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Slab stagnation due to a reduced viscosity layer beneath the mantle transition zone


The linear structures of seismically fast anomalies, often interpreted as subducted slabs, in the southern Asia and circum-Pacific lower mantle provided strong evidence for the whole mantle convection model. However, recent seismic studies have consistently shown that subducted slabs are deflected horizontally for large distances in mantle transition zone in the western Pacific and other subduction zones, suggesting that the slabs meet significant resistance to their descending motion and become stagnant in the transition zone. This poses challenges to the whole mantle convection model and also brings the origin of stagnant slabs into question. Here, using a global mantle convection model with realistic spine–post-spinel phase change (−2 MPa K−1 Clapeyron slope) and plate motion history, we demonstrate that the observed stagnant slabs in the transition zone and other slab structures in the lower mantle can be explained by the presence of a thin, weak layer at the phase change boundary that was suggested by mineral physics and geoid modelling studies. Our study also shows that the stagnant slabs mostly result from subduction in the past 20–30 million years, confirming the transient nature of slab stagnation and phase change dynamics on timescales of tens of millions of years from previous studies.

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Fig. 1: Map view of seismic anomalies and present-day model temperature anomalies.
Fig. 2: Cross-sectional view of seismic anomalies and present-day model temperature anomalies for subduction zones.
Fig. 3: Trench migration and age of subducting lithosphere at different subduction zones.
Fig. 4: Cross-sectional view of the structure and flow velocity evolution for the northern Honshu and North America slabs from Case 4.

Data availability

All of the materials of this study are available on request from the corresponding authors. The S-wave tomography model S40RTS of ref. 9 is available at The S-wave tomography model SEMUCB_WM1 of ref. 10 is available at The P-wave tomography model GAP_P4 of ref. 12 is available at The temperature anomalies for Case 4 at present day and the related data are available at


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We thank S. Goes and S. King for helpful comments on the manuscript. The work is supported by National Science Foundation through grant numbers 1135382, 1645245 and 1450181.

Author information




W.M. and S.J.Z. developed the concept of the project, designed models, developed the analysis methods and wrote the paper. W.M. performed the calculations.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Wei Mao or Shijie Zhong.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion, Supplementary Figures 1–11, Supplementary Tables 1 and 2.

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Mao, W., Zhong, S. Slab stagnation due to a reduced viscosity layer beneath the mantle transition zone. Nature Geosci 11, 876–881 (2018).

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