Three-dimensional dynamic laboratory models of subduction with an overriding plate and variable interplate rheology

João C. Duarte*, Wouter P. Schellart, Alexander R. Cruden

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Subduction zones are complex 3-D features in which one tectonic plate sinks underneath another into the deep mantle. During subduction the overriding plate (OP) remains in physical contact with the subducting plate and stresses generated at the subduction zone interface and by mantle flowforce the OP to deform.We present results of 3-D dynamic laboratory models of subduction that include an OP.We introduce newinterplate materials comprising homogeneous mixtures of petrolatum and paraffin oil to achieve progressive subduction. The rheology of these mixtures is characterized by measurements using a strain rate controlled rheometer. The results show that the strength of the mixture increases with petrolatum content, which can be used as a proxy for the degree of mechanical coupling along the subduction interface. Results of subduction experiments are presented with different degrees of mechanical coupling and the influence this has on the dynamics and kinematics of subduction. The modelling results show that variations in the degree of mechanical coupling between the plates have a major impact on subduction velocities, slab geometry and the rate of OP deformation. In all experiments the OP is displaced following trench migration and experiences overall extension localized in the plate interior. This suggests that OP deformation is driven primarily by the toroidal component of subduction-related mantle return flow. The subduction rate is always very slow in experiments with medium mechanical coupling, and subduction stops prematurely in experiments with very high coupling. This implies that the shear forces along the plate interface in natural subduction zone systems must be relatively low and do not vary significantly. Otherwise a higher variability in natural subduction velocities should be observed for mature, nonperturbed subduction zones. The required low shear force is likely controlled by the rheology of highly hydrated sedimentary and basaltic rocks.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)47-66
Number of pages20
JournalGeophysical Journal International
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2013


  • And modelling
  • Dynamics of lithosphere and mantle
  • Mechanics
  • Subduction zone processes
  • Theory


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