Lithospheric deformation during the early stages of continental collision: Numerical experiments and comparison with South Island, New Zealand



[1] The nature of lithospheric deformation during continental plate collision still remains unresolved. While it has often been proposed that the mantle lithosphere is accommodated by distributed thickening of a viscous root, an alternate hypothesis suggests that significant portions of convergent mantle lithosphere essentially undergo underthrusting or subduction. To further consider this issue, we model the thermochemical evolution of the lithosphere-mantle system using arbitrary Lagrangian-Eulerian finite element techniques. We incorporate a mix of viscous (thermally activated power law creep) and plastic (frictional Coulomb with strain softening) rheologies in the numerical experiments to treat disparate composition in the crust and mantle. A range of rheological and mechanical parameters is explored to determine controls on the style of lithospheric deformation. The models suggest that during the initial stages of plate collision the mantle lithosphere is characterized by plate-like behavior and underthrusting/subduction of the upper region in conjunction with distributed thickening and Rayleigh-Taylor type viscous instability of the lower portion. Depending on the material rheology, temperature regime, and imposed convergence velocity, the deforming mantle lithosphere demonstrates various combinations of these “end-member” behavioral modes. The modeling results are interpreted in the context of observed lithospheric deformation across South Island, New Zealand. A combined style of underthrusting and distributed thickening is consistent with the observed crustal structure in the young collisional orogen as well as seismic imaging of the geometry of the underlying lithosphere.