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Subduction

Diagram of the geological process of subduction

Subduction is a geological process that takes place at


convergent boundaries of tectonic plates where one
plate moves under another and is forced to sink due
to gravity into the mantle.[1] Regions where this
process occurs are known as subduction zones. Rates
of subduction are typically in centimeters per year,
with the average rate of convergence being
approximately two to eight centimeters per year
along most plate boundaries.[1]

Plates include both oceanic crust and continental


crust. Stable subduction zones involve the oceanic
lithosphere of one plate sliding beneath the
continental or oceanic lithosphere of another plate
due to the higher density of the oceanic lithosphere.
That is, the subducted lithosphere is always oceanic
while the overriding lithosphere may or may not be
oceanic. Subduction zones are sites that usually have
a high rate of volcanism and earthquakes.[2]
Furthermore, subduction zones develop belts of
deformation and metamorphism in the subducting
crust, whose exhumation is part of orogeny and also
leads to mountain building in addition to collisional
thickening.

General description
Subduction zones are sites of gravitational sinking of
Earth's lithosphere (the crust plus the top non-
convecting portion of the upper mantle).[3]
Subduction zones exist at convergent plate
boundaries where one plate of oceanic lithosphere
converges with another plate. The descending slab,
the subducting plate, is over-ridden by the leading
edge of the other plate. The slab sinks at an angle of
approximately twenty-five to forty-five degrees to
Earth's surface. This sinking is driven by the
temperature difference between the subducting
oceanic lithosphere and the surrounding mantle
asthenosphere, as the colder oceanic lithosphere has,
on average, a greater density. At a depth of greater
than 60 kilometers, the basalt of the oceanic crust is
converted to a metamorphic rock called eclogite. At
that point, the density of the oceanic crust increases
and provides additional negative buoyancy
(downwards force). It is at subduction zones that
Earth's lithosphere, oceanic crust and continental
crust, sedimentary layers and some trapped water are
recycled into the deep mantle.
Earth is so far the only planet where subduction is
known to occur. Subduction is the driving force behind
plate tectonics, and without it, plate tectonics could
not occur.

Oceanic subduction zones dive down into the mantle


beneath 55,000 kilometers of convergent plate
margins (Lallemand, 1999), almost equal to the
cumulative 60,000 kilometers of mid-ocean ridges.
Subduction zones burrow deeply, but are imperfectly
camouflaged, and geophysics and geochemistry can be
used to study them. Not surprisingly, the shallowest
portions of subduction zones are known best.
Subduction zones are strongly asymmetric for the
first several hundred kilometers of their descent. They
start to go down at oceanic trenches. Their descents
are marked by inclined zones of earthquakes that dip
away from the trench beneath the volcanoes and
extend down to the 660-kilometer discontinuity.
Subduction zones are defined by the inclined array of
earthquakes known as the Wadati–Benioff zone after
the two scientists who first identified this distinctive
aspect. Subduction zone earthquakes occur at
greater depths (up to 600 km) than elsewhere on
Earth (typically less than 20 km depth); such deep
earthquakes may be driven by deep phase
transformations, thermal runaway, or dehydration
embrittlement.[4][5]

The subducting basalt and sediment are normally rich


in hydrous minerals and clays. Additionally, large
quantities of water are introduced into cracks and
fractures created as the subducting slab bends
downward.[6] During the transition from basalt to
eclogite, these hydrous materials break down,
producing copious quantities of water, which at such
great pressure and temperature exists as a
supercritical fluid. The supercritical water, which is hot
and more buoyant than the surrounding rock, rises
into the overlying mantle where it lowers the pressure
in (and thus the melting temperature of) the mantle
rock to the point of actual melting, generating magma.
The magmas, in turn, rise (and become labeled diapirs)
because they are less dense than the rocks of the
mantle. The mantle-derived magmas (which are
basaltic in composition) can continue to rise,
ultimately to Earth's surface, resulting in a volcanic
eruption. The chemical composition of the erupting
lava depends upon the degree to which the mantle-
derived basalt interacts with (melts) Earth's crust
and/or undergoes fractional crystallization.

Above subduction zones, volcanoes exist in long


chains called volcanic arcs. Volcanoes that exist along
arcs tend to produce dangerous eruptions because
they are rich in water (from the slab and sediments)
and tend to be extremely explosive. Krakatoa, Nevado
del Ruiz, and Mount Vesuvius are all examples of arc
volcanoes. Arcs are also known to be associated with
precious metals such as gold, silver and copper
believed to be carried by water and concentrated in
and around their host volcanoes in rock called "ore".

Theory on origin
Initiation

Although the process of subduction as it occurs


today is fairly well understood, its origin remains a
matter of discussion and continuing study. Subduction
initiation can occur spontaneously if denser oceanic
lithosphere is able to founder and sink beneath
adjacent oceanic or continental lithosphere;
alternatively, existing plate motions can induce new
subduction zones by forcing oceanic lithosphere to
rupture and sink into the asthenosphere.[7] Both
models can eventually yield self-sustaining subduction
zones, as oceanic crust is metamorphosed at great
depth and becomes denser than the surrounding
mantle rocks. Results from numerical models generally
favor induced subduction initiation for most modern
subduction zones,[8][9] which is supported by geologic
studies,[10][11] but other analogue modeling shows the
possibility of spontaneous subduction from inherent
density differences between two plates at passive
margins,[12][13] and observations from the Izu-Bonin-
Mariana subduction system are compatible with
spontaneous subduction nucleation.[14][15]
Furthermore, subduction is likely to have
spontaneously initiated at some point in Earth's
history, as induced subduction nucleation requires
existing plate motions, though an unorthodox
proposal by A. Yin suggests that meteorite impacts
may have contributed to subduction initiation on early
Earth.[16]

Geophysicist Don L. Anderson has hypothesized that


plate tectonics could not happen without the calcium
carbonate laid down by bioforms at the edges of
subduction zones. The massive weight of these
sediments could be softening the underlying rocks,
making them pliable enough to plunge.[17]

Modern-style subduction
Modern-style subduction is characterized by low
geothermal gradients and the associated formation of
high-pressure low temperature rocks such as eclogite
and blueschist.[18][19] Likewise, rock assemblages
called ophiolites, associated to modern-style
subduction, also indicate such conditions.[18] Eclogite
xenoliths found in the North China Craton provide
evidence that modern-style subduction occurred at
least as early as 1.8 Ga ago in the Paleoproterozoic
Era.[18] Nevertheless, the eclogite itself was produced
by oceanic subdcution during the assembly of
supercontinents at about 1.9–2.0 Ga.

Blueschist is a rock typical for present-day subduction


settings. Absence of blueschist older than
Neoproterozoic reflect more magnesium-rich
compositions of Earth's oceanic crust during that
period.[20] These more magnesium-rich rocks
metamorphose into greenschist at conditions when
modern oceanic crust rocks metamorphose into
blueschist.[20] The ancient magnesium-rich rocks
means that Earth's mantle was once hotter, but not
that subduction conditions were hotter. Previously,
lack of pre-Neoproterozoic blueschist was thought to
indicate a different type of subduction.[20] Both lines
of evidence refutes previous conceptions of modern-
style subduction having been initiated in the
Neoproterozoic Era 1.0 Ga ago.[18][20]

Effects
Metamorphism
Volcanic activity

Oceanic plates are subducted creating oceanic trenches.

Volcanoes that occur above subduction zones, such


as Mount St. Helens, Mount Etna and Mount Fuji, lie at
approximately one hundred kilometers from the trench
in arcuate chains, hence the term volcanic arc. Two
kinds of arcs are generally observed on Earth: island
arcs that form on oceanic lithosphere (for example,
the Mariana and the Tonga island arcs), and
continental arcs such as the Cascade Volcanic Arc,
that form along the coast of continents. Island arcs
are produced by the subduction of oceanic lithosphere
beneath another oceanic lithosphere (ocean-ocean
subduction) while continental arcs formed during
subduction of oceanic lithosphere beneath a
continental lithosphere (ocean-continent subduction).
An example of a volcanic arc having both island and
continental arc sections is found behind the Aleutian
Trench subduction zone in Alaska.

The arc magmatism occurs one hundred to two


hundred kilometers from the trench and approximately
one hundred kilometers above the subducting slab.
This depth of arc magma generation is the
consequence of the interaction between hydrous
fluids, released from the subducting slab, and the arc
mantle wedge that is hot enough to melt with the
addition of water. It has also been suggested that the
mixing of fluids from a subducted tectonic plate and
melted sediment is already occurring at the top of the
slab before any mixing with the mantle takes place.[21]

Arcs produce about 25% of the total volume of


magma produced each year on Earth (approximately
thirty to thirty-five cubic kilometers), much less than
the volume produced at mid-ocean ridges, and they
contribute to the formation of new continental crust.
Arc volcanism has the greatest impact on humans,
because many arc volcanoes lie above sea level and
erupt violently. Aerosols injected into the
stratosphere during violent eruptions can cause rapid
cooling of Earth's climate and affect air travel.

Earthquakes and tsunamis

The strains caused by plate convergence in


subduction zones cause at least three types of
earthquakes. Earthquakes mainly propagate in the cold
subducting slab and define the Wadati–Benioff zone.
Seismicity shows that the slab can be tracked down
to the upper mantle/lower mantle boundary
(approximately six hundred kilometer depth).

Nine of the ten largest earthquakes of the last 100


years were subduction zone events, which included
the 1960 Great Chilean earthquake, which, at M 9.5,
was the largest earthquake ever recorded; the 2004
Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami; and the 2011
Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami. The subduction of
cold oceanic crust into the mantle depresses the local
geothermal gradient and causes a larger portion of
Earth to deform in a more brittle fashion than it would
in a normal geothermal gradient setting. Because
earthquakes can occur only when a rock is deforming
in a brittle fashion, subduction zones can cause large
earthquakes. If such a quake causes rapid deformation
of the sea floor, there is potential for tsunamis, such
as the earthquake caused by subduction of the Indo-
Australian Plate under the Euro-Asian Plate on
December 26, 2004 that devastated the areas around
the Indian Ocean. Small tremors which cause small,
nondamaging tsunamis, also occur frequently.
A study published in 2016 suggested a new parameter
to determine a subduction zone's ability to generate
mega-earthquakes.[22] By examining subduction zone
geometry and comparing the degree of curvature of
the subducting plates in great historical earthquakes
such as the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman and the 2011
Tōhoku earthquake, it was determined that the
magnitude of earthquakes in subduction zones is
inversely proportional to the degree of the fault's
curvature, meaning that "the flatter the contact
between the two plates, the more likely it is that
mega-earthquakes will occur."[23]

Outer rise earthquakes occur when normal faults


oceanward of the subduction zone are activated by
flexure of the plate as it bends into the subduction
zone.[24] The 2009 Samoa earthquake is an example
of this type of event. Displacement of the sea floor
caused by this event generated a six-meter tsunami in
nearby Samoa.

Anomalously deep events are a characteristic of


subduction zones, which produce the deepest quakes
on the planet. Earthquakes are generally restricted to
the shallow, brittle parts of the crust, generally at
depths of less than twenty kilometers. However, in
subduction zones, quakes occur at depths as great as
seven hundred kilometers. These quakes define
inclined zones of seismicity known as Wadati–Benioff
zones which trace the descending lithosphere. Seismic
tomography has helped detect subducted lithosphere,
slabs, deep in the mantle where there are no
earthquakes. About one hundred slabs have been
described in terms of depth and their timing and
location of subduction.[25] Some subducted slabs
seem to have difficulty penetrating the major
discontinuity in the mantle, marking the boundary
between the upper mantle and lower mantle, that lies
at a depth of about 670 kilometers. Other subducted
oceanic plates can penetrate all the way to the core-
mantle boundary. The great seismic discontinuities in
the mantle, at 410 and 670 kilometer depth, are
disrupted by the descent of cold slabs in deep
subduction zones.

Orogeny
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Orogeny is the process of mountain building.


Subducting plates can lead to orogeny by bringing
oceanic islands, oceanic plateaus, and sediments to
convergent margins. The material often does not
subduct with the rest of the plate but instead is
accreted (scraped off) to the continent resulting in
exotic terranes. The collision of this oceanic material
causes crustal thickening and mountain-building. The
accreted material is often referred to as an
accretionary wedge, or prism. These accretionary
wedges can be identified by ophiolites (uplifted ocean
crust consisting of sediments, pillow basalts, sheeted
dykes, gabbro, and peridotite).[26]
Subduction may also cause orogeny without bringing
in oceanic material that collides with the overriding
continent. When the subducting plate subducts at a
shallow angle underneath a continent (something
called "flat-slab subduction"), the subducting plate may
have enough traction on the bottom of the
continental plate to cause the upper plate to contract
leading to folding, faulting, crustal thickening and
mountain building. This flat-slab subduction process is
thought to be one of the main causes of mountain
building and deformation in South America.

The processes described above allow subduction to


continue while mountain building happens
progressively, which is in contrast to continent-
continent collision orogeny, which often leads to the
termination of subduction.

Subduction angle
Subduction typically occurs at a moderately steep
angle right at the point of the convergent plate
boundary. However, anomalous shallower angles of
subduction are known to exist as well some that are
extremely steep.[27]

Flat-slab subduction (subducting angle less than


30°) occurs when subducting lithosphere, called a
slab, subducts nearly horizontally. The relatively flat
slab can extend for hundreds of kilometers. That is
abnormal, as the dense slab typically sinks at a
much steeper angle directly at the subduction zone.
Because subduction of slabs to depth is necessary
to drive subduction zone volcanism (through the
destabilization and dewatering of minerals and the
resultant flux melting of the mantle wedge), flat-
slab subduction can be invoked to explain volcanic
gaps. Flat-slab subduction is ongoing beneath part
of the Andes causing segmentation of the Andean
Volcanic Belt into four zones. The flat-slab
subduction in northern Peru and Norte Chico region
of Chile is believed to be the result of the
subduction of two buoyant aseismic ridges, the
Nazca Ridge and the Juan Fernández Ridge
respectively. Around Taitao Peninsula flat-slab
subduction is attributed to the subduction of the
Chile Rise, a spreading ridge. The Laramide Orogeny
in the Rocky Mountains of United States is
attributed to flat-slab subduction.[28] Then, a broad
volcanic gap appeared at the southwestern margin
of North America, and deformation occurred much
farther inland; it was during this time that the
basement-cored mountain ranges of Colorado,
Utah, Wyoming, South Dakota, and New Mexico
came into being. The most massive subduction
zone earthquakes, so-called "megaquakes", have
been found to occur in flat-slab subduction
zones.[29]
Steep-angle subduction (subducting angle greater
than 70°) occurs in subduction zones where Earth's
oceanic crust and lithosphere are old and thick and
have, therefore, lost buoyancy. The steepest
dipping subduction zone lies in the Mariana Trench,
which is also where the oceanic crust, of Jurassic
age, is the oldest on Earth exempting ophiolites.
Steep-angle subduction is, in contrast to flat-slab
subduction, associated with back-arc extension[30]
of crust making volcanic arcs and fragments of
continental crust wander away from continents
over geological times leaving behind a marginal sea.

Importance
Subduction zones are important for several reasons:

1. Subduction Zone Physics: Sinking of the oceanic


lithosphere (sediments, crust, mantle), by
contrast of density between the cold and old
lithosphere and the hot asthenospheric mantle
wedge, is the strongest force (but not the only
one) needed to drive plate motion and is the
dominant mode of mantle convection.
2. Subduction Zone Chemistry: The subducted
sediments and crust dehydrate and release
water-rich (aqueous) fluids into the overlying
mantle, causing mantle melting and
fractionation of elements between surface and
deep mantle reservoirs, producing island arcs
and continental crust.
3. Subduction zones drag down subducted
oceanic sediments, oceanic crust, and mantle
lithosphere that interact with the hot
asthenospheric mantle from the over-riding
plate to produce calc-alkaline series melts, ore
deposits, and continental crust.
4. Subduction zones pose significant threats to
lives, property, economic vitality, cultural and
natural resources, as well as quality of life. The
tremendous magnitudes of earthquakes or
volcanic eruptions can also have knock-on
effects with global impact.[31]

Subduction zones have also been considered as


possible disposal sites for nuclear waste in which the
action of subduction itself would carry the material
into the planetary mantle, safely away from any
possible influence on humanity or the surface
environment. However, that method of disposal is
currently banned by international
agreement.[32][33][34][35] Furthermore, plate
subduction zones are associated with very large
megathrust earthquakes, making the effects on using
any specific site for disposal unpredictable and
possibly adverse to the safety of longterm
disposal.[33]

See also
Plate tectonics – The scientific theory that
describes the large-scale motions of Earth's
lithosphere
Divergent boundary – Linear feature that exists
between two tectonic plates that are moving
away from each other
Back-arc basin – Submarine features associated
with island arcs and subduction zones
Divergent double subduction – Two parallel
subduction zones with different directions are
developed on the same oceanic plate
List of tectonic plate interactions – Definitions and
examples of the interactions between the relatively
mobile sections of the lithosphere
Obduction – The overthrusting of oceanic
lithosphere onto continental lithosphere at a
convergent plate boundary
Oceanic trench – Long and narrow depressions of
the sea floor
Paired metamorphic belts – Sets of parallel linear
rock units that display contrasting metamorphic
mineral assemblages
Slab window – A gap that forms in a subducted
oceanic plate when a mid-ocean ridge meets with a
subduction zone and the ridge is subducted

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External links

Wikimedia Commons has media related to


Subduction.

The Wikibook Historical Geology has a page on


the topic of: Subduction
Look up subduction in Wiktionary, the free
dictionary.

Animation of a subduction zone.


From the Seafloor to the Volcano's Top Video
about the work of the Collaborative Research
Center (SFB) 574 Volatiles and Fluids in Subduction
Zones in Chile by GEOMAR I Helmholtz Centre for
Ocean Research Kiel.
Plate Tectonics Basics 1 - Creation and Destruction
of Oceanic Lithosphere , University of Texas at
Dallas (~ 9 minutes long).

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