Observational Constraints on Lithospheric Rheology and Their Implications for Lithospheric Dynamics and Plate Tectonics

Friday, 19 December 2014: 10:20 AM
Shijie Zhong, University of Colorado at Boulder, Boulder, CO, United States and Anthony Brian Watts, University of Oxford, Oxford, 0X1, United Kingdom
Lithospheric rheology and strength are important for understanding crust and lithosphere dynamics, and the conditions for plate tectonics. Laboratory studies suggest that lithospheric rheology is controlled by frictional sliding, semi-brittle, low-temperature plasticity, and high-temperature creep deformation mechanisms as pressure and temperature increase from shallow to large depths. Although rheological equations for these deformation mechanisms have been determined in laboratory settings, it is necessary to validate them using field observations. Here we present an overview of lithospheric rheology constrained by observations of seismic structure and load-induced flexure. Together with mantle dynamic modeling, rheological equations for high-temperature creep derived from laboratory studies (Hirth and Kohlstedt, 2003; Karato and Jung, 2003) satisfactorily explain the seismic structure of the Pacific upper mantle (Hunen et al., 2005) and Hawaiian swell topography (Asaadi et al., 2011). In a recent study that compared modeled surface flexure and stress induced by volcano loads in the Hawaiian Islands region with the observed flexure and seismicity, Zhong and Watts (2013) showed that the coefficient of friction is between 0.25 and 0.7, and is consistent with laboratory studies and also in-situ borehole measurements. However, this study indicated that the rheological equation for the low-temperature plasticity from laboratory studies (e.g., Mei et al., 2010) significantly over-predicts lithospheric strength and viscosity. Zhong and Watts (2013) also showed that the maximum lithospheric stress beneath Hawaiian volcano loads is about 100-200 MPa, which may be viewed as the largest lithospheric stress in the Earth’s lithosphere. We show that the relatively weak lithospheric strength in the low-temperature plasticity regime is consistent with seismic observation of reactivated mantle lithosphere in the western US and the eastern North China. We discuss here the causes of this weakening in the context of the potential effects on laboratory studies of reduced grain size and Peierls stress on the low-temperature deformation regime.