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Towards absolute plate motions constrained by lower-mantle slab remnants


Since the first reconstruction of the supercontinent Pangaea, key advances in plate tectonic reconstructions have been made1,2,3,4,5,6. Although the movement of tectonic plates since the start of the mid-Cretaceous period (100 million years (Myr) ago) is relatively well understood1,2, the longitudinal position of plates before this period is not constrained at all. Here, we use a global mantle tomography model7 to estimate the longitude of past oceanic subduction zones. We identify 28 remnants of oceanic plates that were subducted into the lower mantle and link these to the mountain building zones from which they are likely to have originated. Assuming that these remnants sank vertically through the mantle, we reconstruct the longitude at which they were subducted. Our estimates for the location of the subduction zones are offset by up to 18 compared with plate tectonic reconstructions for the corresponding period. We did not detect oceanic plate remnants from the Carboniferous period (300–360 Myr ago), or before, suggesting that the tomographic visibility of subduction is limited to the past 300 Myr.

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Figure 1: Age–depth curve of interpreted slabs.
Figure 2: Spatial longitude correction.
Figure 3: Longitude correction with time.
Figure 4: Longitude-corrected plate tectonic reconstructions.


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We would like to thank the various people of Shell in Rijswijk, the Netherlands, for the valuable discussions on regional geology, A. Crince for technical support and R. Hall and P. Cawood for fruitful comments. Part of this work was conducted under programmes of the Vening Meinesz School of Geodynamics (VMSG, Utrecht University) and the Netherlands Research Centre of Integrated Solid Earth Sciences (ISES). D.J.J.v.H. acknowledges an NWO-VENI grant. This paper contributes to the ESF EUROCORES programme TOPO-EUROPE.

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D.G.v.d.M. carried out the global tomographic slab identification, longitude correction and plate tectonic reconstruction modifications, partly during his sabbatical at the NGU. W.S. co-developed the tomographic model and the ideas underlying the research presented here. D.J.J.v.H. provided integration between surface geology, orogenesis and subduction. M.L.A. developed the tomographic model as part of her PhD work at Utrecht University. T.H.T. provided the plate tectonic reconstructions. The first three authors shared equally in writing the article.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Douwe G. van der Meer or Wim Spakman.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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van der Meer, D., Spakman, W., van Hinsbergen, D. et al. Towards absolute plate motions constrained by lower-mantle slab remnants. Nature Geosci 3, 36–40 (2010).

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