Relations among subduction parameters


  • Richard D. Jarrard


Clues to the dynamics of the subduction process are found in the many measurable parameters of modern subduction zones. Based on a critical appraisal of the geophysical and geological literature, 26 parameters are estimated for each of 39 modern subduction zones. To isolate causal relationships among these parameters, multivariate analysis is applied to this data set. This analysis yields empirical quantitative relations that predict strain regime and strike-slip faulting in the overriding plate, maximum earthquake magnitude, Benioff zone length, slab dip, arc-trench gap, and maximum trench depth. Excellent correlation is found between length of the Benioff zone and the product of convergence rate and age of the downgoing slab. This relationship is consistent with the conductive heating model of Molnar et al. (1979), if the model is modified in one respect. The rate of heating of the slab is not constant; it is substantially slower during passage of the slab beneath the accretionary prism and overriding plate. The structural style in the overriding plate is determined by its stress state. Though the stress state of overriding plates cannot be quantified, one can classify each individual subduction zone into one of seven semiquantitative strain classes that form a continuum from strongly extensional (class 1, back-arc spreading) to strongly compressional (class 7, active folding and thrusting). This analysis indicates that strain class is probably determined by a linear combination of convergence rate, slab age, and shallow slab dip. Interplate coupling, controlled by convergence rate and slab age, is an important control on strain regime and the primary control on earthquake magnitude. Arc-parallel strike-slip faulting is a common feature of convergent margins, forming a forearc sliver between the strike-slip fault and trench. Optimum conditions for the development of forearc slivers are oblique convergence, a compressional environment, and a continental overriding plate. The primary factor controlling presence of strike-slip faulting is coupling; strongly oblique convergence is not required. The rate of strike-slip faulting is affected by both convergence obliquity and convergence rate. Maximum trench depth is a response to flexure of the underthrusting plate. The amount of flexural deflection at the trench depends on the vertical component of slab pull force, which is very sensitive to slab age and shallow slab dip. Shallow slab dip conforms to the cross-sectional shape of the overriding plate, which is controlled by width of the accretionary prism and duration of subduction. Deep slab dip is affected by the mantle trajectory established at shallow depth but may be modified by mantle flow. Much of the structural complexity of convergent margins is probably attributable to terrane juxtaposition associated with temporal changes in both forearc strike-slip faulting and strain regime. Empirical equations relating subduction parameters can provide both a focus for future theoretical studies and a conceptual and kinematic link between plate tectonics and the geology of subduction zones.