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Concept: Subduction


The Earth’s engine is driven by unknown proportions of primordial energy and heat produced in radioactive decay. Unfortunately, competing models of Earth’s composition reveal an order of magnitude uncertainty in the amount of radiogenic power driving mantle dynamics. Recent measurements of the Earth’s flux of geoneutrinos, electron antineutrinos from terrestrial natural radioactivity, reveal the amount of uranium and thorium in the Earth and set limits on the residual proportion of primordial energy. Comparison of the flux measured at large underground neutrino experiments with geologically informed predictions of geoneutrino emission from the crust provide the critical test needed to define the mantle’s radiogenic power. Measurement at an oceanic location, distant from nuclear reactors and continental crust, would best reveal the mantle flux, however, no such experiment is anticipated. We predict the geoneutrino flux at the site of the Jinping Neutrino Experiment (Sichuan, China). Within 8 years, the combination of existing data and measurements from soon to come experiments, including Jinping, will exclude end-member models at the 1σ level, define the mantle’s radiogenic contribution to the surface heat loss, set limits on the composition of the silicate Earth, and provide significant parameter bounds for models defining the mode of mantle convection.

Concepts: Earth, Radioactive decay, Uranium, Neutrino, Mantle, Crust, Structure of the Earth, Subduction


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


Double seismic zones are two-layered distributions of intermediate-depth earthquakes that provide insight into the thermomechanical state of subducting slabs. We present new precise hypocenters of intermediate-depth earthquakes in the Tonga subduction zone obtained using data from local island-based, ocean-bottom, and global seismographs. The results show a downdip compressional upper plane and a downdip tensional lower plane with a separation of about 30 km. The double seismic zone in Tonga extends to a depth of about 300 km, deeper than in any other subduction system. This is due to the lower slab temperatures resulting from faster subduction, as indicated by a global trend toward deeper double seismic zones in colder slabs. In addition, a line of high seismicity in the upper plane is observed at a depth of 160 to 280 km, which shallows southward as the convergence rate decreases. Thermal modeling shows that the earthquakes in this “seismic belt” occur at various pressures but at a nearly constant temperature, highlighting the important role of temperature in triggering intermediate-depth earthquakes. This seismic belt may correspond to regions where the subducting mantle first reaches a temperature of ~500°C, implying that metamorphic dehydration of mantle minerals in the slab provides water to enhance faulting.

Concepts: Earth, Geology, Earthquake, Seismic wave, Seismology, Subduction, Outer Plane, Seismometer


The deformation at well-defined, narrow plate boundaries depends on the relative plate motion, but how the deformation takes place within a distributed plate boundary zone remains a conundrum. This was confirmed by the seismological analyses of the 2012 great Wharton Basin earthquakes [moment magnitude (Mw) 8.6], which suggested the rupture of several faults at high angles to one another. Using high-resolution bathymetry and seismic reflection data, we report the discovery of new N294°E-striking shear zones, oblique to the plate fabric. These shear zones are expressed by sets of normal faults striking at N335°E, defining the direction of the principal compressional stress in the region. Also, we have imaged left-lateral strike-slip faults along reactivated N7°E-oriented oceanic fracture zones. The shear zones and the reactivated fracture zones form a conjugate system of faults, which accommodate present-day intraplate deformation in the Wharton Basin.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Geology, Earthquake, Seismology, Subduction, Fault, Structural geology, Transform fault


The subduction zone in Northern Chile is a well identified seismic gap that last ruptured in 1877. The Mw 8.1 Iquique earthquake of 1 April 2014 broke a highly coupled portion of this gap. To understand the seismicity preceding this event, we studied the location and mechanisms of the foreshocks and computed GPS time series at stations located on-shore. Seismicity off-shore Iquique started to increase in January 2014. After 16 March several Mw > 6 events occurred near the low coupled zone. These events migrated northward for about 50 km until the 1 April earthquake occurred. On 16 March on-shore cGPS stations detected a westward motion that we model as a slow slip event situated in the same area where the mainshock occurred.

Concepts: Earth, Geology, Earthquake, Earthquake engineering, Seismic wave, Seismology, Subduction, Pacific Ring of Fire


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


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


On 14th November 2016, the northeastern South Island of New Zealand was struck by a major Mw 7.8 earthquake. Field observations, in conjunction with InSAR, GPS, and seismology reveal this to be one of the most complex earthquakes ever recorded. The rupture propagated northward for more than 170 km along both mapped and unmapped faults, before continuing offshore at its northeastern extent. Geodetic and field observations reveal surface ruptures along at least 12 major faults, including possible slip along the southern Hikurangi subduction interface, extensive uplift along much of the coastline and widespread anelastic deformation including the ~8 m uplift of a fault-bounded block. This complex earthquake defies many conventional assumptions about the degree to which earthquake ruptures are controlled by fault segmentation, and should motivate re-thinking of these issues in seismic hazard models.

Concepts: New Zealand, Geology, Earthquake, Earthquake engineering, Seismology, Geodesy, Subduction, Seismometer


Incorporation of subducted slab in arc volcanism plays an important role in producing the geochemical and isotopic variations in arc lavas. The mechanism and process by which the slab materials are incorporated, however, are still uncertain. Here, we report, to our knowledge, the first set of Mg isotopic data for a suite of arc lava samples from Martinique Island in the Lesser Antilles arc, which displays one of the most extreme geochemical and isotopic ranges, although the origin of this variability is still highly debated. We find the δ(26)Mg of the Martinique Island lavas varies from -0.25 to -0.10, in contrast to the narrow range that characterizes the mantle (-0.25 ± 0.04, 2 SD). These high δ(26)Mg values suggest the incorporation of isotopically heavy Mg from the subducted slab. The large contrast in MgO content between peridotite, basalt, and sediment makes direct mixing between sediment and peridotite, or assimilation by arc crust sediment, unlikely to be the main mechanism to modify Mg isotopes. Instead, the heavy Mg isotopic signature of the Martinique arc lavas requires that the overall composition of the mantle wedge is buffered and modified by the preferential addition of heavy Mg isotopes from fluids released from the altered subducted slab during fluid-mantle interaction. This, in turn, suggests transfer of a large amount of fluid-mobile elements from the subducting slab to the mantle wedge and makes Mg isotopes an excellent tracer of deep fluid migration.

Concepts: Isotope, Volcano, Basalt, Crust, Subduction, Volcanic arc, Geochemistry, Lesser Antilles


The mechanics of great subduction earthquakes are influenced by the frictional properties, structure, and composition of the plate-boundary fault. We present observations of the structure and composition of the shallow source fault of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake and tsunami from boreholes drilled by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program Expedition 343 and 343T. Logging-while-drilling and core-sample observations show a single major plate-boundary fault accommodated the large slip of the Tohoku-Oki earthquake rupture, as well as nearly all the cumulative interplate motion at the drill site. The localization of deformation onto a limited thickness (less than 5 meters) of pelagic clay is the defining characteristic of the shallow earthquake fault, suggesting that the pelagic clay may be a regionally important control on tsunamigenic earthquakes.

Concepts: Drill, Geology, Earthquake, Tsunami, Earthquake engineering, Subduction, Fault, Ocean Drilling Program