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Tectonophysics, 32 (1976) 331-351

@ Elsevier Scientific Publishing Company, Amsterdam - Printed in The Netherlands











of Utrecht,




October 3, 1975; revised version accepted February 27, 1976)

Vlaar, N.J. and Wortel, M.J.R.,
tonophysics, 32: 331-351.

1976. Lithospheric

aging, instability and subduction.


The subduction behaviour of oceanic lithosphere in relation to its age is studied in detail.
It is shown that the penetration depth of subducted lithosphere increases with increasing lithospheric age. In all cases where sufficient data are available, the relation proves to
be unique.
The controlling property appears to be the amount of gravitational instability of the
part of the lithosphere concerned with respect to the surrounding upper mantle. The instability depends, through the density and temperature, on the time elapsed between creation and subduction.
It is concluded that gravitational instability of the oceanic lithosphere-upper
system is a major cause of plate tectonics.
The structure of individual subduction zones is interpreted accordingly.


It is generally accepted that a convective process is responsible for plate

tectonics. There is no general agreement, however, concerning the specific
nature of the mechanism.
Common in all convection theories is the requirement
of gravitational instability, due to temperature
differences, maintaining the flow of mass.
Apart from cubic expansion or contraction
under the influence of temperature differences, phase transitions must also have a pronounced effect on
gravitational instability.
The gravitational instability as such, has been held responsible by several
investigators as the driving force of plate tectonics.
Horizontal instability resulting in gravitational sliding of the lithosphere
off the crests of oceanic ridges has been proposed a.o. by Jacoby (1970).
Press (1973) deduces from the inversion of seismic data that a density inversion exists in the upper mantle and demonstrates
that ample gravitational


energy is available in the upper mantle-lithosphere

system for driving the
motion of the plates.
In a recent Paper (Vlaar, 1975) a semi-quantitative
model for the dri.ving
mechanism has been proposed. It was corroborated
that the plate motion is
maintained by horizontal instability resulting in gravitational sliding off the
ridges, thus creating a vertical instability under the spreading ridge axes
where hot mantle material rises to create new oceanic lithosphere and part of
the upper mantle. Vertical instability is also manifest in some subduction
zones where cooled lithosphere is consumed by the upper mantle again.
A crucial role in the convective mechanism is played by the cooling of the
lithospheric plate after its creation. The lithosphere cools by heat flow
through the ocean bottom. The loss of heat is reflected by the ocean-bottom
topography which has been shown to be controlled by thermal contraction
(Sclater and Francheteau,
1970; Mater et al., 1971). The possible occurrence of phase transitions upon cooling of the lithosphere has been proposed
by Forsyth and Press (1971). Yoshii (1975) used surface waves to arrive at a
zoned structure of the Pacific Ocean lithosphere, the zoning depending on
age. From these studies we may derive an estimate of 70 m.y. for the age at
which the oceanic lithosphere reaches a steady-state structure.
We propose that another effect of the cooling must be that, on aging, the
vertical instability changes sign. The lithosphere near the ridges is stably
stratified with respect to the upper mantle, whereas by subsequent cooling it
must become increasingly unstable. As the time elapsed since the creation of
the lithosphere is the main controlling parameter for the cooling process, the
state of vertical instability must also depend on this time, and hence must be
a function of only the age of the part of lithosphere involved. Through the
spreading rate, this age depends on the distance from the spreading axis.
The increasing instability with time may result in subduction. In the older
parts of the oceanic lithosphere this may be manifest by downbuckling and
subsequent under- and overthrusting
of oceanic plates. It is more usual that
subduction takes place at the contact of an oceanic and a continental plate.
The vertical motion of the downgoing slab and the structure of the subduction zone is controlled mainly by buoyancy forces resulting from the
density contrast of the slab material and the surrounding mantle material,
which, in turn, is directly related to the time elapsed since the creation of
the relevant part of the lithosphere concerned.
In the present paper we will demonstrate that a unique relationship exists
between the sinking history of a subducted oceanic lithosphere and its age.
In this context the relevant age of a subducted part of a lithospheric plate is
the age it had at the beginning of its descent, which equals the length of the
period during which it has been cooling. Hereafter, this age is also referred to
as the age of the corresponding
subduction zone. Age determinations
are inferred from published studies of magnetic lineations and from the results of
the Deep Sea Drilling Project. Our data on the structure of the various subduction zones are entirely based on the results of numerous studies of seismicity and focal mechanisms.

The deepest earthquakes in a subduction zone are taken to indicate the
maximum depth reached by portions of lithosphere that have retained their
brittle identity at least to such a degree that earthquakes can be generated.
Though it is not possible to follow the flow of material which before constituted the lithospheric plate, it appears to be reasonable to assume that
resorption results in assimilation. As, in our approach, gravitational instability and associated buoyancy forces determine the vertical subduction behaviour, we feel confident to state that the deepest earthquakes determine the
level at which the plate assumes gravitational stability.
For convenience in the following discussion we will briefly summarize
some current hypotheses which bear upon the structure of subduction zones.
Isacks et al, (1968) found an approximately
linear relationship between
the down-dip length of seismic zones and convergence rates of lithospheric
plates (normal to the plate contact) as computed by Le Pichon (1968). They
put forward two hypotheses in order to explain this relationship. In the first
hypothesis it is assumed that the seismic zones were created during the current cycle of sea-floor spreading and underthrusting,
for which a duration of
10 m.y. was derived. Thus, in this case the deepest part of a seismic zone is
thought to be the leading edge of a subducted plate. In the second hypothesis, this period of 10 m.y. is regarded as the approximate
time constant for
assimilation of the subducted oceanic lithosphere into the upper mantle. In
both hypotheses the down-dip length of a seismic zone equals the amount of
that has taken place during the last 10 m.y. Deffeyes (1972)
found a linear relationship between the age of the sea floor and the resorp
tion time for a number of subduction zones. In order to account for the dip
of a descending plate, Luyendyk (1970) proposed the relation:
dip = sin-l


where u, and ug are the velocities of the downward and converging motions
respectively, averaged over the appropriate period of plate consumption.
Luyendyk suggests that differences in the dip of the plates, descending in the
earths subduction zones, are mainly caused by differences in the convergence rates Ue. Along the same lines he attributes differences within a zone to
lateral variations in the component Ue, due to deferential
distances from the
pole of rotation involved.
Many numerical investigations have been made on the temperature
distribution and the stress field in a subducted plate and the surrounding upper
mantle (e.g. McKenzie, 1969; Toksiiz et al., 1971; Smith and Tokdz, 1972;
Toksijz et al., 1973). They usually start from an assumed geometry and are
directed towards getting insight into physical phenomena related to subduction, rather than into the primary causes of the subduction process itself.
In summary it can be said that k~emati~al aspects have been emphasized
and that with some exceptions (Deffeyes, 1972; Truchan and Larson, 1973;
Uyeda and Miyashiro, 1974; Forsyth, 1975) the possible age-dependent
nonuniformities that may have been present in the portions of oceanic litho-

Fig. 1. Subduction
zones are indicated by the thick barbed lines, The underlined
are included in the classification
(see Table I). References
from which data on the tectonic setting and the structure of the subduction
zones have been taken are: Tonga-Kermadec, Sykes (1966), Isacks et al. (1969); Indonesia-Philippines,
Fitch (1970), Fitch and
Molnar (1970); Kuriles, Sykes (1966), Bulletin of the International
(event: Sea of Okhotsk, Aug. 30, 1970); Honshu, Isacks and Molnar (1971); MarianasIzu Bonin-Ryukyus,
Katsumata and Sykes (1969); Aleutians-Alaska,
Tobin and Sykes
(1966), Stauder (1968); Western North America, Tobin and Sykes (1968), Silver (1971);
Central America-Mexico-Lesser
Antilles, Molnar and Sykes (1969); Peru-Chile,
(1966), Santa (1969), Stauder (1973), Swift and Carr (1975); South Sandwich, Forsyth
(1975); New Zealand, Hamilton and Gale (1968), Smith (1971), Scholz et al. (1973);
New Britain-Solomon
Hebrides, Denham (1969), Johnson and Molnar
(1972). Moreover, Rothd (1969) has been consulted as a general reference.

sphere at the time they began to be underthrust, have been neglected in the
study of subduction zones.
In this study it proved to be helpful to divide the earths subduction zones
into age classes. The following classes were selected: class 1: older than 70
m.y., class 2: 40-70 m.y., class 3: O-40 m.y., with a subdivision into 3A
(15-40 m.y.) and 3B (O-15 m.y.).
For all seismic zones in Fig. 1 it has been shown in studies of seismicity,
focal mechanisms and sea-floor spreading that they mark sites where ocean
floor is being reabsorbed into the mantle.
Table I shows the classification of the subduction zones and the references
used in the age determinations. Within a few zones a subdivision is made into


Classification of subduction


Age class


1. (>70 m.y.)



Izu Bonin

2. (40-70


Aleutians + Alaska
Central America
(north of 36%)

3A. (15-40

3B. (O-15



South Sandwich
(south of 58S)
Western North America
Mexico **


Larson and Chase (1972); Larson et al.

Larson and Chase (1972); Larson et al.
Heezen et al. (1972)
Winterer et al. (1969); Heezen et al. (1972)
Veevers et al. (1973)
Burns et al. (197 2); Larson and Chase
Larson and Chase (1972)
Peter et al. (1970); Taylor and ONeill
Herron (1972)
Herron (1972);

Hart et al. (1974)

Sclater and Fisher (1974);

et al. (1972)
Forsyth (1975)

Von der Borch

Herron and Hayes (1969)

Klitgord et al. (1973)
Atwater (1970)
Sclater et al. (1971);

Herron (1972)

* References from which the age data used in the classification have been taken. The geomagnetic reversal-time scale of Heirtzler et al. (1968) and its modification and extensions
by Talwani et al. (1971), Larson and Pitman (1972) and Larson and Hilde (1975) are used
throughout this paper.
** The Mexican zone comprises both class 3A and 3B; however, the age data do not allow
a subdivision.

two or three parts because significant age differences can be distinguished.

Only subduction zones of which the tectonic setting and the age are adequately known, are considered in the classification. This implies the exclusion of several seismic zones directly associated with complicated inland or
marginal seas: e.g. the Ryukyu and Mindanao zones along the western boundary of the Philippine Sea, The Tyrrhenian and Aegean zones in the Mediterranean and the New Guinea, New Britain, Solomon islands and New Hebrides zones at the boundaries of the Solomon Sea and the Coral Sea.



Class 1

This class (see Table I) comprises nearly all well-known deep earthquake
zones. Their average dips and maximum focal depths are summarized in Fig.
2. The maximum focal depths are in the range 580-685
Of the two hypotheses (see introduction)
advanced by Isacks et al. (1968),
the former, in which the 10 m.y. period is considered to be the duration of
the present episode of sea-floor spreading and subduction, requires a worldwide interruption
of sea-floor spreading just prior to 10 m.y. B.P. Extensive
mapping of magnetic anomalies and data from deep sea drilling (e.g., Maxwell et al., 1970; Pitman and Talwani, 1972) do not provide evidence for
such a worldwide phenomenon.
The latter hypothesis, in which the 10 m.y.
period is taken to be an approximation
to the time required for resorption of
the cold underthrust
slab, is the more acceptable (Oliver et al., 1973). If we
take into account the refinement made by Deffeyes (1972) concerning the
of the resorption time, a relation between down-dip length
of a seismic zone and the convergence rate is indeed apparent. Such a relation, however, does not give insight in the vertical motion of subducted
oceanic lithosphere.
Luyendyk (1970) investigated the correlation between the convergence
rate and the dip of the Tonga, Kermadec, Java and Kurile zones. The data
could be explained by his dip-rate relationship, if an average sinking rate V,
between 4 and 6 cm/year was assumed.
Thus, after approximately
the same amount of cooling the slabs in the
class-l zones appear to sink to depths in the small range 580-685
km at

Fig. 2. Schematic represenation

of the subduction
zones of age class 1. The lines show the
average dips and the maximum focal depths of the zones. References
from which data are
taken are listed in the caption of Fig. 1.


about the same rate. This is considered as strong evidence for the dominating
effect of the gravitational instability of the slabs on their vertical motion.
To the Kermadec and Tonga zones we could only assign minimum ages of
90 m.y. and 100 m.y., respectively. As the other zones in this class are older
than 90 m.y., it appears that we lack data in the interval 70- 90 m.y.
Class 2
In the classification of these four zones (see Table I), several complications in the spreading history of the ocean floor involved were encountered.
In the east-central Pacific a reorganization
of spreading centres has taken
place during the Cenozoic era (Herron, 1972; Mammerickx et al., 1975). The
age of the ocean floor near the Aleutian and Sumatran trenches increases in
the direction towards the adjacent ocean basins (Peter et al., 1970; Sclater








Fig. 3. The pattern of lithospheric plates in the east-central Pacific. Double lines indicate
the location of active spreading centres (after Stover, 1973). The hatched double bars
show the approximate location of crest segments of the extinct ridge (after Herron, 1972).
Numbers indicate approximate ages (in m.y.) of the oceanic lithosphere (Herron, 1972).
The dotted lines show the boundary between lithosphere created at the present East Pacific Rise and that generated at the extinct ridge crest. A-A and B-B indicate the locations of the sections shown in Figs. 4 and 6, respectively. a: Tehuantepec Ridge; b: Cocos
Ridge ; c : Nazca Ridge.


Fig. 4. Projection of hypocentres of events that occurred in the Middle America seismic
region during the g-years period 1965-1973,
onto a vertical plane approximately parallel
to the trench (line A-A in Fig. 3). The hypocentres were taken from the PDE (Preliminary Determination of Epicenters) data file of the National Earthquake Information
Center of the U.S. Geological Survey (formerly NOAA and USCGS). Only hypocentres
deeper than 60 km were plotted. The Tehuantepec Ridge intersects the trench between
95 W and 96 W.

and Fisher, 1974). This has been taken into account in dating the corresponding subduction zones.
We will briefly describe some features of the individual zones.
The structure of the Aleutian-Alaskan
subduction zone varies strongly
along the strike of the zone (Tobin and Sykes, 1966; Rothe, 1969; Cormier,
1975). In the western part of the Aleutian arc the variations may well be
attributed to the rapid change in direction of motion of the Pacific Ocean
floor relative to the arc (McKenzie and Parker, 1967).
Herrons (1972) data indicate that the central and northeastern
part of the
Cocos plate is older than the western and southern edges. This is clearly reflected in the topography of the Guatemala Basin and in the heat-flow values
(Anderson, 1974). The Tehuantepec
Ridge which intersects the trench near
95 W (see Fig. 3) delineates the boundary between the Guatemala Basin and
the younger northwestern
part of the Cocos plate. The part of the Middle
American zone west of the Tehuantepec
Ridge which has a maximum age of

Fig. 5. Vertical section oriented parallel to the Sumatra and Java seismic zones. Data were
taken from the PDE-file (see caption of Fig. 4) for the, period 1965-1973
and from
Rothe (1969) for the years 1953-1964.
Only hypocentres deeper than 60 km were


20 m.y. near 95W, falls under class 3 and will be called the
Mexican zone. The remaining part east of 95W is a member of class 2 and
will be referred to as the Central American zone. Figure 4 demonstrates
the deepest foci (maximum 275 km) are found east of the Tehuantepec
Ridge, where the oldest lithosphere of the Cocos plate is descending. A correlation between lithospheric age and focal depths in this seismic region has
previously been suggested by Truchan and Larson (1973).
Figure 5 shows a striking contrast in maximum focal depths between the
Sumatra zone (class 2) and the Java zone (class 1). A change in the rate or
direction of plate convergence cannot readily account for this very abrupt
change (Fitch and Molnar, 1970; Fitch, 1970).
The most characteristic
feature of the Peru-Northern
Chile zone is a pronounced gap in seismic activity at depths between 300 km and 525 km.
Deep seismic activity occurs in some parts of the zone at depths between
525 km and 660 km (&ala, 1966; Santa, 1969; Stauder, 1973; Swift and
Carr, 1975). With the exception of the Pea-Noshes
Chile zone all deep
seismic activity, considered in our age classes, occurs in subduction zones
where old Mesozoic lithosphere is consumed (class 1). At present the oceanic
lithosphere at the Peru-Chile
trench (north of 36s) is only 45-53,m.y.
(see Fig. 3). Analysis of directions and rates of spreading and plate convergence, taken from Herron (1972) and Minster et al. (1974), revealed that
during the last 10 m.y. this zone has evolved from a class-l zone to a class-2
zone. The subducted lithosphere above the gap began to descend at an age
between 45 m.y. and approximately
70 m.y. The deeper parts were over 70
m.y. of age at the initiation of their descent (class 1).
With the incorporation
of the transitional situation in the Peru-Northern
Chile zone it follows from the references cited in Fig. 1 that the subduction
zones of class 2 have maximum focal depths in the range 175-300
A short duration of the present period of undert.hrusting relative to that
for the deep earthquake zones is not a satisfactory explanation for the limited
depth of the subducted class-2 lithosphere, because it is not consistent with evidence from volcanic activity on land and from sea-floor
spreading (see Herron (1972) and Malfait and Dinkelman (1972, p. 258) for
the Central American zone and Katili (1973) for Sumatra).
If, after Deffeyes (1972), the resorption time is taken to be the down-dip
length of a seismic zone divided by the subduction rate, then, with the rates
of Minster et al, (1974), we find resorption times shorter than 9 m,y. for the
class-2 lithosphere. As these are shorter than those for older subducted lithosphere (Deffeyes, 1972), this is evidence for age-dependent
subduction behaviour.
However, the Peruvian zone provides evidence for the possibility that the
maximum penetration depth is not determined by resorption, Although the
upper part of the under-thrust slab (i.e. above the gap) has a length of about
800 km, it apparently does not sink to depths greater than 200-250 km.

This is explained by the limited initial density contrast, inherent to its age.



we consider the established depth range of 175-300

for subducted lithosphere of class 2.

km to be

Class 3
Except for the South Sandwich arc, the class-3 zones appear to be located
in regions when the North and South American plates approach active spreading centres.
The age of the oceanic lithosphere being underthrust
in the Central Chile
zone is indicated in Fig. 3. A subdivision is made into two latitude ranges
(see Table I). A projection of hypocentres
of earthquakes that occurred in
this region during the years 1965-1973,
onto a vertical north--south
trending plane is shown in Fig. 6.
The limited penetration depth and the small down-dip length of the subducted lithosphere (see cross-sections in Stauder (1973) and Swift and Carr
(1975)) cannot be explained by assuming that Central Chile is in a youthful
stage of plate convergence. Vergara and Munizaga (1974) showed that Central Chile has been a plate-contact
zone probably since Mesozoic but certainly since Miocene times.
Since the pole of the relative motion between the Nazca plate and the
South American plate, as determined by Minster et al. (1974) at 52 N 91 W is
90 away from Central Chile, the structural change shown in
Fig. 6 near 42s cannot be attributed to a variation in relative plate motions.
Figure 6 demonstrates
that the offset in the Chile Ridge (see Fig, 3) resulting in a lithospheric age difference at the plate contact, is clearly reflected in
the seismicity of the area.
The situation in Western North America (40 N-50 N) where the Juan de
Fuca plate is consumed beneath the continent (Atwater, 1970; Silver, 1971),
is very similar to that in Central-South
Forsyth (1975) described the tectonic situation along the South Sandwich
arc where also an offset in a spreading ridge crest is involved, resulting in
lithospheric age differences at the trench. In the southern part (south of

Fig. 6. Projection of hypocentres of events that occurred in the Chilean seismic zone (between 33s and 50s) during the period 1965-1973,
onto a north-south trending vertical plane (line B-B in Fig. 3). Hypocentres were taken from the PDE-file (see caption of
Fig. 4). The eastward prolongation of the offset in the Chile Ridge intersects the Chilean
coast near 42 S.

58 S) the maximum focal depth is 150 km and the intermediate
indicate down-dip compression, whereas in the northern part the maximum
focal depth is 180 km and the intermediate
earthquakes indicate down-dip
extension. We agree with Forsyth who explained this difference in terms of
gravitational body forces dependent on lithospheric age.
With the exclusion of the Mexican zone, we can subdivide class 3 into
class 3A covering the subduction zones where lithosphere between 15 m.y.
and 40 m.y. of age is being underthrust,
and class 3B covering the range O15 m.y. The former class, then, includes the Central-North
Chile zone
(36 S-42S) and the South Sandwich zone (south of 58 S). Their maximum focal depths span the range 150-185
km. Also the northwestern
of Sumatra may probably be added to this small class. If this would be correct, it would set the lower limit at 130 km. The latter class includes the
Chile zone (42S-46s)
and the contact between the Juan de
Fuca plate and the North American plate. Their maxima are 120 km and 103
km, respectively. The Mexican zone, in which the age data do not allow a
subdivision, seems to comprise both the 3A and 3B classes (see Fig. 4).
focal depth


the age of the subducted

The main results obtained

so far are compiled


and maximum

in Fig. 7. A distinct correla-

Fig. 7. Relation between the age of oceanic lithosphere at the time it began to be underthrust in a subduction zone and the maximum focal depth of the earthquakes occurring
within this subducted lithosphere. The numbers indicate the age classes. The horizontal
bars correspond with the widths of the age classes (see Table I). The vertical bars indicate
the depth ranges covered by the maximum focal depths in the subduction zones of the
corresponding classes. No data appear to be available in the age interval 70-90 m.y. However, the age determinations of the class-l zones are not accurate enough to define a separate age class.


tion between the age of oceanic lithosphere at the time it began to be underthrust in a subduction zone and the maximum focal depth of the earthquakes occurring within this subducted lithosphere is demonstrated.
Although PDE (Preliminary Determination
of Epicenters) data have been used
in the construction
of the sections shown in Figs. 4, 5 and 6, the maximum
focal depths on which the relationship in Fig. 7 is based were taken from the
cited regional studies (see Fig. 1) and from Rothes (1969) catalogue.

Phase changes and resorption

On aging of the oceanic lithosphere, two of its physical parameters which
are pertinent to the process of subduction, are subject to changes: (1) temperature decreases; and (2) density increases. These parameters are related
through cubic expansion and phase transitions.
Christensen and Salisbury (1975) established some relations between geophysical features of ocean basins and the age of the ocean floor. They arrived
at some significant ages which coincide with the limits of our age classes:
anomalous upper-mantle velocities (between 7.2 km/see and 7.8 km/see) are
common to 15 m.y.; oceanic layer 3 continues to increase in thickness to 40
m.y. and a strong Bouguer anomaly associated with the presence of an anomalous upper mantle persists to 70 m.y.
Forsyth and Press (1971) suggested that phase changes take place upon
cooling of the oceanic lithosphere. This would imply that gravitational instability is enhanced.
When cooling has resulted in gravitational instability, the density determines the negative buoyancy forces and, upon reheating after subduction,
the depth at which stability will be re-established. The rheological state in
which this depth is reached depends on the temperature
of the slab and of
the surrounding mantle. This also plays a primary part in the process of resorption, which therefore is an obscuring factor in identifying the slabs penetration depth. Hence, discrepancies may exist between the maximum focal
depth of earthquakes occurring in the slab and the depth of penetration.
propose that penetration depth and the depth of assimilation, both depending on the temperature,
are approximately
equal. As the oceanic lithosphere
has been derived from the upper mantle, and as its history depends criticalfy
on its temperature,
this proposition appears to be sound. Moreover, it has
been shown by numerical calculations (Minear and Toksoz, 1970) that for a
deeply penetrating slab (our class 1) the deepest e~hquakes
are at a depth
where the temperature
of the slab is close to the temperature
of the surrounding mantle. There is no reason to assume that the same does not apply
to younger slabs. In this light we may state the following:
(1) When oceanic lithosphere younger than 15 m.y. (class 3B) is being
or more likely, is being overthrust by continental lithosphere, it


is reheated rapidly to the temperature of the upper mantle. As a consequence, gravitational stability and resorption are attained within a short time
and at a shallow level, thus resulting in (apparent} subhorizontal
underthrusting. As a consequence,
earthquakes generated between 60 km and the indicated maximum depth range are very rare.
(2) The depth ranges of classes 3A and 2 are representative
of the maximum focal depths all along the strikes of the zones involved. The .large gap
between the depth ranges of class 1 and class 2 (see Fig. 7) suggests that the
interval 70-90 m,y, in which no data are available, is of a transitional nature.
This may be attributed to the part the olivine-spinel
phase change plays in
the subduction process. Because of the lower temperature
this phase change,
normally being situated at a depth of approximately
400 km, may take place
at a shallower level in a descending slab. On the basis of the results of Schubert and Turcotte (1971) and Turcotte and Schubert (19?1), the following
implications may be envisaged. A lithospheric slab younger than 70 m.y.
does not penetrate to depths greater than 300 km and its temperature
is too
high to elevate the phase boundary. Thus, the phase change does not affect
the subduction in classes 2 and 3. In a very cold slab (older than 90 m.y.),
the phase boundary is displaced upward to a depth of 260 km, which enhances the negative buoyancy force by a factor of about two. The slab then
is forced to sink to the depth of approximately
650 km, Going through the
transitional interval from 70 m.y. to 90 m.y., the gravitational instability is
drastically increased. A hypothetical
penetration depth-age
curve should
have a steep slope in this interval. This indeed is apparent in Fig. 7.
Plate cmwergence

In the oldest zones (class 1) ~avitatiun~

instability may have resulted in
spontaneous downbuckling and subsequent over- and und~~h~sting
of oceanic lithosphere, which is typical for island-arc structures.
Within the global system of relative plate motions patterns may arise which
imply a decrease in the age of the oceanic lithosphere near a consuming plate
boundary. In this way a subduction zone
class 2 or 3 may evolve.
In the age classes 2 and 3A vertical forces appear to be present. At plate
boundaries of the Juan de Fuca-North
America type (class 3B), where vertical instab~ity has not yet been developed, ove~h~sting
of the continental
plate appears to be the primary cause of the continuing plate consumption.
The dip angle of a subducted plate depends, among others, on the convergence rate normal to the plate contact and the vertical velocity (Luyendyk,
1970). We propose that the vertical velocity in turn is determined by the
amount of instability and hence the age of the downgoing slab, which should
effect the dip angle accordingly. However, the dip angle must also be influenced by the motion of the plate contact with respect to the mantle. This
unknown factor obscures the situation considerably.
In numerical modelling of subduction processes, above considerations



should be taken into account, in particular the age-dependence

and density at the convergence zone.

of the initial

Detachment is supposed to take place (McKenzie, 1969) when two continental plates collide at a subduction zone. The oceanic lithosphere in front
of one of them, becomes detached and sinks on its own (Garpathians).
In principle this mechanism may also be applicable when the evolution of
a subduction zone is such that, within a short time interval, increasingly
younger lithosphere is subducted. This is probably the case in the PeruNorthern Chile zone. An age discontinuity
in a subducted slab may exist as
a result of the development
of a new spreading ridge crest in an old basin.
The presence of the relatively young and hot oceanic lithosphere does not
necessarily stop the subduction process, but it may cause detachment at a
certain depth in the subduction zone. The upper part, consisting of the
younger lithosphere, may not be able to pass the olivin~p~el
phase transition whereas the older part had sufficiently cooled to do so. As a consequence the older part becomes detached and sinks to greater depths.

on some te~t~~i~~l~y complex seismic regions

(1) The evolution of the complicated F~i~~ppineSea is only partially

understood. The development
of the Parece Vela Basin between the northtrending Palau-Kyushu
Ridge and the West Mariana Ridge, and the Mariana
Basin between the latter ridge and the Mariana arc is explained by Karig
(1971) as a result of interarc extension which started in the Miocene and
Late Pliocene, respectively. No agreement exists concerning the evolution of
the western Philippine Basin which has a well-developed trench system along
its western boundary. If the model of Uyeda and Ben-Avraham (1972) in
which the western basin is taken to be a part of an old ocean floor (older
than 100 m.y.), including an extinct segment of the Kula-Pacific
Ridge, is
correct, we would expect the Mindanao and the Ryukyu subduction zones
to be of the deep type (class 1). However, only in the southern half of the
Mindanao zone (between 2N and 10N) are deep earthquakes known (Fitch
and Molnar, 1970). On the other hand, deep sea drilling results (Ingle et al.,
1973) do not indicate ages older than Paleocene in the western Philippine
Sea floor. Maximum focal depths in the Ryukyu zone and the northern half
of the Mindanao zone are in correspondence
with class-2 depths (Fitch and
Molnar, 1970; Katsumata and Sykes, 1969). No sites have been drilled off
the southern Mindanao zone where deep earthquakes occur. Therefore, we
can only say that on the basis of our results we expect these deep earthquakes to be associated with old portions of lithosphere (class 1).
At the southwestern
tip of the Mariana arc the deep and in~~ediate
seismicity ends rather abruptly. The seismic activity along the Yap and Palau


trenches is extremely low and of the shallow type. This abrupt transition has
to be linked to the age difference between the Caroline Basin which is only
14-18 m.y. old east of the Palau trench (Bracey, 1975) and the old Mesozoic Pacific ocean floor east of the Mariana arc.
(2) New Zealand is located on the contact of the Indian and Pacific plates.
From NE to SW the structure of this contact shows important changes as a
result of the fact that the plate boundary cuts through the continental plateau which, apart from New Zealands North Island and South Island, comprises the Lord Howe Rise, the Chatham Rise and the Campbell Plateau. Although differences in seismicity are apparent, the North Island seismic zone
may be considered as a continuation
of the Tonga and Kermadec zones. The
Fiordland seismic region with maximum focal depths of about 160 km
(Smith, 1971; Scholz et al., 1973) is related to subduction of the Tasman
Sea floor beneath the South Island.
The Central Tasman Sea floor has been created by spreading during the
period from 80 m.y. B.P. till 60 or possibly 50 m.y. B.P. (Hayes and Ringis,
1973; McDougall and Van der Lingen, 1974). However, the Southern Tasman Sea, which is involved in the underthrusting
beneath Fiordland, originates from the southeastern part of the mid-Indian Ocean Ridge which
started to separate Australia from Antarctica about 50-55 m.y. B.P. (Bowin,
1974). Taking into account the convergence rate of 3.7 cm/year (Minster et
al., 1974), it turns out that the deepest parts of the lithosphere in the Fiordland zone ,were probably not older than 50 m.y. at the initiation of the
The maximum depth of 160 km in the Fiordland region does
not fall in the range 175-300
km we found for class 2. Possibly the proximity of the continental-type
Lord Howe Rise influences the development
of a
subduction zone. This may also be the case in the North Island seismic zone
where a lateral transition takes place from the oceanic lithosphere at the
Hikurangi trench to the continental lithosphere of the Chatham Rise.
(3) Mediterranean
Sea. In the Tyrrhenian
earthquake zone the maximum
focal depth appears to be 485 km. Hypocentres
of intermediate
and deep
events delineate a narrow WNW-dipping seismic zone, thus suggesting that
the Ionian Basin lithosphere is descending beneath the Calabrian arc. Focal
mechanisms of intermediate
and deep events are in support of this interpretation (Ritsema, 1971,1972).
However, the moderate shallow seismicity indicates that at present this region is not a site of active under-thrusting. If, indeed, the Ionian Basin lithosphere has descended beneath the Calabrian arc,
then, on the basis of our results and the depths that the possibly detached
pieces of lithosphere appear to reach, it seems justified to assign a Mesozoic
age to the western part of the Eastern Mediterranean
Basin floor.
Ritsema (1971,1972)
proposed an active overriding of both the Calabrian
am and the Hellenic arc over the Ionian Basin floor. The great differences in
dip and maximum focal depth between the Tyrrhenian and Aegean seismic
zones have as yet not been explained.
(4) Caribbean Sea. According to Molnar and Sykes (1969) underthrusting


of the Atlantic Ocean floor takes place beneath the Lesser Antilles arc. A
maximum focal depth of 232 km is reported by Sykes and Ewing (1965). A
tentative age of 90 m.y. for the equatorial Atlantic directly east of the arc
may be inferred from the results of Pitman and Talwani (1972). It is doubtful whether this subduction zone is representative
of the afore-mentioned
transitional interval. Possibly, the presence of the thick sedimentary cover on
the South American continental margin which extends in northern direction
all along the arc (Ewing et al., 1973), has resulted in less effective cooling
than in open oceanic basins with thin sedimentary covers and has kept the
maximum focal depth in the class-2 range. However, the evolution and tectonic setting of the Caribbean are of such a complexity that we must await
further understanding
of the regions specific features before we can include
the data in a worldwide analysis of subduction zones.
(5) Recent hypotheses concerning the tectonics of the New Guinea-New
islands region involve a number of small plates needed to
explain the regional seismicity (Johnson and Molnar, 1972). In general it is
assumed that the contact of the Indian (or Australian) plate and the Pacific
plate changed significantly at the time New Guinea reached the trench of a
north-dipping subduction zone. At present, it does not seem to be of much
use to speculate on the implications of our results for the evolution of this
extremely variable area.


In all cases where adequate data are available for dating the history of subduction zones, a unique relation between the history and the depth of subduction of oceanic lithospheric material and the time elapsed between its
creation at spreading centers and its subduction, has been well established.
This remarkable feature enables us to make a number of speculative statements:
(1) Plate tectonics is part of a convective process involving the oceanic
lithosphere and probably the entire upper mantle above a depth of 750 km.
The process is maintained by gravitational instability in a lithosphere-upper
mantle system which is not capable of loosing its heat by simple conduction.
The gravitational instability is manifest at ocean ridge crests where hot
material rises and in subduction zones where a cooled lithospheric slab is
being subducted. The depth of penetration can be related to the amount of
cooling the lithosphere has been subject to since its creation, which in turn
determines the gravitational instability of the layering of the lithosphere
relative to the deeper layers.
(2) While subduction usually takes place at continental margins where an
oceanic and a continental plate collide, it appears to be that spontaneous subduction is possible in oceanic regions provided the oceanic lithosphere has
reached the amount of instability inherent to our class 1. Such may be the
case in the Tonga-Kermadec
region. An initial stage of downbuckling may


be present at the Canton trough (Rosendahl et al., 1975), which indeed concerns old oceanic lithosphere. It is plausible to expect that downbuckling
and subduction eventually will take place in the oldest parts of the Atlantic
Ocean near the continental margins. As these epicontinental
basins are filled
with a thick sediment cover this may give rise to tectonic phenomena such as
mountain building.
(3) As is evidenced that cooling of the oceanic lithosphere is instrumental
to the occurrence and character of subduction it is to be expected that the
tectonic history of complicated areas can be understood in the light of our
hypothesis if more relevant data will become available.
We are confident that deep earthquakes in turn are to be associated with
remnants of an old oceanic lithosphere, even if no other evidence is present.
In this light, the intermediate
and deep Hindu Kush, Carpathian, and Spanish
earthquakes can be explained. Obviously, our results are of interest in the reconstruction
of paleo-subduction
(4) Subduction of oceanic lithosphere which has been created recently
(class 3B) results in apparent subhorizontal
and is accompanied by lower and predominantly
shallow seismicity. The upper basaltic
layer of the underthrust
slab, which has not been cooled sufficiently, is
heated to near its melting point again. This appears to be the case in the western part of North America, where recent large-scale uplift took place and
which region is characterized
by volcanism and the inital stages of rifting
(Anderson, 1971; Decker and Smithson, 1975).
(5) Though the subduction process of oceanic lithosphere and its relation
to its cooling history appears now to be well established as being part of a
convective cycle, it is not clear why and where rifting of the lithosphere,
which must be the onset of the convective process, will take place. If initial
rifting takes place in a continental lithosphere it can be made plausible that
blanketing by sedimentary layers plays a major role. However, in oceanic regions, where active ridges are initiated and also disappear, there appears to be
no evidence for preference for specific areas relative to others for the initial
stages of ocean spreading.
All that can be stated is that the oceanic lithosphere is such a poor conductor for heat that convective processes are necessary for the earth to transport its internal heat to the surface.

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