• Subduction zone processes;
  • Continental margins: convergent;
  • High strain deformation zones;
  • Rheology: crust and lithosphere


We study possible responses to arc–continent or continent–continent collision using numerical models. Our short-term integration models show that the initial stage of deformation following continental collision is governed by the competition between three potential weakness zones: (1) mantle wedge, (2) plate interface and (3) lower continental crust. Depending on which of these is the weakest zone in the system, three different responses can be recognized: (1) subduction polarity reversal, (2) continuation of subduction and (3) delamination and back stepping. Subduction polarity reversal occurs if the mantle wedge is the weakest zone in the system. This happens only if the viscosity of the mantle wedge is at least one order of magnitude lower than the average viscosity of the lithosphere. In continent–continent collision, one additional condition needs to be satisfied for subduction polarity reversal to occur: for the subducting lithosphere the ratio of the viscosity of the lower continental crust to the viscosity of the upper lithospheric mantle must be equal to or higher than 0.006. The time required for polarity reversal depends on several parameters: the convergence rate, the sinking velocity of the detached slab and the relative strength of the mantle wedge, arc and backarc. The response to collision is continued subduction if the plate interface is the weakest zone, and is delamination and back stepping if the lower continental crust is the weakest area in the system. Our finding that a low-viscosity wedge is a prerequisite for a reversal of subduction polarity agrees with inferences about regions for which subduction polarity reversal has been proposed.