Slab pull and the seismotectonics of subducting lithosphere

Reviews of Geophysics




This synthesis links many seismic and tectonic processes at subduction zones, including great subduction earthquakes, to the sinking of subducted plate. Earthquake data and tectonic modeling for subduction zones indicate that the slab pull force is much larger than the ridge push force. Interactions between the forces that drive and resist plate motions cause spatially and temporally localized stresses that lead to characteristic earthquake activity, providing details on how subduction occurs. Compression is localized across a locked interface thrust zone, because both the ridge push and the slab pull forces are resisted there. The slab pull force increases with increasing plate age; thus because the slab pull force tends to bend subducted plate downward and decrease the force acting normal to the interface thrust zone, the characteristic maximum earthquake at a given interface thrust zone is inversely related to the age of the subducted plate. The 1960 Chile earthquake (Mw 9.5), the largest earthquake to occur in historic times, began its rupture at an interface bounding oceanic plate <30 m.y. old. However, this rupture initiation was associated with the locally oldest subducting lithosphere (weakest coupling); the rupture propagated southward along an interface bounding progressively younger oceanic lithosphere, terminating near the subducting Chile Rise. Prior to a great subduction earthquake, the sinking subducted slab will cause increased tension at depths of 50–200 km, with greatest tension near the shallow zone resisting plate subduction. Plate sinking not only leads to compressional stresses at a locked interface thrust zone but may load compressional stresses at plate depths of 260–350 km, provided that the shallow sinking occurs faster than the relaxation time of the deeper mantle. This explains K. Mogi's observations of M ≥ 7 thrust earthquakes at depths of 260–350 km, immediately downdip and within 3 years prior to five great, shallow earthquakes of northern Japan. The slab pull model explains the lower layer of double seismic zones as due to tension from the deeper, sinking plate and the upper layer as due to localized in-plate compression, as plate motion is resisted by the bounding mantle. Just downdip of the interface thrust zone, there occurs an aseismic 20°–50° dip increase of subducted plate. This slab bend reflects the summed slab pull force of deeper plate and probably is at the crustal basalt to eclogite phase change. Resistance to subduction provided by a continually developing slab bend may be an important factor in the size of slab pull force delivered to an interface thrust zone.

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Journal Article
Slab pull and the seismotectonics of subducting lithosphere
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Reviews of Geophysics
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15 p.
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