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Durham University

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Rodríguez-González, J., Billen, M. I., Negredo, A. M. & Montesi, L. G. J. (2016). Along-strike variation in subducting plate velocity induced by along-strike variation in overriding plate structure: Insights from 3D numerical models. Journal of Geodynamics 100: 175-183.

Author(s) from Durham


Subduction dynamics can be understood as the result of the balance between driving and resisting forces. Previous work has traditionally regarded gravitational slab pull and viscous mantle drag as the main driving and resistive forces for plate motion respectively. However, this paradigm fails to explain many of the observations in subduction zones. For example, subducting plate velocity varies significantly along-strike in many subduction zones and this variation is not correlated to the age of subducting lithosphere. Here we present three-dimensional and time-dependent numerical models of subduction. We show that along-strike variations of the overriding plate thermal structure can lead to along-strike variations in subducting plate velocity. In turn, velocity variations lead to significant migration of the Euler pole over time. Our results show that the subducting plate is slower beneath the colder portion of the overriding plate due to two related mechanisms. First, the mantle wedge beneath the colder portion of the overriding plate is more viscous, which increases mantle drag. Second, where the mantle wedge is more viscous, hydrodynamic suction increases, leading to a lower slab dip. Both factors contribute to decreasing subducting plate velocity in the region; therefore, if the overriding plate is not uniform, the resulting velocity varies significantly along-strike, which causes the Euler pole to migrate closer to the subducting plate. We present a new mechanism to explain observations of subducting plate velocity in the Cocos and Nazca plates. These results shed new light on the balance of forces that control subduction dynamics and prove that future studies should take into consideration the three-dimensional structure of the overriding plate.