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Durham University

Department of Earth Sciences


Publication details for Professor Christine Peirce

Funnell, M.J., Peirce, C. & Robinson, A.H. (2017). Structural variability of the Tonga-Kermadec forearc characterised using robustly constrained geophysical data. Geophysical Journal International 210(3): 1681-1702.

Author(s) from Durham


Subducting bathymetric anomalies enhance erosion of the overriding forearc crust. The deformation associated with this process is superimposed on pre-existing variable crustal and sedimentary structures developed as a subduction system evolves. Recent attempts to determine the effect and timescale of Louisville Ridge seamount subduction on the Tonga-Kermadec forearc have been limited by simplistic models of inherited overriding crustal structure that neglect along-strike variability. Synthesis of new robustly tested seismic velocity and density models with existing datasets from the region, highlight along-strike variations in the structure of the Tonga-Kermadec subducting and overriding plates. As the subducting plate undergoes bend-faulting and hydration throughout the trench-outer rise region, observed oceanic upper- and mid-crustal velocities are reduced by ∼1.0 km s−1 and upper mantle velocities by ∼0.5 km s−1. In the vicinity of the Louisville Ridge Seamount Chain (LRSC), the trench shallows by 4 km and normal fault throw is reduced by > 1 km, suggesting that the subduction of seamounts reduces plate deformation. We find that the extinct Eocene frontal arc, defined by a high velocity (7.0–7.4 km s−1) and density (3.2 g cm−3) lower-crustal anomaly, increases in thickness by ∼6 km, from 12 to > 18 km, over 300 km laterally along the Tonga-Kermadec forearc. Coincident variations in bathymetry and free-air gravity anomaly indicate a regional trend of northward-increasing crustal thickness that predates LRSC subduction, and highlight the present-day extent of the Eocene arc between 32° S and ∼18° S. Within this framework of existing forearc crustal structure, the subduction of seamounts of the LRSC promotes erosion of the overriding crust, forming steep, gravitationally unstable, lower-trench slopes. Trench-slope stability is most likely re-established by the collapse of the mid-trench slope and the trenchward side of the extinct Eocene arc, which, within the framework of forearc characterisation, implies seamount subduction commenced at ∼22° S.