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Concept: Orogeny


Intermediate-depth earthquakes in cold subduction zones are observed within the subducting oceanic crust, as well as the mantle. In contrast, intermediate-depth earthquakes in hot subduction zones predominantly occur just below the Mohorovičić discontinuity. These observations have stimulated interest in relationships between blueschist-facies metamorphism and seismicity, particularly through dehydration reactions involving the mineral lawsonite. Here we conducted deformation experiments on lawsonite, while monitoring acoustic emissions, in a Griggs-type deformation apparatus. The temperature was increased above the thermal stability of lawsonite, while the sample was deforming, to test whether the lawsonite dehydration reaction induces unstable fault slip. In contrast to similar tests on antigorite, unstable fault slip (that is, stick-slip) occurred during dehydration reactions in the lawsonite and acoustic emission signals were continuously observed. Microstructural observations indicate that strain is highly localized along the fault (R1 and B shears), and that the fault surface develops slickensides (very smooth fault surfaces polished by frictional sliding). The unloading slope during the unstable slip follows the stiffness of the apparatus at all experimental conditions, regardless of the strain rate and temperature ramping rate. A thermomechanical scaling factor for the experiments is within the range estimated for natural subduction zones, indicating the potential for unstable frictional sliding within natural lawsonite layers.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Geology, Earthquake, Crust, Subduction, Orogeny


The crustal-scale geometry of the European Alps has been explained by a classical subduction-scenario comprising thrust-and-fold-related compressional wedge tectonics and isostatic rebound. However, massive blocks of crystalline basement (External Crystalline Massifs) vertically disrupt the upper-crustal wedge. In the case of the Aar massif, top basement vertically rises for >12 km and peak metamorphic temperatures increase along an orogen-perpendicular direction from 250 °C-450 °C over horizontal distances of only <15 km (Innertkirchen-Grimselpass), suggesting exhumation of midcrustal rocks with increasing uplift component along steep vertical shear zones. Here we demonstrate that delamination of European lower crust during lithosphere mantle rollback migrates northward in time. Simultaneously, the Aar massif as giant upper crustal block extrudes by buoyancy forces, while substantial volumes of lower crust accumulate underneath. Buoyancy-driven deformation generates dense networks of steep reverse faults as major structures interconnected by secondary branches with normal fault component, dissecting the entire crust up to the surface. Owing to rollback fading, the component of vertical motion reduces and is replaced by a late stage of orogenic compression as manifest by north-directed thrusting. Buoyancy-driven vertical tectonics and modest late shortening, combined with surface erosion, result in typical topographic and metamorphic gradients, which might represent general indicators for final stages of continent-continent collisions.

Concepts: Density, Earth, Plate tectonics, Force, Mantle, Crust, Geomorphology, Orogeny


The formation of the Tibetan plateau during the India-Asia collision remains an outstanding issue. Proposed models mostly focus on the different styles of Tibetan crustal deformation, yet these do not readily explain the observed variation of deformation and deep structures along the collisional zone. Here we use three-dimensional numerical models to evaluate the effects of crustal rheology on the formation of the Himalayan-Tibetan orogenic system. During convergence, a weaker Asian crust allows strain far north within the upper plate, where a wide continental plateau forms behind the orogeny. In contrast, a stronger Asian crust suppresses the plateau formation, while the orogeny accommodates most of the shortening. The stronger Asian lithosphere is also forced beneath the Indian lithosphere, forming a reversed-polarity underthrusting. Our results demonstrate that the observed variations in lithosphere deformation and structures along the India-Asia collision zone are primarily controlled by the strength heterogeneity of the Asian continental crust.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Continuum mechanics, Granite, Crust, Structure of the Earth, Subduction, Orogeny


Subduction along the western margin of South America has been active since the Jurassic, but Andean orogeny started in the middle Cretaceous and was preceded by backarc extension in the Jurassic-Early Cretaceous. The timing and sequence of these events has remained unexplained. Here I present a four-dimensional buoyancy-driven whole-mantle subduction model implying that the ~200 Myr geological evolution can be attributed to sinking of a wide slab into a layered mantle, where upper-mantle wide-slab subduction causes backarc extension, while whole-mantle (upper+lower) wide-slab subduction drives Andean orogeny. The model reproduces the maximum shortening and crustal thickness observed in the Central Andes and their progressive northward and southward decrease. The subduction evolution coincides with a 29° decrease in slab dip angle, explaining ~200 km of Jurassic-present eastward migration of the Central Andean magmatic arc. Such arc migration negates proposed long-term subduction erosion and continental destruction, but is consistent with long-term crustal growth.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Bee, South America, Cretaceous, Andes, Orogeny, Mantle plume


The geodynamic environment in which Earth’s first continents formed and were stabilized remains controversial. Most exposed continental crust that can be dated back to the Archaean eon (4 billion to 2.5 billion years ago) comprises tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite rocks (TTGs) that were formed through partial melting of hydrated low-magnesium basaltic rocks; notably, these TTGs have ‘arc-like’ signatures of trace elements and thus resemble the continental crust produced in modern subduction settings. In the East Pilbara Terrane, Western Australia, low-magnesium basalts of the Coucal Formation at the base of the Pilbara Supergroup have trace-element compositions that are consistent with these being source rocks for TTGs. These basalts may be the remnants of a thick (more than 35 kilometres thick), ancient (more than 3.5 billion years old) basaltic crust that is predicted to have existed if Archaean mantle temperatures were much hotter than today’s. Here, using phase equilibria modelling of the Coucal basalts, we confirm their suitability as TTG ‘parents’, and suggest that TTGs were produced by around 20 per cent to 30 per cent melting of the Coucal basalts along high geothermal gradients (of more than 700 degrees Celsius per gigapascal). We also analyse the trace-element composition of the Coucal basalts, and propose that these rocks were themselves derived from an earlier generation of high-magnesium basaltic rocks, suggesting that the arc-like signature in Archaean TTGs was inherited from an ancestral source lineage. This protracted, multistage process for the production and stabilization of the first continents-coupled with the high geothermal gradients-is incompatible with modern-style plate tectonics, and favours instead the formation of TTGs near the base of thick, plateau-like basaltic crust. Thus subduction was not required to produce TTGs in the early Archaean eon.

Concepts: Earth, Plate tectonics, Igneous rock, Basalt, Crust, Structure of the Earth, Subduction, Orogeny


Prior studies of Mesozoic biodiversity document a diversity peak for dinosaur species in the Campanian stage of the Late Cretaceous, yet have failed to provide explicit causal mechanisms. We provide evidence that a marked increase in North American dinosaur biodiversity can be attributed to dynamic orogenic episodes within the Western Interior Basin (WIB). Detailed fossil occurrences document an association between the shift from Sevier-style, latitudinally arrayed basins to smaller Laramide-style, longitudinally arrayed basins and a well substantiated decreased geographic range/increased taxonomic diversity of megaherbivorous dinosaur species. Dispersal-vicariance analysis demonstrates that the nearly identical biogeographic histories of the megaherbivorous dinosaur clades Ceratopsidae and Hadrosauridae are attributable to rapid diversification events within restricted basins and that isolation events are contemporaneous with known tectonic activity in the region. SymmeTREE analysis indicates that megaherbivorous dinosaur clades exhibited significant variation in diversification rates throughout the Late Cretaceous. Phylogenetic divergence estimates of fossil clades offer a new lower boundary on Laramide surficial deformation that precedes estimates based on sedimentological data alone.

Concepts: Evolution, Species, Plate tectonics, North America, Cretaceous, Dinosaur, Orogeny, Plesiosaur


Many of Earth’s great earthquakes occur on thrust faults. These earthquakes predominantly occur within subduction zones, such as the 2011 moment magnitude 9.0 eathquake in Tohoku-Oki, Japan, or along large collision zones, such as the 1999 moment magnitude 7.7 earthquake in Chi-Chi, Taiwan. Notably, these two earthquakes had a maximum slip that was very close to the surface. This contributed to the destructive tsunami that occurred during the Tohoku-Oki event and to the large amount of structural damage caused by the Chi-Chi event. The mechanism that results in such large slip near the surface is poorly understood as shallow parts of thrust faults are considered to be frictionally stable. Here we use earthquake rupture experiments to reveal the existence of a torquing mechanism of thrust fault ruptures near the free surface that causes them to unclamp and slip large distances. Complementary numerical modelling of the experiments confirms that the hanging-wall wedge undergoes pronounced rotation in one direction as the earthquake rupture approaches the free surface, and this torque is released as soon as the rupture breaks the free surface, resulting in the unclamping and violent ‘flapping’ of the hanging-wall wedge. Our results imply that the shallow extent of the seismogenic zone of a subducting interface is not fixed and can extend up to the trench during great earthquakes through a torquing mechanism.

Concepts: Causality, Earth, Plate tectonics, Earthquake, Tsunami, Subduction, Fault, Orogeny


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


Erosion, sediment production, and routing on a tectonically active continental margin reflect both tectonic and climatic processes; partitioning the relative importance of these processes remains controversial. Gulf of Alaska contains a preserved sedimentary record of the Yakutat Terrane collision with North America. Because tectonic convergence in the coastal St. Elias orogen has been roughly constant for 6 My, variations in its eroded sediments preserved in the offshore Surveyor Fan constrain a budget of tectonic material influx, erosion, and sediment output. Seismically imaged sediment volumes calibrated with chronologies derived from Integrated Ocean Drilling Program boreholes show that erosion accelerated in response to Northern Hemisphere glacial intensification (∼2.7 Ma) and that the 900-km-long Surveyor Channel inception appears to correlate with this event. However, tectonic influx exceeded integrated sediment efflux over the interval 2.8-1.2 Ma. Volumetric erosion accelerated following the onset of quasi-periodic (∼100-ky) glacial cycles in the mid-Pleistocene climate transition (1.2-0.7 Ma). Since then, erosion and transport of material out of the orogen has outpaced tectonic influx by 50-80%. Such a rapid net mass loss explains apparent increases in exhumation rates inferred onshore from exposure dates and mapped out-of-sequence fault patterns. The 1.2-My mass budget imbalance must relax back toward equilibrium in balance with tectonic influx over the timescale of orogenic wedge response (millions of years). The St. Elias Range provides a key example of how active orogenic systems respond to transient mass fluxes, and of the possible influence of climate-driven erosive processes that diverge from equilibrium on the million-year scale.

Concepts: Sediment, Climate, Sedimentary rock, Integral, Erosion, Northern Hemisphere, Orogeny, Ocean Drilling Program


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