New ideas on how subduction works

Nowadays, plate tectonics is thought mainly to be driven by the sinking of old, relatively cold and dense oceanic lithosphere at subduction zones: slab-pull force dominates the current behaviour of the outermost Earth. At the eastern edge of Eurasia subduction beneath Japan has yet to consume Pacific Ocean lithosphere younger than 180 Ma (Middle Jurassic). The Pacific Plate extends eastwards from there for over 7000 km to its source at the East Pacific Rise. That spreading axis has disappeared quite recently beneath the North American Plate between Baha California and northern California. It has been subducted. Since, to a first approximation, sea-floor spreading is at the same pace either side of mid-ocean constructive plate margins, subduction at the western edge of the North America has consumed at least 7000 km of old ocean lithosphere. Slab-pull force there has been sustained for probably more than 250 Ma. As a result several former island arcs have been plastered onto the leading edge of the North American Plate to create the geological complexity of its western states. If at any time the weight of the subducting slab had caused it leading edge literally to snap and fall independently wouldn’t that have decreased slab-pull force or shut it off, and spreading at the East Pacific Rise, altogether? No, says the vast expanse of the West Pacific plate

That dichotomy once encouraged scientists of the plate-tectonic era to assume that a subducted slab remains as strong as rigid plates at the surface. They believed that subduction merely bends a plate so that it can slide into the mantle. The use of seismic waves (seismic tomography) to peer into the mantle has revealed a far more complex situation. Beneath North America traces of subducted slabs are highly deformed and must have lost their rigidity, yet they still maintain slab-pull force. Three geoscientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland, and the University of Texas at Austin, USA (Gerya T. V., Becovici, D. & Becker, T.W. 2021. Dynamic slab segmentation due to brittle–ductile damage in the outer rise. Nature, v. 599, p 245-250; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03937-x) used computer-generated models of how various forces and temperature conditions at small and large scales bear on the behaviour of slabs being subducted. Where a plate bends into a subduction zone its rigidity results in cracking and faulting of its no convex upper surface, while the base is compressed. Seismic anomalies in the descending slab reflect the formation of pulled-apart segments, similar to those in a bar of chocolate (for a possible example from an exhumed subduction zone see: A drop off the old block? May 2008). Thermo-mechanical modelling suggests that the slab becomes distinctly weakened through brittle damage and by reduction in grain size because of ductile deformation, yet each segment maintains a high viscosity relative to the surrounding mantle rocks. Under present conditions and those extrapolated back into the Proterozoic, where the slab is thinned between segments it remains sufficiently viscous to avoid segments detaching to sink independently of one another. Such delamination would reduce slab-pull force. Another process operates in the surrounding mantle. The occurrence of earthquakes in a subducted slab down to a depth of about 660 km – the level of a major discontinuity in the mantle where pressure induces a change in its mineralogy and density – confirms that a modern slab maintains some rigidity and deforms in a brittle fashion. But at this depth it cannot continue to descend steeply and travels horizontally along the discontinuity, pushed by the more shallow subduction. It can now become buckled as the mantle resists its lateral motion.

Left: the subduction zone beneath Japan defined by seismic tomography (yellow to red = lower seismic wave speeds – more ductile; yellow to blue = higher speeds – more rigid). Right: modelled evolution of viscosity in a similar subduction zone under modern conditions showing slab segmentation (blue to brown = increasing viscosity). (Credit: Gerya et al., Figs 4c & 1a-e)

Rather than trying to mimic the chaos beneath North America the authors compared their results with seismic tomography of the younger system of westward subduction beneath Japan. This allowed them to ‘calibrate’ their modelling against actual deep structure well-defined by seismic tomography. The tectonic jumble beneath North America probably resulted from a much longer history of eastwards subduction. The complexity there may be explained by successive foundering of deformed slabs into the deeper mantle looking a bit like a sheet of still viscous pie pastry dropped on its edge. This happened, perhaps, as island arcs that had formed in the eastern Pacific sporadically accreted to the continent as the intervening oceanic lithosphere was subducted.   

There is ample evidence that modern-style subduction was widespread back as far as the Palaeoproterozoic. But in the Archaean the evidence is fitful: some hints of subduction, but plenty of contrary evidence.  Gerya and co-workers suggest that higher heat production from radioactive decay mantle earlier in Earth’s history would have reduced plate strength and mantle resistance to slab penetration. Subduction may have occurred but was interrupted repeatedly by foundering/delamination of individual detached segments at much shallower depths. That implies weaker as well as intermittent slab pull, or even further back its complete absence, so that planetary recycling would then have required other mechanisms, such as ‘drip tectonics’.

See also: Crushed resistance: Tectonic plate sinking into a subduction zone and Fate of sinking tectonic plates is revealed, Science Daily, 11 November 2021

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