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Water input into the Mariana subduction zone estimated from ocean-bottom seismic data

Naturevolume 563pages389392 (2018) | Download Citation


The water cycle at subduction zones remains poorly understood, although subduction is the only mechanism for water transport deep into Earth. Previous estimates of water flux1,2,3 exhibit large variations in the amount of water that is subducted deeper than 100 kilometres. The main source of uncertainty in these calculations is the initial water content of the subducting uppermost mantle. Previous active-source seismic studies suggest that the subducting slab may be pervasively hydrated in the plate-bending region near the oceanic trench4,5,6,7. However, these studies do not constrain the depth extent of hydration and most investigate young incoming plates, leaving subduction-zone water budgets for old subducting plates uncertain. Here we present seismic images of the crust and uppermost mantle around the central Mariana trench derived from Rayleigh-wave analysis of broadband ocean-bottom seismic data. These images show that the low mantle velocities that result from mantle hydration extend roughly 24 kilometres beneath the Moho discontinuity. Combined with estimates of subducting crustal water, these results indicate that at least 4.3 times more water subducts than previously calculated for this region3. If other old, cold subducting slabs contain correspondingly thick layers of hydrous mantle, as suggested by the similarity of incoming plate faulting across old, cold subducting slabs, then estimates of the global water flux into the mantle at depths greater than 100 kilometres must be increased by a factor of about three compared to previous estimates3. Because a long-term net influx of water to the deep interior of Earth is inconsistent with the geological record8, estimates of water expelled at volcanic arcs and backarc basins probably also need to be revised upwards9.

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Data availability

Raw seismic data are available at the Data Management Center of the Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology (http://www.iris.edu/dms/nodes/dmc) under network IDs MI and XF. Network and station information can be found at the IRIS website (http://www.ds.iris.edu/mda).

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We thank P. J. Shore, H. Jian and the captains, crew and science parties of the RVs R. Revelle and Melville for data collection; S. Wei and M. Pratt for helping with data processing; R. Parai and M. J. Krawczynski for discussions; and X. Wang for support. IRIS PASSCAL and OBSIP provided land-based seismic instrumentation and ocean-bottom seismographs, respectively. This work was supported by the GeoPRISMS Program under NSF grant OCE-0841074 (D.A.W.).

Reviewer information

Nature thanks C. Rodríguez Ranero & D. Shillington for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, Washington University in St Louis, St Louis, MO, USA

    • Chen Cai
    • , Douglas A. Wiens
    • , Weisen Shen
    •  & Melody Eimer
  2. Department of Geosciences, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, USA

    • Weisen Shen


  1. Search for Chen Cai in:

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C.C. and M.E., advised by D.A.W., analysed the seismic data. W.S. developed and modified the Monte Carlo inversion code. C.C. and D.A.W. took the lead in writing the manuscript, and all authors discussed the results and edited the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Chen Cai.

Extended data figures and tables

  1. Extended Data Fig. 1 Robustness test of the low-velocity zone.

    a, The assumed geometry of the subduction zone according to our prior knowledge. b, c, Simulation results for nodes 80 km (b) and 110 km (c) landward from the trench. The black dashed lines are the input one-dimensional models; blue dashed and solid lines are the best-fitting and average models from the Monte Carlo inversion of the synthetic dispersion curves, respectively; red dashed and solid lines are the best-fitting and average models from the Monte Carlo inversion of the real data.

  2. Extended Data Fig. 2 Azimuthal anisotropy from evenly distributed serpentine layers (of thickness 450 m and with a spacing of 2 km).

    a, Result for vertical layering. b, Result for 45° dipping layering. Numbers in the parenthesis are the mean velocity for quasi-P, quasi-SV or quasi-SH. The incidence angle is defined relative to the strike of the layer: 0° is parallel and 90° is normal to the strike.

  3. Extended Data Fig. 3 Maps of azimuthally averaged group and phase velocity.

    a, b, Group velocity (colour scale) at periods of 10 s (a) and 21 s (b) inverted by ANT. c, d, Phase velocity (colour scale) at periods of 10 s (c) and 21 s (d) from ANT. e, f, Phase velocity (colour scale) for periods of 25 s (e) and 40 s (f) inverted by HT. 3-km, 4-km and 5-km bathymetry contours are shown as thin grey lines. The trench axis and serpentine seamounts are shown as in Fig. 1a.

  4. Extended Data Fig. 4 Earthquakes used in this study.

    Blue dots represent ISC earthquake locations. The red star shows the location of the Mariana trench.

  5. Extended Data Fig. 5 Examples of Monte Carlo inversion and phase-velocity sensitivity kernel.

    ad, The joint Rayleigh phase and group dispersion data (error bars, one standard deviation) and computed phase (red solid lines) and group (blue solid lines) dispersion curves from the Bayesian Monte Carlo averaged model, for four locations: a, inner forearc; b, outer forearc; c, trench high; d, Pacific plate. eh, Shear-velocity model from the Bayesian Monte Carlo inversion for the four example locations. i, Phase-velocity sensitivity kernels at example periods, calculated using the average velocity model in g.

  6. Extended Data Fig. 6 Comparison between Rayleigh-wave isotropic phase velocities determined from teleseismic tomography using HT and a two-plane-wave method.

    a, At 27 s. b, At 36 s.

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