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