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Dynamic slab segmentation due to brittle–ductile damage in the outer rise

Abstract

Subduction is the major plate driving force, and the strength of the subducting plate controls many aspects of the thermochemical evolution of Earth. Each subducting plate experiences intense normal faulting1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 during bending that accommodates the transition from horizontal to downwards motion at the outer rise at trenches. Here we investigate the consequences of this bending-induced plate damage using numerical subduction models in which both brittle and ductile deformation, including grain damage, are tracked and coupled self-consistently. Pervasive slab weakening and pronounced segmentation can occur at the outer-rise region owing to the strong feedback between brittle and ductile damage localization. This slab-damage phenomenon explains the subduction dichotomy of strong plates and weak slabs10, the development of large-offset normal faults6,7 near trenches, the occurrence of segmented seismic velocity anomalies11 and distinct interfaces imaged within subducted slabs12,13, and the appearance of deep, localized intraplate areas of reduced effective viscosity14 observed at trenches. Furthermore, brittle–viscously damaged slabs show a tendency for detachment at elevated mantle temperatures. Given Earth’s planetary cooling history15, this implies that intermittent subduction with frequent slab break-off episodes16 may have been characteristic for Earth until more recent times than previously suggested17.

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Fig. 1: Dynamics of subduction and slab segmentation for a 40-million-year-old oceanic plate.
Fig. 2: Development of large-offset normal faults in the reference model and at the Japan Trench.
Fig. 3: Development of moderate-offset (throw ≤250 m) normal faults in the reference model and at the southeast portion of the Middle American Trench.
Fig. 4: Comparison of slab-segment width measured in the reference model and within the Japan slab.
Fig. 5: Comparison of modelled grain-size distribution in the reference model with seismic discontinuities in the Japan slab.

Data availability

All input files used in the numerical modelling are available at https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/bnvthSource data are provided with this paper.

Code availability

The C and Matlab codes used for numerical experiments and visualization are available at https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/bnvth.

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by SNF projects 200021_182069 and 200021_192296 and ETH+ project BECCY (to T.V.G.) and NSF EAR-1853856 (to T.W.B.) and NSF EAR-1853184 (to D.B.). The simulations were performed on the ETH-Zurich Euler and Leonhard clusters.

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Contributions

T.V.G. programmed the numerical code, designed the study and conducted the numerical experiments; D.B. formulated the grain size evolution algorithm and programmed the numerical code; and T.W.B. compiled and annotated Extended Data Figs. 7, 8 and provided related text. All authors discussed the results, problems and methods, and contributed to interpretation of the data and writing the paper.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. V. Gerya.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Initial conditions for two types of subduction model explored in this study.

a, Model setup with free subducting plate detached from the right model boundary; subducting plate age changes to 1,000 yr linearly with the distance within 500 km at the right model boundary. b, Model setup with subducting plate attached to the right model boundary; subducting plate age does not change toward the boundary. White lines with numbers are isotherms in °C.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Influence of faults weakening and grain size evolution on subduction dynamics.

The distribution of the effective viscosity (left column, panels ad) and grain size in the mantle (right column, panels eh). a, e, Model with both faults weakening and grain size evolution (model xbeqc, Extended Data Table 2). b, f, Model with faults weakening but without grain size evolution (model xbeqca, Extended Data Table 2). c, g, Model with grain size evolution but without faults weakening (μ0 = μ1 = 0.6 for the lower oceanic crust and lithosphere-asthenosphere mantle, model xbeqcb, Extended Data Table 2). d, h, Model with neither fault weakening nor grain size evolution (μ0 = μ1 = 0.6 for the lower oceanic crust and lithosphere-asthenosphere mantle, model xbeqcc, Extended Data Table 2). Mantle temperature is taken 100 K higher than present day values. Other parameters are the same as in the reference model (Fig. 1). Solid black lines indicate position of 1225 °C isotherm.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Influence of model parameters on subduction dynamics in models with standard grain size evolution.

The distribution of the effective viscosity (left column, panels ad) and grain size in the mantle (right column, panels eh). a, e, Failed subduction initiation in the model with 40 Ma subducting plate but without faults weakening (μ0 = μ1 = 0.6 for the lower oceanic crust and lithosphere-asthenosphere mantle, hmax = 6 mm for the grain size color code, model xbeqab, Extended Data Table 2). b, f, No slab segmentation in the model with 40 Myr old slab but with 2.5 times slower rate of faults weakening with strain (hmax = 10 mm, model xbes, Extended Data Table 2). c, g, Reference slab segmentation model with 40 Myr subducting plate and standard faults weakening (hmax = 6 mm, model xbeq, Fig. 1, Extended Data Table 2). d, h, Wider slab segments in the model with 100 Myr old slab and standard fault weakening (hmax = 10 mm, model xber, Extended Data Table 2). Mantle temperature is taken at present day values. Other parameters are the same as in the reference model (Fig. 1). Solid black lines indicate position of 1225 °C isotherm.

Extended Data Fig. 4 Influence of grain size evolution and faults weakening on subduction dynamics.

The distribution of the effective viscosity (left column, panels ad) and grain size in the mantle (right column, panels eh). a, e, Model with both fault weakening and grain size evolution (40 Myr old slab, model xbeqd, Extended Data Table 2). b, f, Model with fault weakening but without grain size evolution (40 Myr old slab, model xbeqda, Extended Data Table 2). c, g, Model with both fault weakening and grain size evolution (100 Myr old slab, model xbeqq, Extended Data Table 2). d, h, Model with grain size evolution but without fault weakening (100 Myr old slab, model xbeqs, Extended Data Table 2). Mantle potential temperature in a, b, e, f is 150 K higher than present day values. Other parameters are the same as in the reference model (Fig. 1). Solid black lines indicate position of 1225 °C isotherm.

Extended Data Fig. 5 Influence of pre-existing faults in the subducting plate on slab segmentation and subduction dynamics.

a, e, Model with 20 km spaced faults dipping toward the trench (model xbeql, Extended Data Table 2). b, f, Model with 10 km spaced faults dipping toward the trench (model xbeqm, Extended Data Table 2). c, g, Model with 5 km spaced faults dipping toward the trench (model xbeqn, Extended Data Table 2). d, h, Model with 10 km spaced faults dipping outward the trench (model xbeqo, Extended Data Table 2). Pre-existing faults are prescribed as 1 km wide and 14 km deep zones of weak basaltic crust and serpentinized mantle within stronger gabbroic crust and lithospheric mantle, respectively (Extended Data Table 1). Initial fault dip is 63°.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Gradual development of large-offset normal faults in the reference model (Fig. 1).

ad, Distribution of the plastic strain γ (regions with γ > 0.02 are shown) and mantle grain size in the lithosphere. Solid white line indicates position of the reference surface along which fault throws are evaluated (Methods). eh, Fault throw distribution for respective time steps shown in ad. Only faults with throw >20 m are considered.

Source data

Extended Data Fig. 7 Positions of five along-dip seismic tomography profiles (blue solid lines with circles) for the Japan slab analysed in Fig. 4c, d and Extended Data Fig. 8.

Colour code corresponds to slab upper surface based on seismicity depths from SLAB2.0 model74. Solid blue lines show positions of plate boundaries75.

Extended Data Fig. 8 Tomographic images for five analyzed (Fig. 4d, Methods) seismic tomography profiles of the Japan slab (Extended Data Fig. 7).

The distribution of vp (left column, panels ae) and vs (right column, panels fj) seismic velocity anomaly is based on the tomography model of Tao et al.13. Positions of segment boundaries (red triangles) defined along the middle-slab line (red solid lines) are inferred on the basis of visual inspection (Methods).

Extended Data Table 1 Physical properties of rocks58,59,60,61,62,63 used in numerical experiments
Extended Data Table 2 Conditions and results of numerical experiments

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Gerya, T.V., Bercovici, D. & Becker, T.W. Dynamic slab segmentation due to brittle–ductile damage in the outer rise. Nature 599, 245–250 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03937-x

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