The subduction pulley: a new feature of plate tectonics

Geological map of part of the Italian Alps. The Sesia-Lanzo Zone is 6 in the Key: a – highly deformed gneisses; b – metasedimentary schists with granite intrusions; c – mafic rocks; d – mixed mantle and crystalline basement rocks. (Credit: M. Assanelli, Universita degli Studi di Milano)

To a first approximation, as they say, the basis of plate tectonics is that the lithosphere is divided up into discrete, rigid plates that are bounded by lines of divergent, convergent and sideways relative motions: constructive, destructive and conservative plate margins. These are characterised by zones of earthquakes whose senses of motion roughly correspond to the nature of each boundary: normal, reverse and strike-slip, respectively. The seismicity is mainly confined to the lithosphere in the cases of constructive and conservative boundaries (i.e. shallow) but extends as deep as 700 km into the mantle at destructive margins, thereby defining the subduction of lithosphere that remains cool enough to retain its rigidity. Although the definition assumes that there is no deformation within plates, in practice that does occur for a wide variety of reasons in the form of intra-plate seismicity, mainly within continental lithosphere. Oceanic plate interiors are much stronger and largely ‘follow the rules’; they are generally seismically quiet.

One important feature of plate tectonics is the creation of new subduction zones when an earlier one eventually ceases to function. Where these form in an oceanic setting volcanism in the overriding plate creates island arcs. They create precursors of new continental crust because the density of magmas forming the new lithosphere confers sufficient buoyancy for them to be more difficult to subduct. Eventually island arcs become accreted onto continental margins through subduction of the intervening oceanic lithosphere. Joining them in such ‘docking’ are microcontinents, small fragments spalled from much older continents because of the formation of new constructive plate margins within them. It might seem that arcs and microcontinents behave like passive rafts to form the complex assemblages of terranes that characterise continental mountain belts, such as those of western North America, the Himalaya and the Alps. Yet evidence has emerged that such docking is much more complicated (Gün, E. et al. 2021. Pre-collisional extension of microcontinental terranes by a subduction pulleyNature Geoscience, v. 14, online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-021-00746-9).

Erkan Gün and colleagues from the University of Toronto and Istanbul Technical University examined one of the terranes in the Italian Alps – the Sesia-Lanzo Zone (SLZ) – thought to have been a late-Carboniferous microcontinental fragment in the ocean that once separated Africa from Europe. When it accreted the SLZ was forced downwards to depths of up to 70 km and then popped up in the latter stages of the Alpine orogeny. It is now a high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphic complex, having reached eclogite facies during its evolution. Yet its original components, including granites that contain the high-pressure mineral jadeite instead of feldspar, are still recognisable. Decades of geological mapping have revealed that the SLZ sequence shows signs of large-scale extensional tectonics. Clearly that cannot have occurred after its incorporation into southern Europe, and must therefore have taken place prior to its docking. Similar features are present within the accreted microcontinental and island-arc terranes of Eastern Anatolia in Turkey. In fact, most large orogenic belts comprise hosts of accreted terranes that have been amalgamated into older continents.

An ‘engineering’ simplification of the subduction pulley. Different elements represent slab weight (slab pull force) transmitted through a pulley at the trench to a weak microcontinent and a strong oceanic lithosphere. (Credit: Gün et al., Fig. 4)

Lithospheric extension associated with convergent plate margins has been deduced widely in the form of back-arc basins. But these form in the plate being underidden by a subduction zone. Extension of the SLZ, however, must have taken place in the plate destined to be subducted. Gün et al. modelled the forces, lithospheric structure, deformation and tectonic consequences that may have operated to form the SLZ, for a variety of microcontinent sizes. The pull exerted by the subduction of oceanic lithosphere (slab pull) would exert extensional forces on the lithosphere as it approached the destructive plate boundary. Oceanic lithosphere is very strong and would remain intact, simply transmitting slab-pull force to the weaker continental lithosphere, which ultimately would be extended. This is what the authors call a subduction ‘pulley’ system. At some stage the microcontinent fails mechanically, part of it being detached to continue with the now broken slab down the subduction zone. The rest would become a terrane accreted to the overriding plate. Subduction at this site would stop because the linkage to the plate has broken. It may continue by being transferred to a new destructive margin ‘behind’ the accreted microcontinent. This would allow other weak continental and island-arc ‘passengers’ further out on the oceanic plate eventually to undergo much the same process.

The observed complexity of tectonic terranes in other vast assemblies of them, such as the northern Pacific coast of North America and in many more ancient orogenic belts, is probably as much a result of extension before accretion as the compressional deformation suffered afterwards. The theoretical work by Erkan Gün and colleagues will surely spur tectonicians to re-evaluate earlier models of orogenesis.

Note: Figure 2 in the paper by Gün et al. shows how the width (perpendicular to the subduction zone) affects the outcomes of the subduction pulley. View an animation of a subduction pulley

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