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Concept: Oceanic trench


Sediments in deep ocean trenches may contain crucial information on past earthquake history and constitute important sites of carbon burial. Here we present 14C data on bulk organic carbon (OC) and its thermal decomposition fractions produced by ramped pyrolysis/oxidation for a core retrieved from the >7.5 km-deep Japan Trench. High-resolution 14C measurements, coupled with distinctive thermogram characteristics of OC, reveal hemipelagic sedimentation interrupted by episodic deposition of pre-aged OC in the trench. Low δ13C values and diverse 14C ages of thermal fractions imply that the latter material originates from the adjacent margin, and the co-occurrence of pre-aged OC with intervals corresponding to known earthquake events implies tectonically triggered, gravity-flow-driven supply. We show that 14C ages of thermal fractions can yield valuable chronological constraints on sedimentary sequences. Our findings shed new light on links between tectonically driven sedimentological processes and marine carbon cycling, with implications for carbon dynamics in hadal environments.

Concepts: Sediment, Sedimentary rock, Carbon, Ocean, Mariana Trench, Deep sea, Oceanic trench, Hadal zone


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


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


On 30 May 2015 an isolated deep earthquake (~670 km, Mw 7.9) occurred to the west of the Bonin Islands. To clarify its causal mechanism and its relationship to the subducting Pacific slab, we determined a detailed P-wave tomography of the deep earthquake source zone using a large number of arrival-time data. Our results show that this large deep event occurred within the subducting Pacific slab which is penetrating into the lower mantle. In the Izu-Bonin region, the Pacific slab is split at ~28° north latitude, i.e., slightly north of the 2015 deep event hypocenter. In the north the slab becomes stagnant in the mantle transition zone, whereas in the south the slab is directly penetrating into the lower mantle. This deep earthquake was caused by joint effects of several factors, including the Pacific slab’s fast deep subduction, slab tearing, slab thermal variation, stress changes and phase transformations in the slab, and complex interactions between the slab and the ambient mantle.

Concepts: Causality, Earth, Earthquake, Latitude, Crust, Subduction, Mantle convection, Oceanic trench


Plate-boundary fault rupture during the 2004 Sumatra-Andaman subduction earthquake extended closer to the trench than expected, increasing earthquake and tsunami size. International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 362 sampled incoming sediments offshore northern Sumatra, revealing recent release of fresh water within the deep sediments. Thermal modeling links this freshening to amorphous silica dehydration driven by rapid burial-induced temperature increases in the past 9 million years. Complete dehydration of silicates is expected before plate subduction, contrasting with prevailing models for subduction seismogenesis calling for fluid production during subduction. Shallow slip offshore Sumatra appears driven by diagenetic strengthening of deeply buried fault-forming sediments, contrasting with weakening proposed for the shallow Tohoku-Oki 2011 rupture, but our results are applicable to other thickly sedimented subduction zones including those with limited earthquake records.

Concepts: Water, Earth, Plate tectonics, Geology, Silicon dioxide, Earthquake, Subduction, Oceanic trench


Recent studies of slow earthquakes along plate boundaries have shown that tectonic tremor, low-frequency earthquakes, very-low-frequency events (VLFEs), and slow-slip events (SSEs) often accompany each other and appear to share common source faults. However, the source processes of slow events occurring in the shallow part of plate boundaries are not well known because seismic observations have been limited to land-based stations, which offer poor resolution beneath offshore plate boundaries. Here we use data obtained from seafloor observation networks in the Nankai trough, southwest of Japan, to investigate shallow VLFEs in detail. Coincident with the VLFE activity, signals indicative of shallow SSEs were detected by geodetic observations at seafloor borehole observatories in the same region. We find that the shallow VLFEs and SSEs share common source regions and almost identical time histories of moment release. We conclude that these slow events arise from the same fault slip and that VLFEs represent relatively high-frequency fluctuations of slip during SSEs.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Geology, Knowledge, Earthquake, Subduction, Convergent boundary, Oceanic trench


Subduction zones become congested when they try to consume buoyant, exotic crust. The accretionary mountain belts (orogens) that form at these convergent plate margins have been the principal sites of lateral continental growth through Earth’s history. Modern examples of accretionary margins are the North American Cordilleras and southwest Pacific subduction zones. The geologic record contains abundant accretionary orogens, such as the Tasmanides, along the eastern margin of the supercontinent Gondwana, and the Altaïdes, which formed on the southern margin of Laurasia. In modern and ancient examples of long-lived accretionary orogens, the overriding plate is subjected to episodes of crustal extension and back-arc basin development, often related to subduction rollback and transient episodes of orogenesis and crustal shortening, coincident with accretion of exotic crust. Here we present three-dimensional dynamic models that show how accretionary margins evolve from the initial collision, through a period of plate margin instability, to re-establishment of a stable convergent margin. The models illustrate how significant curvature of the orogenic system develops, as well as the mechanism for tectonic escape of the back-arc region. The complexity of the morphology and the evolution of the system are caused by lateral rollback of a tightly arcuate trench migrating parallel to the plate boundary and orthogonally to the convergence direction. We find geological and geophysical evidence for this process in the Tasmanides of eastern Australia, and infer that this is a recurrent and global phenomenon.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Geology, Gondwana, Subduction, Convergent boundary, Orogeny, Oceanic trench


Near-trench slip during large megathrust earthquakes (megaquakes) is an important factor in the generation of destructive tsunamis. We proposed a new approach to assessing the near-trench slip potential quantitatively by integrating laboratory-derived properties of fault materials and simulations of fault weakening and rupture propagation. Although the permeability of the sandy Nankai Trough materials are higher than that of the clayey materials from the Japan Trench, dynamic weakening by thermally pressurized fluid is greater at the Nankai Trough owing to higher friction, although initially overpressured fluid at the Nankai Trough restrains the fault weakening. Dynamic rupture simulations reproduced the large slip near the trench observed in the 2011 Tohoku-oki earthquake and predicted the possibility of a large slip of over 30 m for the impending megaquake at the Nankai Trough. Our integrative approach is applicable globally to subduction zones as a novel tool for the prediction of extreme tsunami-producing near-trench slip.

Concepts: Scientific method, Earth, Plate tectonics, Earthquake, Tsunami, 1964 Alaska earthquake, Subduction, Oceanic trench


Geodetic transients have been observed in various subduction zones. The 2011 Tohoku earthquake occurred in one of the most active subduction zones globally, the Japan Trench subduction zone (JTSZ). However, no geodetic transient (except afterslip and so on) had been reported in the JTSZ before the Tohoku earthquake. Here we show that a large transient event, with duration longer than any reported previously, occurred in the JTSZ preceding the Tohoku earthquake. We calculate tectonic deformations at Global Positioning System stations along the JTSZ by removing the effects of nearby Mw 6-8 earthquakes. We identify temporal changes in these deformations, deriving 9-year deviation records from regular deformations due to slip deficit at the plate boundary. We perform an inversion of the deviations to obtain the source model of their root event. The relationship between the obtained transient event and Tohoku earthquake is shown through Coulomb stress change and seismic supercycle simulation.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Earthquake, Subduction, Island arc, Convergent boundary, Pacific Ring of Fire, Oceanic trench


Since the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, multi-disciplinary observational studies have promoted our understanding of both the coseismic and long-term behaviour of the Japan Trench subduction zone. We also have suggestions for mechanical properties of the fault from the experimental side. In the present study, numerical models of earthquake sequences are presented, accounting for the experimental outcomes and being consistent with observations of both long-term and coseismic fault behaviour and thermal measurements. Among the constraints, a previous study of friction experiments for samples collected in the Japan Trench Fast Drilling Project (JFAST) showed complex rate dependences: a and a-b values change with the slip rate. In order to express such complexity, we generalize a rate- and state-dependent friction law to a quadratic form in terms of the logarithmic slip rate. The constraints from experiments reduced the degrees of freedom of the model significantly, and we managed to find a plausible model by changing only a few parameters. Although potential scale effects between lab experiments and natural faults are important problems, experimental data may be useful as a guide in exploring the huge model parameter space.This article is part of the themed issue ‘Faulting, friction and weakening: from slow to fast motion’.

Concepts: Time, Experiment, Hypothesis, Geology, Parameter, Earthquake, Subduction, Oceanic trench