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Concept: Convergent boundary


Serpentinization-fueled systems in the cool, hydrated forearc mantle of subduction zones may provide an environment that supports deep chemolithoautotrophic life. Here, we examine serpentinite clasts expelled from mud volcanoes above the Izu-Bonin-Mariana subduction zone forearc (Pacific Ocean) that contain complex organic matter and nanosized Ni-Fe alloys. Using time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry and Raman spectroscopy, we determined that the organic matter consists of a mixture of aliphatic and aromatic compounds and functional groups such as amides. Although an abiotic or subduction slab-derived fluid origin cannot be excluded, the similarities between the molecular signatures identified in the clasts and those of bacteria-derived biopolymers from other serpentinizing systems hint at the possibility of deep microbial life within the forearc. To test this hypothesis, we coupled the currently known temperature limit for life, 122 °C, with a heat conduction model that predicts a potential depth limit for life within the forearc at ∼10,000 m below the seafloor. This is deeper than the 122 °C isotherm in known oceanic serpentinizing regions and an order of magnitude deeper than the downhole temperature at the serpentinized Atlantis Massif oceanic core complex, Mid-Atlantic Ridge. We suggest that the organic-rich serpentinites may be indicators for microbial life deep within or below the mud volcano. Thus, the hydrated forearc mantle may represent one of Earth’s largest hidden microbial ecosystems. These types of protected ecosystems may have allowed the deep biosphere to thrive, despite violent phases during Earth’s history such as the late heavy bombardment and global mass extinctions.

Concepts: Spectroscopy, Earth, Plate tectonics, Geology, Earthquake, Volcano, Crust, Convergent boundary


Large earthquakes nucleate at tectonic plate boundaries, and their occurrence within a plate’s interior remains rare and poorly documented, especially offshore. The two large earthquakes that struck the northeastern Indian Ocean on 11 April 2012 are an exception: they are the largest strike-slip events reported in historical times and triggered large aftershocks worldwide. Yet they occurred within an intra-oceanic setting along the fossil fabric of the extinct Wharton basin, rather than on a discrete plate boundary. Here we show that the 11 April 2012 twin earthquakes are part of a continuing boost of the intraplate deformation between India and Australia that followed the Aceh 2004 and Nias 2005 megathrust earthquakes, subsequent to a stress transfer process recognized at other subduction zones. Using Coulomb stress change calculations, we show that the coseismic slips of the Aceh and Nias earthquakes can promote oceanic left-lateral strike-slip earthquakes on pre-existing meridian-aligned fault planes. We further show that persistent viscous relaxation in the asthenospheric mantle several years after the Aceh megathrust explains the time lag between the 2004 megathrust and the 2012 intraplate events. On a short timescale, the 2012 events provide new evidence for the interplay between megathrusts at the subduction interface and intraplate deformation offshore. On a longer geological timescale, the Australian plate, driven by slab-pull forces at the Sunda trench, is detaching from the Indian plate, which is subjected to resisting forces at the Himalayan front.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, Earthquake, Subduction, Island arc, Convergent boundary, Mantle convection


Carbon fluxes in subduction zones can be better constrained by including new estimates of carbon concentration in subducting mantle peridotites, consideration of carbonate solubility in aqueous fluid along subduction geotherms, and diapirism of carbon-bearing metasediments. Whereas previous studies concluded that about half the subducting carbon is returned to the convecting mantle, we find that relatively little carbon may be recycled. If so, input from subduction zones into the overlying plate is larger than output from arc volcanoes plus diffuse venting, and substantial quantities of carbon are stored in the mantle lithosphere and crust. Also, if the subduction zone carbon cycle is nearly closed on time scales of 5-10 Ma, then the carbon content of the mantle lithosphere + crust + ocean + atmosphere must be increasing. Such an increase is consistent with inferences from noble gas data. Carbon in diamonds, which may have been recycled into the convecting mantle, is a small fraction of the global carbon inventory.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Carbon, Geology, Earthquake, Crust, Subduction, Convergent boundary


Subduction-transform edge propagators are lithospheric tears bounding slabs and back-arc basins. The volcanism at these edges is enigmatic because it is lacking comprehensive geological and geophysical data. Here we present bathymetric, potential-field data, and direct observations of the seafloor on the 90 km long Palinuro volcanic chain overlapping the E-W striking tear of the roll-backing Ionian slab in Southern Tyrrhenian Sea. The volcanic chain includes arc-type central volcanoes and fissural, spreading-type centers emplaced along second-order shears. The volume of the volcanic chain is larger than that of the neighbor island-arc edifices and back-arc spreading center. Such large volume of magma is associated to an upwelling of the isotherms due to mantle melts upraising from the rear of the slab along the tear fault. The subduction-transform edge volcanism focuses localized spreading processes and its magnitude is underestimated. This volcanism characterizes the subduction settings associated to volcanic arcs and back-arc spreading centers.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Volcano, Sicily, Basalt, Island arc, Convergent boundary, Oceanic trench


Hydrothermal vent fields in the western Pacific Ocean are mostly distributed along spreading centers in submarine basins behind convergent plate boundaries. Larval dispersal resulting from deep-ocean circulations is one of the major factors influencing gene flow, diversity, and distributions of vent animals. By combining a biophysical model and deep-profiling float experiments, we quantify potential larval dispersal of vent species via ocean circulation in the western Pacific Ocean. We demonstrate that vent fields within back-arc basins could be well connected without particular directionality, whereas basin-to-basin dispersal is expected to occur infrequently, once in tens to hundreds of thousands of years, with clear dispersal barriers and directionality associated with ocean currents. The southwest Pacific vent complex, spanning more than 4,000 km, may be connected by the South Equatorial Current for species with a longer-than-average larval development time. Depending on larval dispersal depth, a strong western boundary current, the Kuroshio Current, could bridge vent fields from the Okinawa Trough to the Izu-Bonin Arc, which are 1,200 km apart. Outcomes of this study should help marine ecologists estimate gene flow among vent populations and design optimal marine conservation plans to protect one of the most unusual ecosystems on Earth.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Physical oceanography, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Marine debris, Ocean current, Convergent boundary, Ocean currents


The initiation of plate tectonics on Earth is a critical event in our planet’s history. The time lag between the first proto-subduction (about 4 billion years ago) and global tectonics (approximately 3 billion years ago) suggests that plates and plate boundaries became widespread over a period of 1 billion years. The reason for this time lag is unknown but fundamental to understanding the origin of plate tectonics. Here we suggest that when sufficient lithospheric damage (which promotes shear localization and long-lived weak zones) combines with transient mantle flow and migrating proto-subduction, it leads to the accumulation of weak plate boundaries and eventually to fully formed tectonic plates driven by subduction alone. We simulate this process using a grain evolution and damage mechanism with a composite rheology (which is compatible with field and laboratory observations of polycrystalline rocks), coupled to an idealized model of pressure-driven lithospheric flow in which a low-pressure zone is equivalent to the suction of convective downwellings. In the simplest case, for Earth-like conditions, a few successive rotations of the driving pressure field yield relic damaged weak zones that are inherited by the lithospheric flow to form a nearly perfect plate, with passive spreading and strike-slip margins that persist and localize further, even though flow is driven only by subduction. But for hotter surface conditions, such as those on Venus, accumulation and inheritance of damage is negligible; hence only subduction zones survive and plate tectonics does not spread, which corresponds to observations. After plates have developed, continued changes in driving forces, combined with inherited damage and weak zones, promote increased tectonic complexity, such as oblique subduction, strike-slip boundaries that are subparallel to plate motion, and spalling of minor plates.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Lithosphere, Subduction, Convergent boundary, Mantle convection, Oceanic trench, Oceanic crust


At subduction zones, the deep seismogenic transition from a frictionally locked to steady sliding interface is thought to primarily reflect changes in rheology and fluid pressure and is generally located offshore. The development of fluid pressures within a seismic low-velocity layer (LVL) remains poorly constrained due to the scarcity of dense, continuous onshore-offshore broadband seismic arrays. We image the subducting Juan de Fuca oceanic plate in northern Cascadia using onshore-offshore teleseismic data and find that the signature of the LVL does not extend into the locked zone. Thickening of the LVL down dip where viscous creep dominates suggests that it represents the development of an increasingly thick and fluid-rich shear zone, enabled by fluid production in subducting oceanic crust. Further down dip, episodic tremor, and slip events occur in a region inferred to have locally increased fluid pressures, in agreement with electrical resistivity structure and numerical models of fault slip.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Viscosity, Geology, Earthquake, Subduction, Convergent boundary, Oceanic crust, Continental crust


The notorious ~60° bend separating the Hawaiian and Emperor chains marked a prominent change in the motion of the Pacific plate at ~47 Ma (million years ago), but the origin of that change remains an outstanding controversy that bears on the nature of major plate reorganizations. Lesser known but equally significant is a conundrum posed by the pre-bend (~80 to 47 Ma) motion of the Pacific plate, which, according to conventional plate models, was directed toward a fast-spreading ridge, in contradiction to tectonic forcing expectations. Using constraints provided by seismic tomography, paleomagnetism, and continental margin geology, we demonstrate that two intraoceanic subduction zones spanned the width of the North Pacific Ocean in Late Cretaceous through Paleocene time, and we present a simple plate tectonic model that explains how those intraoceanic subduction zones shaped the ~80 to 47 Ma kinematic history of the Pacific realm and drove a major plate reorganization.

Concepts: Earth, United States, Plate tectonics, New Zealand, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Convergent boundary, Pacific Ring of Fire


Aftershocks are often triggered by static- and/or dynamic-stress changes caused by mainshocks. The relative importance of the two triggering mechanisms is controversial at near-to-intermediate distances. We detected and located 48 previously unidentified large early aftershocks triggered by earthquakes with magnitudes between ≥7 and 8 within a few fault lengths (approximately 300 kilometers), during times that high-amplitude surface waves arrive from the mainshock (less than 200 seconds). The observations indicate that near-to-intermediate-field dynamic triggering commonly exists and fundamentally promotes aftershock occurrence. The mainshocks and their nearby early aftershocks are located at major subduction zones and continental boundaries, and mainshocks with all types of faulting-mechanisms (normal, reverse, and strike-slip) can trigger early aftershocks.

Concepts: Geology, Earthquake, Earthquake prediction, Subduction, Fault, Convergent boundary, Aftershock, Seismology and earthquake terminology


Histories of vertical crustal motions at convergent margins offer fundamental insights into the relationship between interplate slip and permanent deformation. Moreover, past abrupt motions are proxies for potential tsunamigenic earthquakes and benefit hazard assessment. Well-dated records are required to understand the relationship between past earthquakes and Holocene vertical deformation. Here we measure elevations and (230)Th ages of in situ corals raised above the sea level in the western Solomon Islands to build an uplift event history overlying the seismogenic zone, extremely close to the trench (4-40 km). We find marked spatiotemporal heterogeneity in uplift from mid-Holocene to present: some areas accrue more permanent uplift than others. Thus, uplift imposed during the 1 April 2007 Mw 8.1 event may be retained in some locations but removed in others before the next megathrust rupture. This variability suggests significant changes in strain accumulation and the interplate thrust process from one event to the next.

Concepts: Earth, Geology, Solomon Islands, Earthquake, Deformation, Subduction, Convergent boundary, Orogeny