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Subduction

From Academic Kids

Subduction zones mark sites of convective downwelling of the Earth's lithosphere. Subduction zones exist at convergent plate boundaries where one plate of oceanic lithosphere converges with another plate and sinks below into the mantle. It is at subduction zones that the Earth's lithosphere, oceanic crust, sedimentary layers, and trapped water are recycled into the deep mantle. Earth is the only planet where subduction is known to occur; neither Venus nor Mars have subduction zones. Without subduction, plate tectonics could not exist and Earth would be a very different planet. Without subduction zones, Earth's crust would not have differentiated into continents and oceans and all of the solid Earth would lie beneath a global ocean. Mammals could not have evolved without dry land, so without continents, human beings could not exist. Ultimately, human life and civilization would not exist without subduction zones.

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The Juan de Fuca plate sinks below the North America plate at the Cascadia subduction zone.

Subduction results from the contrast in density between lithosphere (the crust plus the strong portion of the upper mantle) and underlying asthenosphere. Where lithosphere is denser than asthenospheric mantle, it can easily sink back into the mantle at a subduction zone; however, subduction is resisted where lithosphere is less dense than underlying asthenosphere. Whether or not lithosphere is more or less dense than underlying asthenosphere depends on the nature of the associated crust. Crust is always less dense than asthenosphere or lithospheric mantle, but because continental crust is always thicker and less dense than oceanic crust, continental lithosphere is always less dense than oceanic lithosphere. Oceanic lithosphere is generally denser than asthenosphere but continental lithosphere is lighter. Exceptionally, the presence of the large areas of flood basalt that are called large igneous provinces (LIPs), which result in extreme thickening of the oceanic crust, can cause some sections of older oceanic lithosphere to be too buoyant to subduct. Where lithosphere onthe downgoing plate is too buoyant to subduct, a collision occurs, hence the adage "Subduction leads to orogeny".

Subduction zones are associated with the deepest earthquakes on the planet. Earthquakes are generally restricted to the shallow, brittle parts of the crust, generally at depths of less than 20 km. However, in subduction zones, earthquakes occur at depths as great as 700 km. These earthquakes define inclined zones of seismicity known as Wadati-Benioff zones (after the scientists who discovered them), which outline the descending lithosphere. Seismic tomography has helped outline subducted lithosphere in regions where there are no earthquakes. Some subducted slabs seem not to be able to penetrate the major discontinuity in the mantle that lies at a depth of about 670 km, whereas other subducted oceanic plates can penetrate all the way to the core-mantle boundary. The great seismic discontinuities in the mantle - at 410 and 670 km depth - are disrupted by the descent of cold slabs in deep subduction zones

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Subduction zones of the world. Localities in green capital letters are collision zones, where continental crust has entered and disrupted a subduction zone

Subduction causes oceanic trenches, such as the Mariana trench. Trenches occur where one plate begins its descent beneath another. Volcanoes that occur above subduction zones, such as Mount St. Helens and Mount Fuji, often occur in arcuate chains, hence the term volcanic arc or island arc. Not all "volcanic arcs" are arced: trenches and arcs are often linear.

The magmatism associated with the volcanic arc occurs 100-300 km away from the trench. However, a relationship has been found, which relates volcanic arc location to depth of the subducted crust as defined by the Wadati-Benioff zone. Studies of many volcanic arcs around the world have revealed that volcanic arcs tend to form at a location where the subducted slab has reached a depth of about 100 km. This has interesting implications for the mechanism which causes the magmatism at these arcs. Arcs produce about 25% of the total volume of magma produced each year on Earth (~30-35 km3), much less than the volume produced at mid-ocean ridges. Nevertheless, arc volcanism have the greatest impact on humans, because many arc volcanoes lie above sealevel and erupt violently. Aerosols injected into the stratosphere during violent eruptions can cause rapid cooling of the Earth's climate.

Asuncion volcano, a perfect stratovolcano in the , an  in the Western Pacific.
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Asuncion volcano, a perfect stratovolcano in the Mariana Islands, an island arc in the Western Pacific.

Subduction zones are also notorious for producing devastating earthquakes because of the intense geological activity. The introduction of cold oceanic crust into the mantle depresses the local geothermal gradient and causes a larger portion of the earth to deform in a brittle fashion than it would in a normal geothermal gradient setting. Because earthquakes can only occur when a rock is deforming in a brittle fashion, subduction zones have the potential to create very large earthquakes. If this earthquake occurs under the ocean it has the potential to create tsunamis, such as the earthquake caused by subduction of the Indo-Australian Plate under the Eurasian Plate on December 26, 2004, that devastated the areas around the Indian Ocean. Small tremors that create tiny, unnoticeable tsunamis happen all the time because of the dynamics of the earth.

Why are Subduction Zones important?

  1. Subduction Zone Physics: Sinking of mantle lithosphere provides most of the force needed to drive plate motion and is the dominant mode of mantle convection.
  2. Subduction Zone Chemistry: The cold material sinking in subduction zones releases water into the overlying mantle, causing mantle melting and fractionating elements (buffering) between surface and deep mantle reservoirs, producing island arcs and continental crust.
  3. Subduction Zone Biology: Because subduction zones are the coldest parts of the Earth's interior and life cannot exist at temperatures >150?C, subduction zones are almost certainly associated with the deepest (highest pressure) biosphere.
  4. Earth's Mixmaster: Subduction zones mix subducted sediments, oceanic crust, and mantle lithosphere and mix this with mantle from the overriding plate to produce fluids, melts, ore deposits, and continental crust. For this reason, scientists increasingly refer to the "Subduction Factory", and we are intermittently and rudely reminded of its operation by earthquakes and tsunamis.


Learning more about the physics, chemistry, and biology of subduction zones requires efforts that are increasingly interdisciplinary and international. Because of the central role that subduction plays in the solid Earth system, as well as its role in maintaining equilibrium between the mantle and the hydrosphere, understanding and teaching how subduction zones operate is a scientific challenge of the first importance.

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