Atlantic subduction due soon!

Rio de Janeiro
Rio de Janeiro, a threatened city? Image by Alcindo Correa Filho via Flickr

Earthquake prediction has not had a good record, but it seems that vastly larger tectonic processes are now becoming the subject of risk analysis (Nikolaeva, K. et al. 2011. Numerical analysis of subduction initiation risk along the Atlantic American passive margins. Geology, v. 39, p. 463-466). The Swiss, Russian and Portuguese authors focus on the old (Jurassic ~170 Ma) and presumably cold oceanic lithosphere on the western flank of the Atlantic, against both the North and South American continents. Increased density with ageing imparts a potential downwards force, but that has to overcome resistance to plate failure at passive margins. The dominance of upper continental lithosphere by rheologically weak quartz tends to make it more likely to fail than more or less quartz-free oceanic lithosphere. So, if subduction at a passive continental margin is to take place, then where and when it begins depends on the nature of the abutting continental lithosphere. That on the Atlantic’s western flank varies a lot, ranging from 75-150 km thick. Consequently the temperature at the Moho, the junction between continental lithosphere and weaker asthenosphere, varies too. The loading by marginal sedimentation also plays a role, as do continent-wide forces associated with far-distant mountain ranges, such as the Western Cordillera and Andes, and the forces from opposed sea-floor spreading from the Juan de Fuca and East Pacific systems that affect the whole of western South America, most of Central America and the far NW of North America.

Analysing all pertinent forces acting along 9 lines of section through both North and South America, the authors’ focus fell on the relatively thin continental lithosphere of the Atlantic margin of South America. It is at its thinnest along the southernmost part of the margin adjacent to Brazil, where the Moho temperature reaches as high as 735°C: the weakest link in the American continental lithosphere, where there is seismicity and also indications of igneous activity. The modelling suggests that incipient deformation may begin off southern Brazil within 4 Ma to form a zone of overthrusting, eventually evolving towards failure of the ocean-continent interface and the start of proper subduction in the succeeding 20 Ma. Other stretches of the eastern Americas are deemed safe from subduction for considerably longer by virtue of their greater thickness, lower Moho temperatures and thus higher strength. It is an interesting situation because, insofar as I understand plate tectonics, extensional or compressional failure needed to generate plate boundaries must also propagate from the weak spots that first fail; plate boundaries are lines not points. If that does not happen, then the very strength of the overwhelming longer continent-ocean interface will surely prevent subduction at a single, albeit weak link.

Paper PDF at

Bouncing back from the deep

Eclogite from Norway. Image by kevinzim via Flickr

Because the average density of the rocks making up the continental crust is about 2.7 t m-3 while that of the mantle is greater than 3.0 t m-3 it might seem as though continents cannot be subducted. Indeed, that was one of the first principles of plate tectonics, which would account for continental crust dating back to 4000 Ma, whereas there is no oceanic crust older than about 150 Ma. In the southern foothills of the Alps in Piemonte, Italy is a site which refutes the hypothesis in a stunning fashion. The minor ski resort of Monte Mucrone is backed by cliffs in what to all appearances is a common-or-garden granite: it even seems to contain phenocrysts of plagioclase feldspar. Microscopic examination of the megacrysts reveals them to be made up of a complex intergrowth between jadeite, a high-pressure sodic pyroxene, and quartz. This is exactly what should form if albite, the sodium-rich kind of plagioclase feldspar, if it descended to depths over 70 km below the surface, i.e. to mantle depths.

Monte Mucrone proves that continental materials can be subducted, but also reveals that these granites popped back up again when the forces of subduction were relieved at the end of the Alpine orogeny. Other examples have since turned up, but few so spectacular as continental rocks from Switzerland (Herwartz, D. et al. 2011. Tracing two orogenic cycles in one eclogite sample by Lu-Hf garnet chronometry. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 178-183). The Adula nappe of the Swiss Lepontine Alps consists of granitoid gneisses and metasediments of continental affinities, associated with mafic and ultramafic metamorphic rocks. The mafic rocks include eclogites typical of high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism characteristic of subduction. Their minerals record formation temperatures around 680°C at a depth of more than more than 80 km. Eclogites are beautiful green and red rocks containing high-pressure omphacite pyroxene and pyrope garnet. Garnets generally contain abundant rare-earth elements especially those with the highest atomic numbers. One of these is lutetium (Lu) that has a radioactive isotope 176Lu with a half-life of 3.78×1010 years to yield a daughter isotope of hafnium 176Hf; garnets can be dated using this method. Garnets are frequently zoned, and the Adula eclogites clearly show several generations of zonation. Zoning can form as metamorphic conditions change, so in itself is not unusual, but dating different generations is. The German team from the Universities of Bonn, Cologne and Münster found that the garnets defined two distinct isochrons, one of Variscan age of just over 330 Ma, the other Alpine around 38 Ma. Clearly the pre-Variscan crust (probably once part of the African continent) had been subducted twice but had wrested itself clear of the mantle’s clutches on both occasions, each time remaining more or less intact. One idea that stems from this coincidence is that the Variscan mountain belt that formed at the earlier subduction zone subsequently split at its high P – low T core, so that the eclogites lay at a new continental margin and could suffer the same extreme compression when new subduction began there.

It also turns out that the region in which  Monte Mucrone lies, the Sesia zone of the Western Alps, also records a double whammy of continental subduction, but a repetition that occurred during the early events of the  Alpine orogeny (Rubatto, D. et al. 2011. Yo-yo subduction recorded by accessory minerals in the Italian Western Alps. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 338-342). The team of Australian, Swiss and Italian geologists focused on the P-T record preserved in zoned garnets, allanites and zircons and evidence for two generation of white micas in eclogites and blueschists. Backed by U-Pb dating of zircon and allanite zones, the authots uncovered two episodes of deep subduction separated by period of rapid exhumation over the period between 79 to 65 Ma ago. The double subduction took place while the African plate converged obliquely with Eurasia; a strike-slip configuration that probably resulted in large-scale switches from compression to extension.

See also: Bruekner, H.K. 2011. Double-dunk tectonics. Nature Geoscience, v. 4, p. 136-138