The detachment or breakoff of subducted lithosphere is investigated using scaled three-dimensional thermo-mechanical analogue experiments in which forces are measured and deformation is monitored using high-speed particle imaging velocimetry (PIV). The experiments demonstrate that the convergence rate in a subduction zone determine if and when slab detachment occurs. Slow subduction experiments (with scaled convergence rates ∼1 cm yr −1) have lower Peclet numbers and are characterised by lower tensile strength subducted lithosphere, causing detachment to occur when the downward pull force exerted by a relatively short subducted slab is relatively low. When continental collision is preceded by slow oceanic subduction, the subducted lithosphere therefore need not be very long or extremely negatively buoyant to cause detachment because the subducted oceanic lithosphere is hot and weak. Under such conditions detachment may occur sooner after the onset of continental subduction than previously predicted. In contrast, if a collision is preceded by rapid subduction (∼10 cm yr −1), breakoff will be delayed and occur only when the convergence rate slowed sufficiently to thermally weaken the slab and cause its eventual failure. The analogue experiments further confirm that slab detachment occurs diachronously as it propagates along the plate boundary. Stereoscopic PIV reveals a characteristic strain pattern that accompanies the detachment. Horizontal contraction and subsidence (with scaled values up to 1200 m) in the trench and forearc area preceeds the passage of the detachment, which is followed by horizontal extension and uplift (up to 900 m). High-frequency monitoring captures rapid propagation of the detachment along the plate boundary at rates of up to 100 cm yr −1. However rate is not constant and interaction between the slab and lower mantle or opening of a backarc basin in the upper plate can reduce or stop slab breakoff propagation altogether.
Successive side views of the models in Experiment 1 and 2. Experiment 1 (a-e), the subducting lithosphere is pushed by the piston at the constant velocity of 2.5 × 10 −4 m s −1 (equivalent to ∼10 cm yr −1 in nature). The slab becomes vertical due to the negative buoyancy but does not break. It folds when hitting the rigid plate that models the impenetrable lower mantle. Experiment 2 (f–j), The model is identical to Experiment 1 but it is the upper plate that is pushed instead of the lower plate. The model evolution is similar to Experiment 1 until the slab touches the lower mantle. The slab angle reduces in the late stages (dashed line in panel j).
Successive side views of the models in Experiment 3. The model is identical to that employed in Experiment 1 (Fig. 4), but the imposed rate is one order of magnitude lower, 2.5 × 10 −5 m s −1 (equivalent to ∼1 cm yr −1 in nature). Very slow subduction leads to multiple slab detachments at 2283, 4266 and 6420 s. We note that the repeated detachment caused extension in the trailing edge of the upper plate, and a slab graveyard sitting on top of the rigid upper mantle.
Sketch of propagating slab detachment with distribution of surface deformation and uplift. Horizontal contraction and surface subsidence is generated ahead of the breakoff tip, while horizontal extension and uplift follow.
Maps of earthquakes hypocenters along the Aleutian subduction zone (a), and Java-Sumatra-Andaman subduction zone (b), with profiles showing the Wadati-Benioff zone. Earthquakes hypocenters are represented by circles with diameter proportional to magnitude, and color indicating depth (see profiles for color scale). Hypocenters are from EHB catalogue (Engdahl et al., 1998). White arrows represent the convergence vectors calculated using the MORVEL global kinematic model (DeMets et al., 2010). V is the convergence rate (in mm yr −1), θ is the obliquity (angle between the normal to the trench and convergence vector), and Vn is the convergence in the direction of the profile (i.e. convergence corrected from obliquity, in mm yr −1). Topography/bathymetry from Smith and Sandwell (1997).
Slow oblique subduction along the northern branch of the Caribbean subduction zone. Map shows the topography of the trench characterized by a deep through between 65 and 67°W. Convergence from MORVEL global kinematic model (DeMets et al., 2010), is only 19 mm/yr at 64°W (white arrow) and the obliquity is approximately 67°, which yields about 7 mm/yr of normal convergence in the subduction west of 64°W. 3 North-South profiles are plotted showing that this area is also characterized by a deep negative free air anomaly (Sandwell et al., 2014), the peak of which is located the forearc. Based on our experimental results we propose that both the topography and gravity anomalies are caused by an excess downward pull in the subducted lithosphere due to ongoing slab detachment. Topography/bathymetry from Smith and Sandwell (1997), gravity from Sandwell et al. (2014).