Geodynamic models of continental subduction and obduction of overriding plate forearc oceanic lithosphere on top of continental crust

Sarah J. Edwards, Wouter P. Schellart*, Joao C. Duarte

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Continental subduction takes place in the final stage of subduction when all oceanic lithosphere is consumed and continental passive margin is pulled into the mantle. When the overriding plate is oceanic, dense forearc oceanic lithosphere might be obducted onto light continental crust forming an ophiolite (Tethyan-style ophiolite obduction). Four-dimensional dynamic analog subduction models have been constructed to evaluate the mechanical feasibility of continental subduction and forearc oceanic lithosphere obduction on top of continental crust. The roles of continental crust thickness, passive margin length, subducting lithosphere thickness, and overriding plate thickness were investigated to determine the maximum continental subduction depth, maximum forearc obduction distance, and forearc deformation during continental subduction. Our buoyancy-driven experiments indicate that deep continental subduction occurs in most circumstances (down to -560km) and that obduction of dense oceanic forearc lithosphere on top of light continental crust is mechanically feasible. Maximum obduction distances are relatively small (-26-37km) but are sufficient to explain obduction of short ophiolite sheets, such as observed in New Caledonia. When including the thin (5-10km thick) accretionary wedge of off-scraped deep sea sediments, oceanic crust, and mantle, then maximum obduction distances are much larger, ~60-160km, sufficient to account for the obducted Northland Allochthon in New Zealand. Results indicate that increasing continental crust thickness decreases continental subduction depth, whereas increasing passive margin length and subducting lithosphere thickness increases continental subduction depth. Notably, during continental subduction, backarc extension continues, while forearc deformation (shortening) increases moderately compared to the preceding phase of normal (oceanic) subduction.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1494-1515
Number of pages22
Issue number7
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2015


  • analog model
  • continental subduction
  • obduction
  • ophiolite
  • subduction
  • Tethys


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