• earthquakes;
  • heat flow;
  • serpentinite;
  • subduction;
  • thermal

Abstract Subduction thrust faults generate earthquakes over a limited depth range. They are aseismic in their seaward updip portions and landward downdip of a critical point. The seaward shallow aseismic zone, commonly beneath accreted sediments, may be a consequence of unconsolidated sediments, especially stable-sliding smectite clays. Such clays are dehydrated and the fault may become seismogenic where the temperature reaches 100--150°C, that is, at a 5--15 km depth. Two factors may determine the downdip seismogenic limit. For subduction of young hot oceanic lithosphere beneath large accretionary sedimentary prisms and beneath continental crust, the transition to aseismic stable sliding is temperature controlled. The maximum temperature for seismic behavior in crustal rocks is ∼ 350°C, regardless of the presence of water. In addition, great earthquake ruptures initiated at less than this temperature may propagate with decreasing slip to where the temperature is ∼ 450°C. For subduction beneath thin island arc crust and beneath continental crust in some areas, the forearc mantle is reached by the thrust shallower than the 350°C temperature. The forearc upper mantle probably is aseismic because of stable-sliding serpentinite hydrated by water from the underthrusting oceanic crust and sediments. For many subduction zones the downdip seismogenic width defined by these limits is much less than previously assumed. Within the narrowly defined seismic zone, most of the convergence may occur in earthquakes. Numerical thermal models have been employed to estimate temperatures on the subduction thrust planes of four continental subduction zones. For Cascadia and Southwest Japan where very young and hot plates are subducting, the downdip seismogenic limit on the subduction thrust is thermally controlled and is shallow. For Alaska and most of Chile, the forearc mantle is reached before the critical temperature, and mantle serpentinite provides the limit. In all four regions, the seismogenic zones so defined agree with estimates of the extent of great earthquake rupture, and with the downdip extent of the interseismic locked zone.