Viscous coupling at the lithosphere-asthenosphere boundary



Tectonic plate motions reflect dynamical contributions from subduction processes (i.e., classical “slab-pull” forces) and lateral pressure gradients within the asthenosphere (“asthenosphere-drive” forces), which are distinct from gravity forces exerted by elevated mid-ocean ridges (i.e., classical “ridge-push” forces). Here we use scaling analysis to show that the extent to which asthenosphere-drive contributes to plate motions depends on the lateral dimension of plates and on the relative viscosities and thicknesses of the lithosphere and asthenosphere. Whereas slab-pull forces always govern the motions of plates with a lateral extent greater than the mantle depth, asthenosphere-drive forces can be relatively more important for smaller (shorter wavelength) plates, large relative asthenosphere viscosities or large asthenosphere thicknesses. Published plate velocities, tomographic images and age-binned mean shear wave velocity anomaly data allow us to estimate the relative contributions of slab-pull and asthenosphere-drive forces for the motions of the Atlantic and Pacific plates. Whereas the Pacific plate is driven largely by slab pull, the Atlantic plate is predicted to be strongly driven by basal forces related to viscous coupling to strong asthenospheric flow, consistent with recent observations related to the stress state of North America. In addition, compared to the East Pacific Rise (EPR), the relatively large lateral pressure gradient near the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (MAR) is expected to produce significantly steeper dynamic topography. Thus, the relative importance of this plate-driving force may partly explain why the flanking topography at the EPR is smoother than at the MAR. Our analysis also indicates that this plate-driving force was more significant, and heat loss less efficient, in Earth's hotter past compared with its cooler present state. This type of trend is consistent with thermal history modeling results which require less efficient heat transfer in Earth's past.