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Southward propagation of Nazca subduction along the Andes


The Andean margin is the plate-tectonic paradigm for long-lived, continuous subduction, yet its geology since the late Mesozoic era (the past 100 million years or so) has been far from steady state. The episodic deformation and magmatism have been attributed to cyclic changes in the dip angle of the subducting slab, slab break-off and the penetration of the slab into the lower mantle; the role of plate tectonics remains unclear, owing to the extensive subduction of the Nazca–Farallon plate (which has resulted in more than 5,500 kilometres of lithosphere being lost to the mantle). Here, using tomographic data, we recreate the plate-tectonic geometry of the subducted Nazca slab, which enables us to reconstruct Andean plate tectonics since the late Mesozoic. Our model suggests that the current phase of Nazca subduction began at the northern Andes (5° S) during the late Cretaceous period (around 80 million years ago) and propagated southwards, reaching the southern Andes (40° S) by the early Cenozoic era (around 55 million year ago). Thus, contrary to the current paradigm, Nazca subduction has not been fully continuous since the Mesozoic but instead included episodic divergent phases. In addition, we find that foredeep sedimentation and the initiation of Andean compression are both linked to interactions between the Nazca slab and the lower mantle, consistent with previous modelling.

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Fig. 1: Slabs under South America.
Fig. 2: Decreasing unfolded Nazca slab lengths and shallowing Nazca slab base towards more southern latitudes.
Fig. 3: Unfolded-slab plate-tectonic reconstruction of Nazca.
Fig. 4: Southward propagation of Nazca subduction along the Andes after the late Cretaceous.
Fig. 5: Comparison of plate-model predictions with Andean geology.
Fig. 6: Re-interpreted tectonic evolution of the Neuquén basin at 37° S.

Data availability

The data that support the findings of this study are available within the paper.


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Y.-W.C. and J.W. acknowledge support from University of Houston funds. J.S. acknowledges funding from Texas Governor’s University Research Initiative funds (GURI) and the University of Houston. Educational licences for the software Gocad were provided by Paradigm through the Paradigm University Program. We thank J. Saylor, B. K. Horton, C. Faccenna, S. M. Kay and M. Riesner for discussions.

Reviewer information

Nature thanks D. Muller and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information




J.W. conceived and designed the study. Y.-W.C. generated the plate model and synthesized the Andean geology. Y.-W.C. and J.W. wrote the manuscript. Y.-W.C., J.W. and J.S. developed the tectonic arguments.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Yi-Wei Chen.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Slab anomalies under South America.

The anomalies are shown in different tomographies within a UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator) projection at 400 km (left), 1,000 km (middle) and 1,200 km (right). Tomographies include: a, MITP0810; b, GAP-P472; c, UU-P0773; d, LLNL-G3Dv374; e, SEMUCB-WM175; and f, TX201176. dVp and dVs are the velocity perturbations (expressed as a percentage) from P-wave and S-wave tomography, respectively. g, Map26,77 of the number (out of 22) of global seismic tomography models that show fast velocity anomalies at a given location, which gives an indication of imaging robustness. The 22 tomographies include MITP0810, GAP-P472, UU-P0773, LLNL-G3Dv374, SEMUCB-WM175, TX201176, GyPSuM78, HMSL-P0679, PRI-P0580, SP12RTS-P81, SPani-P82, S362ANI+M83, S40RTS84, SAVANI85, SAW642ANb86 and SEISGLOB287. Overall, the northern Nazca slab shows a wider tomographic anomaly that is stronger in amplitude and extends deeper into the lower mantle relative to the southern slab.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Tomographic cross-sections showing the Nazca slab from MITP08 tomography.

af, East–west sections (see h) are shown from north to south. Red dots indicate Benioff zone seismicity. Yellow dashed lines show our manually selected Nazca slab edges that were primarily defined by steep velocity gradients. Poorly imaged areas identified by previous tomography studies are highlighted by white dashed lines11,12,13. g, A trench-parallel profile. Intersections with east–west profiles 1–6 are shown by red lines. h, Profile positions on a horizontal slice at a depth of 900 km within a UTM projection.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Cross-sectional area unfolding method.

The method is outlined in ref. 21. a, A three-dimensional schematic view of highly deformed slabs in the lower mantle, for which we aim to assess the cross-sectional slab area and unfold the slabs to estimate the amount of subducted lithosphere. b, A three-dimensional schematic view showing the reconstructed slab lengths from a along two parallel cross-sections. Each of the slab sub-depth areas 1–8 have been retro-deformed to a notional pre-subduction thickness of 100 km and pieced back together at the Earth surface to assess a pre-subduction length. A density–depth correction (red area) has been applied to each slab sub-area following PREM54. c, An example MITP08 tomographic cross-section under the Andes and two possible Nazca slab areas based on different contour values: the blue dashed line is dVp = +0.3% and the red dashed line is dVp = +0.2%. d, Slab subduction ages implied by the dVp = 0.3% and dVp = 0.2% Nazca slab areas from c are 70 Myr and 90 Myr, respectively, determined from plate convergence rates from a global plate model3.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Cross-sectional area unfolding method applied to the other five tomographies at profile 2.

See Extended Data Fig. 2g for location. a, GAP-P472; b, UU-P0773; c, TX201176; d, LLNL-G3Dv374; and e, SEMUCB-WM175. Our choices of slab edges are shown as yellow dashed lines, with dVp = +0.3% in UU-P07 (b) and LLNL-G3Dv3 (d), dVp = +0.6% in GAP-P4 (a), dVs = +0.9% in TX2011 (c) and dVs = +0.7% in SEMUCB-WM1 (e). f, The unfolded slab lengths from the five tomographies, with our choices of slab edges shown as blue circles. Unfolded slab lengths from MITP08 in Extended Data Fig. 3d are shown as a yellow box. The unfolded slab lengths of an alternative slab area in GAP-P4 and TX2011 (red dashed lines in a and c) are shown as open dashed circles. Overall, the slab lengths from the six tomographies show similar results.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Age–depth curve for our unfolded Nazca slab for profiles 2–5.

Implied lower-mantle sinking rates are shown by the circles and labels, coloured coded by tomographic profile. For comparison, we also plot lower-mantle sinking rates at the central Marianas Pacific slabs (light grey diamonds)21 and age–depth relationships of slabs under east Asia (dark grey diamonds)21. All sinking rates from this study are consistent with ref. 21, which found an average lower-mantle sinking rate of 1.8 ± 0.8 cm yr−1 (grey dashed lines).

Extended Data Fig. 6 Reconstructed Nazca trench positions between 100 Myr and 60 Myr ago within two alternative mantle reference frames.

Reconstructed trench positions are shown at 100 Myr ago (red lines), 80 Myr ago (white lines) and 60 Myr ago (yellow lines), superimposed on horizontal sections of MITP08 tomography10 within mid- to lower-mantle depths (a, b, 1,200 km; c, d, 1,400 km; e, f, 1,600 km). a, c, e, Reconstructions based on the mantle reference frame of ref. 88. b, d, f, Reconstructions based on the mantle reference frame of ref. 89.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Reconstructed Nazca plate motions relative to a fixed South America.

a, 80 Myr ago; b, 70 Myr ago; c, 60 Myr ago; d, 50 Myr ago; e, 40 Myr ago; f, 30 Myr ago; g, 20 Myr ago; h, 10 Myr ago. Grey arrows indicate the motion of the subducting Nazca plate relative to South America. Divergent motions are shown by blue arrows. The position of the Nazca–South America plate boundary is based on the retro-deformed Andean margin from ref. 23. Subduction along the Nazca–South America plate boundary is highlighted by the thick red line; green and blue thick lines indicate transform and divergent plate boundaries, respectively. Other references are the same as in Fig. 4.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Comparison of Nazca–South America plate motions from alternative plate circuits.

ac, Plate motions 80 Myr ago (a), 70 Myr ago (b) and 60 Myr ago (c) are shown from the Antarctic plate circuit27 (blue arrows) and the Australian plate circuit3 (orange arrows). In this study, we followed the plate motion derived from the Australian plate circuit3. The Australian circuit assumes limited motion between the Lord Howe Rise and the Pacific before the Eocene. This allows a motion chain to be built from East Antarctica to Australia to the Lord Howe Rise/Pacific, avoiding the less-well-constrained relative motion of East and West Antarctica, on which the Antarctic circuit is built (see ref. 29 for an in-depth discussion). Both models indicate coeval northern convergence and southern divergence, although the motions are different in the late Cretaceous (a and b). The position of the Nazca–South America plate boundary is based on the retro-deformed Andean margin (black dash lines)23. Subduction along the plate boundary is coloured in red; green and blue indicate transform and divergent plate boundaries, respectively (same as in Extended Data Fig. 7).

Extended Data Fig. 9 Subducted-slab lengths along the western South American margin over time.

Slab lengths (SLs) are based on our plate model and measured over time between the leading edge of the subducted Nazca slab and the retro-deformed Andean margin23. A slab length of 0 km indicates Nazca subduction initiation. A slab length of 770 km indicates the earliest possible time that the Nazca slab could have reached the lower mantle, based on a sub-vertical Marianas slab end-member30. A slab length of 1,200 km indicates the latest possible time that the Nazca slab could have reached the lower mantle, based on a shallow-dipping Peruvian flat-slab end-member30. See main text for more details.

Extended Data Fig. 10 Sensitivity of our plate model to other possible slab lengths and their implied sinking rates.

a, Our plate model predictions are compared with a spatial density plot of total recorded Andean magmatic ages by latitude from a catalogue of undifferentiated Andean magmatic ages71 (14,709 total published magmatic ages since 140 Myr ago). The bin size is 4° in latitude and 5 Myr in age. This plot is designed to offer an alternative perspective to Fig. 5a. Differences between this plot and Fig. 5a result from our choice of including in Fig. 5a only magmatism that had an interpreted tectonic origin, for example, arc-related, backarc or intraplate magmatism. For Fig. 5a, published geochemical signatures provide a feature-by-feature comparison for each magmatic record that is absent from this plot. The near-white band 32° S and 45° S is not necessarily a magmatic gap, but is the result of limited reported ages, possibly owing to limited outcrop exposure. In Fig. 5a, we used detrital zircon ages to infer the magmatic activity for 32°–45° S. The thick red line shows our predicted southward propagation of Nazca subduction initiation (same as in Fig. 5a). The error range (±10 Myr) shown by transparent red lines come from alternative choices of slab-edge velocity perturbations (see Methods and Extended Data Fig. 3 for details). Overall, our model prediction fits well with a magmatic minimum around 80 Myr ago followed by increased magmatism, which we interpret to correspond to the initiation of the most recent phase of Nazca subduction. Arbitrarily decreased unfolded slab lengths of 80% (light blue dashed line) and 60% (dark blue dashed line) are also shown. The arbitrarily decreased slab lengths show the sensitivity of our plate model predictions to possible tomographic blurring, which would have exaggerated our measured Nazca slab areas. Comparison to the shorter unfolded slab lengths shows that southward propagation of Nazca subduction is preserved when Nazca slab lengths are decreased, but we argue that the alternative subduction initiation timings compare less well to the increased magmatism between 80 Myr and 60 Myr ago north of 32° S. Green dots show that the choice of a thinner initial lithosphere thickness for slab unfolding (80 km rather than 100 km) would increase slab lengths, which would effectively offset some tomographic blurring. b, Comparison between published lower-mantle slab sinking rates2,21,25,26,47,53,90,91 and the implied lower-mantle sinking rates for our preferred slab lengths (red line) and arbitrarily decreased 80% (light blue dashed line) and 60% (dark blue dashed line) slab lengths from a. Shorter slab lengths (less than 60%) were excluded from a on the basis of unreasonably fast slab sinking rates.

Extended Data Table 1 Notable ages of Nazca subduction

Supplementary information

Supplementary Data

The GPlates digital file of the unfolded Nazca slab polygon used in Figure 3, Figure 4 and the Supplementary Video.

Video 1: Plate tectonic reconstruction of Nazca subduction under the Andes since 80 Ma from unfolded-slab plate tectonics.

A plate tectonic reconstruction animation of Nazca subduction at 1 Ma timesteps, as shown in Figure 4 and Extended Data Figure 7. See Figure 4 and the Methods section for references. A GPlates digital file of the retro-deformed Nazca slab polygon in the video can be found within the Supplementary Data.

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Chen, YW., Wu, J. & Suppe, J. Southward propagation of Nazca subduction along the Andes. Nature 565, 441–447 (2019).

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