BGR Bundesanstalt für Geowissenschaften und Rohstoffe



Coming soon: GIRAF 2011 Workshop

5. - 9. December 2011
Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
Organised by the IUGS-CGI and UNESCO
Hosting Organisation: SEAMIC


GIRAF: Geoscience InfoRmation AFrica. Logo



Subduction is a geological process that takes place at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates where one plate moves under another and is forced to sink due to gravity into the mantle. Regions where this process occurs are known as subduction zones. Rates of subduction are typically in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

Subduction zones are sites of gravitational sinking of Earth's lithosphere (the crust plus the top non-convecting portion of the upper mantle). Subduction zones exist at convergent plate boundaries where one plate of oceanic lithosphere converges with another plate. The descending slab, the subducting plate, is over-ridden by the leading edge of the other plate. The slab sinks at an angle of approximately twenty-five to forty-five degrees to Earth's surface. This sinking is driven by the temperature difference between the subducting oceanic lithosphere and the surrounding mantle asthenosphere, as the colder oceanic lithosphere has, on average, a greater density. At a depth of greater than 60 kilometers, the basalt of the oceanic crust is converted to a metamorphic rock called eclogite. At that point, the density of the oceanic crust increases and provides additional negative buoyancy (downwards force). It is at subduction zones that Earth's lithosphere, oceanic crust and continental crust, sedimentary layers and some trapped water are recycled into the deep mantle.

Oceanic subduction zones dive down into the mantle beneath 55,000 kilometers of convergent plate margins (Lallemand, 1999), almost equal to the cumulative 60,000 kilometers of mid-ocean ridges. Subduction zones burrow deeply, but are imperfectly camouflaged, and geophysics and geochemistry can be used to study them. Not surprisingly, the shallowest portions of subduction zones are known best. Subduction zones are strongly asymmetric for the first several hundred kilometers of their descent. They start to go down at oceanic trenches. Their descents are marked by inclined zones of earthquakes that dip away from the trench beneath the volcanoes and extend down to the 660-kilometer discontinuity. Subduction zones are defined by the inclined array of earthquakes known as the WadatiBenioff zone after the two scientists who first identified this distinctive aspect. Subduction zone earthquakes occur at greater depths (up to 600 km) than elsewhere on Earth (typically less than 20 km depth); such deep earthquakes may be driven by deep phase transformations, thermal runaway, or dehydration embrittlement.

Above subduction zones, volcanoes exist in long chains called volcanic arcs. Volcanoes that exist along arcs tend to produce dangerous eruptions because they are rich in water (from the slab and sediments) and tend to be extremely explosive. Krakatoa, Nevado del Ruiz, and Mount Vesuvius are all examples of arc volcanoes. Arcs are also known to be associated with precious metals such as gold, silver and copper believed to be carried by water and concentrated in and around their host volcanoes in rock called "ore".

Blueschist is a rock typical for present-day subduction settings. Absence of blueschist older than Neoproterozoic reflect more magnesium-rich compositions of Earth's oceanic crust during that period. These more magnesium-rich rocks metamorphose into greenschist at conditions when modern oceanic crust rocks metamorphose into blueschist. The ancient magnesium-rich rocks means that Earth's mantle was once hotter, but not that subduction conditions were hotter. Previously, lack of pre-Neoproterozoic blueschist was thought to indicate a different type of subduction. Both lines of evidence refutes previous conceptions of modern-style subduction having been initiated in the Neoproterozoic Era 1.0 Ga ago.

Volcanoes that occur above subduction zones, such as Mount St. Helens, Mount Etna and Mount Fuji, lie at approximately one hundred kilometers from the trench in arcuate chains, hence the term volcanic arc. Two kinds of arcs are generally observed on Earth: island arcs that form on oceanic lithosphere (for example, the Mariana and the Tonga island arcs), and continental arcs such as the Cascade Volcanic Arc, that form along the coast of continents. Island arcs are produced by the subduction of oceanic lithosphere beneath another oceanic lithosphere (ocean-ocean subduction) while continental arcs formed during subduction of oceanic lithosphere beneath a continental lithosphere (ocean-continent subduction). An example of a volcanic arc having both island and continental arc sections is found behind the Aleutian Trench subduction zone in Alaska.

Arcs produce about 25% of the total volume of magma produced each year on Earth (approximately thirty to thirty-five cubic kilometers), much less than the volume produced at mid-ocean ridges, and they contribute to the formation of new continental crust. Arc volcanism has the greatest impact on humans, because many arc volcanoes lie above sea level and erupt violently. Aerosols injected into the stratosphere during violent eruptions can cause rapid cooling of Earth's climate and affect air travel.

Anomalously deep events are a characteristic of subduction zones, which produce the deepest quakes on the planet. Earthquakes are generally restricted to the shallow, brittle parts of the crust, generally at depths of less than twenty kilometers. However, in subduction zones, quakes occur at depths as great as seven hundred kilometers. These quakes define inclined zones of seismicity known as WadatiBenioff zones which trace the descending lithosphere. Seismic tomography has helped detect subducted lithosphere, slabs, deep in the mantle where there are no earthquakes. About one hundred slabs have been described in terms of depth and their timing and location of subduction.[25] Some subducted slabs seem to have difficulty penetrating the major discontinuity in the mantle, marking the boundary between the upper mantle and lower mantle, that lies at a depth of about 670 kilometers. 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 kilometer depth, are disrupted by the descent of cold slabs in deep subduction zones.

Subduction may also cause orogeny without bringing in oceanic material that collides with the overriding continent. When the subducting plate subducts at a shallow angle underneath a continent (something called "flat-slab subduction"), the subducting plate may have enough traction on the bottom of the continental plate to cause the upper plate to contract leading to folding, faulting, crustal thickening and mountain building. This flat-slab subduction process is thought to be one of the main causes of mountain building and deformation in South America.


Dr. Kristine Asch
Phone: +49-(0)511-643-3324
Fax: +49-(0)511-643-3782