Slab Deformation in the Mantle Transition Zone: The Effect of Plate Age and Strength Evolution

Thursday, 18 December 2014: 5:00 PM
Fanny Garel1,2, Saskia D B Goes3, Rhodri Davies4, John Huw Davies1, Stephan C Kramer2 and Cian R Wilson5, (1)Cardiff University, Cardiff, CF24, United Kingdom, (2)Imperial College, London, United Kingdom, (3)Imperial College London, London, SW7, United Kingdom, (4)Australian National University, Canberra, ACT, Australia, (5)Lamont -Doherty Earth Observatory, Palisades, NY, United States
The deformation encountered by subducted tectonic plates at the base of the upper mantle influences Earth's thermal, chemical, and tectonic evolution. Yet the mechanisms responsible for the wide range of imaged slab morphologies, either stagnating in the transition zone or penetrating into the lower mantle, remain debated. We use 2-D thermo-mechanical models of a two-plate subduction system, modeled with the finite-element, adaptive-mesh code Fluidity. We implement a temperature- and stress-dependent rheology, and viscosity increases 30-fold from upper to lower mantle. Trench position evolves freely in response to plate dynamics. Such an approach self-consistently captures feedbacks between temperature, density, flow, strength and deformation. Our results indicate that key controls on subduction dynamics and slab morphology are: (i) the evolution of slab strength; and (ii) the slab's ability to induce trench motion. We build a regime diagram that distinguishes four subduction styles: (1) a "vertical folding" mode with stationary trench; (2) young slabs that are "horizontally deflected" along the 660-km deep viscosity jump ; (3) an inclined slab morphology, resulting from strong trench retreat (old slabs and thinner overriding plates); and (4) a two-stage mode, displaying bent (rolled-over) slabs at the end of upper-mantle descent, that subsequently unbend and achieve inclined morphologies, with late trench retreat (strong overriding plates).
We find that the interplay between trench motion and slab deformation at depth dictates the subduction style, both being controlled by slab strength. We show that all seismically observed slab morphologies in the transition zone can arise just by changing the subducting-plate ages. However, to understand present-day slab morphologies, we have to analyse subduction history rather than just current age at the trench.