NGDIR News Section-- Beneath the ocean, massive tectonic plates converge and grind against one another, which drives one below the other. This powerful collision, called subduction, is responsible for forming volcanic arcs that are home to some of Earth's most dramatic geological events, such as explosive volcanic eruptions and mega earthquakes.
A new study published in the journal Science Advances changes our understanding of how volcanic arc lavas are formed, and may have implications for the study of earthquakes and the risks of volcanic eruption.
Researchers led by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) have discovered a previously unknown process involving the melting of intensely-mixed metamorphic rocks-known as melange rocks-that form through high stress during subduction at the slab-mantle boundary.
Until now, it was long-thought that lava formation began with a combination of fluids from a subducted tectonic plate, or slab, and melted sediments that would then percolate into the mantle. Once in the mantle, they would mix and trigger more melting, and eventually erupt at the surface.
Instead, what Nielsen and his colleague found was that melange is actually already present at the top of the slab before mixing with the mantle takes place.
This is an important distinction because scientists use measurements of isotope and trace elements to determine compositions of arc lavas and better understand this critical region of subduction zones. When and where the mixing, melting, and redistribution of trace elements occurs generates vastly different isotopic signature ratios.
The study builds on a previous paper by Nielsen's colleague and co-author Horst Marschall of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. Based on field observations of melange outcrops, Marschall noted that blobs of low-density melange material, called diapirs, might rise slowly from the surface of the subducting slab and carry the well-mixed materials into the mantle beneath arc volcanoes.
In their new work, Nielsen and Marschall compared mixing ratios from both models with chemical and isotopic data from published studies of eight globally representative volcanic arcs: Marianas, Tonga, Lesser Antilles, Aleutians, Ryukyu, Scotia, Kurile, and Sunda.
Understanding the processes that occur at subduction zones is important for many reasons. Often referred to as the planet's engine, subduction zones are the main areas where water and carbon dioxide contained within old seafloor are recycled back into the deep Earth, playing critical roles in the control of long-term climate and the evolution of the planet's heat budget.
These complex processes occur on scales of tens to thousands of kilometers over months to hundreds of millions of years, but can generate catastrophic earthquakes and deadly tsunamis that can occur in seconds.
The research team says the study's findings call for a reevaluation of previously published data and a revision of concepts relating to subduction zone processes. Because melange rocks have largely been ignored, there is almost nothing known about their physical properties or the range of temperatures and pressures they melt at.
By Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution