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Keywords:

  • subduction zones;
  • thermal models;
  • mantle wedge flow;
  • slab dehydration;
  • intraslab seismicity;
  • volcanic arc

Processes in subduction zones such as slab and mantle-wedge metamorphism, intraslab earthquakes, and arc volcanism vary systematically with the age-dependent thermal state of the subducting slab. In contrast, the configuration of subduction zones is rather uniform in that the arc is typically situated where the slab is ∼100 km deep. Toward reconciling the diversity and uniformity, we developed numerical thermal models with a nonlinear mantle rheology for seventeen subduction zones, spanning a large range of slab age, descent rate, and geometry. Where there are adequate observations, such as in Cascadia, northeast Japan, and Kamchatka, we find that surface heat flows can be explained if the interface between the slab and the mantle wedge is decoupled to a depth of 70–80 km. Models with this common decoupling depth predict that the region of high mantle temperatures and optimal fluid supply from the dehydrating slab, both required for melt generation for arc volcanism, occurs where the slab is ∼100 km deep. These models also reproduce the variations of the metamorphic, seismic, and volcanic processes with the thermal state of the slab. The shallow decoupling results in a stagnant fore arc whose thermal regime is controlled mainly by the subducting slab. The deeper coupling leads to a sudden onset of mantle wedge flow that brings heat from greater depths and the back arc, and its thermal effect overshadows that of the slab in the arc region. Our results serve to recast the research of subduction zone geodynamics into a quest for understanding what controls the common depth of decoupling.