Records of ancient intraoceanic arc activity, now preserved in continental suture zones, are commonly used to reconstruct paleogeography and plate motion, and to understand how continental crust is formed, recycled, and maintained through time. However, interpreting tectonic and sedimentary records from ancient terranes after arc–continent collision is complicated by preferential preservation of evidence for some arc processes and loss of evidence for others. In this synthesis we examine what is lost, and what is preserved, in the translation from modern processes to the ancient record of intraoceanic arcs.
Composition of accreted arc terranes differs as a function of arc–continent collision geometry. ‘Forward-facing’ collision can accrete an oceanic arc on to either a passive or an active continental margin, with the arc facing the continent and colliding trench- and forearc-side first. In a ‘backward-facing’ collision, involving two subduction zones with similar polarity, the arc collides backarc-first with an active continental margin. The preservation of evidence for contemporary sedimentary and tectonic arc processes in the geologic record depends greatly on how well the various parts of the arc survive collision and orogeny in each case.
Preservation of arc terranes likely is biased towards those that were in a state of tectonic accretion for tens of millions of years before collision, rather than tectonic erosion. The prevalence of tectonic erosion in modern intraoceanic arcs implies that valuable records of arc processes are commonly destroyed even before the arc collides with a continent. Arc systems are most likely to undergo tectonic accretion shortly before forward-facing collision with a continent, and thus most forearc and accretionary-prism material in ancient arc terranes likely is temporally biased toward the final stages of arc activity, when sediment flux to the trench was greatest and tectonic accretion prevailed. Collision geometry and tectonic erosion vs. accretion are important controls on the ultimate survival of material from the trench, forearc, arc massif, intra-arc basins, and backarc basins, and thus on how well an ancient arc terrane preserves evidence for tectonic processes such as subduction of aseismic ridges and seamounts, oblique plate convergence, and arc rifting. Forward-facing collision involves substantial recycling, melting, and fractionation of continent-derived material during and after collision, and so produces melts rich in silica and incompatible trace elements. As a result, forward-facing collision can drive the composition of accreted arc crust toward that of average continental crust.