- Frontier letter
- Open Access
Geophysical assessment of migration and storage conditions of fluids in subduction zones
© Pommier; licensee Springer. 2014
Received: 3 February 2014
Accepted: 14 May 2014
Published: 23 May 2014
By enhancing mass transfer and energy release, the cycle of volatiles and melt is a major component of subduction. Investigating this fluid cycle is therefore critical to understand the past and current activity of subduction zones. Fluids can significantly affect rock electrical conductivity and elastic parameters that are measured using electromagnetic and seismic methods, respectively. This letter emphasizes how these geophysical methods complement each other to provide information about the storage of fluids in subduction systems. By compiling electromagnetic and seismic results from various subduction zones, a possible correlation between electrical conductivity and seismic wave attenuation anomalies in the mantle wedge is observed, consistent with fluid accumulation. A possible relationship between geophysical properties and the slab age is also suggested, whereas no significant trend is observed between electrical conductivity or seismic wave attenuation and estimates of water flux in the mantle wedge. These field-based relationships require further constrains, emphasizing the need for new measurements in the laboratory.
The dynamics and time-evolution of subduction are driven by mechanical and chemical processes that influence buoyancy forces, slab motion, contrasting thermal fields, phase equilibria, and volatile transport. By enhancing mass transfer and energy release, the cycle of fluids in subduction zones is a critical component of slab recycling and continental building processes. A better understanding of the role of melt and volatiles in subduction zones is therefore key to improving our knowledge of the geodynamic processes at work. It can also help us better assess volcanic and earthquake hazards in these contexts.
The cycle of fluids is expected to differ significantly between subduction zones. For instance, varying temperatures cause dehydration reactions to occur at shallower depths in the slabs of warm subduction zones (e.g., Southwest Japan, Cascades) compared to slabs of cold subduction zones (e.g., Tonga, Java) (Peacock and Wang 1999). Fluid migration was found to be faster than subduction velocity in warm subduction systems (e.g., approximately 7 cm/year versus approximately 4 cm/year, respectively, in Southwest Japan, Kawano et al. 2011), suggesting a continuous hydration of the mantle wedge due to upward fluid migration along the subduction interface. In colder environments, comparable fluid and subduction velocities (e.g., approximately 10 cm/year in Northeast Japan, Kawano et al. 2011) imply that a non-negligible amount of water reaches the lower mantle and triggers melting, as evidenced by geochemical signatures of island arc magmas (e.g., Stolper and Newman 1994; Wallace 2005). Significant water contents in the mantle are suggested by modeling studies. For instance, van Keken et al. (2011) estimated that the global H2O flux to the deep mantle corresponds roughly to one ocean mass over the Earth's history.
Fluids influence electrical conductivity and seismic velocity in different ways (see Unsworth and Rondenay 2013). These physical properties are measured using electromagnetic and seismic methods, respectively, offering a unique way to map in situ fluid distributions in real time. When interpreted together with petrological results, geophysical data can be used to constrain fluid chemistry, temperature, fraction, and connectivity. Though some important findings have been obtained to relate electrical and seismic data to fluid distribution, thermal structure, and mineralogy (e.g., Kazatchenko et al. 2004; Hacker and Abers 2004; ten Grotenhuis et al. 2005), further work is required to understand the possible relationships between geophysical parameters sensitive to fluids and subduction dynamics.
This letter addresses how electromagnetic and seismic methods complement each other to help define the storage conditions of fluid processes in subduction. It aims to stimulate laboratory investigations that use a joint electrical-seismic approach and combine geophysical data with subduction settings.
Geophysical structure of subduction zones and fluid detection
Electrical conductivity structure of subduction zones
Location and average electrical conductivity (EC) of main conductors detected in electromagnetic studies of subduction zones
Forearc or trench-close conductor
Distance from trench (km)
Distance from trench (km)
1. Chile-Bolivia (19.5°S-21°S)
Brasse et al. (2002)
2. Chile-Bolivia (17°S-19°S)
Brasse and Eydam (2008)
3. Costa Rica
Worzewski et al. (2011)
Joedicke et al. (2006)
5. Philippine Sea
Shimakawa and Honkura (1991)
6. South Chile
Brasse et al.(2009)
7. Central Argentina
300 or less
Booker et al. (2004)
8. Cascadia, British Columbia
Soyer and Unsworth (2006)
9. Cascadia, Oregon
Evans et al. (2013)
Galanopoulos et al. (2005)
Matsuno et al. (2012)
Bertrand et al. (2012)
13. Kyushu, Japan
Ichiki et al. (2000)
14. Hokkaido, Japan
Ichiki et al. (2009)
15. North Honshu, Japan
Toh et al. (2006)
16. Central New Zealand
Wannamaker et al. (2009)
This synthetic model suggests that the contrast in electrical conductivity between stable hydrous minerals in the slab and the mantle can be less than 1 log unit. This observation is consistent with the results from magnetotelluric studies that can hardly distinguish the slab from the surrounding mantle and, therefore, often resort to seismic studies to locate the slab (Brasse and Eydam 2008; Naif et al.2013). Figure 1B also predicts that the electrical response of hydrous minerals (chlorite, amphibole) may be similar to that of partial melt at conditions relevant to subduction, therefore hampering the identification of a free fluid phase. Improving our understanding of fluid distribution in subduction zones requires the integration of results from electromagnetic surveys with those from petrology and seismology.
Input from seismic studies
Different seismic techniques are used to probe subduction zones (see Unsworth and Rondenay 2013). Among the different seismic observables, a reduction in seismic velocities and quality factor Q can be used to infer fluid-bearing regions at depth and define fluid pathways (e.g., Syracuse et al.2008; Rychert et al.2008). In particular, seismic wave attenuation (Q−1) and Poisson's ratio (Vp/Vs) are sensitive to the presence of fluid and high temperature (Takei 2002), and some models showed that seismic velocities can be related to the fluid content within the mantle wedge (e.g., Carlson and Miller 2003). Estimates of volume fraction of fluids have been proposed based on these seismic parameters, and further work is needed to place stronger quantitative constraints (Aizawa et al. 2008). Low seismic velocity zones are commonly detected at shallow depths in relatively warm subduction contexts (Hirose et al.2008) and at higher depths in the mantle wedge of cold subduction environments (Tsuji et al. 2008). Seismic attenuation can be caused by mechanisms that are not all related to the presence of fluid, such as grain defect microdynamics, viscosity, and scattering (e.g., Johnston et al.1979; Karato and Spetzler 1990). Therefore, the interpretation of seismic attenuation in terms of fluid requires its coupling with other fluid-dependent geophysical parameters.
Location, highest seismic wave attenuation values, and wave velocity ratios of mantle wedge seismic anomalies
Forearc or trench-close anomaly
f range (Hz)
f range (Hz)
Wiens et al. (2008)
3. NE Japan
4. Honshu, Japan
Tsumura et al. (2000)
Ko et al. (2012)
6. Central Java, Indonesia
Bohm et al. (2013)
7. North New Zealand
Eberhart-Phillips et al. (2008)
40 and 80-120
Chen and Clayton (2009)
9. Nicaragua-Costa Rica
10. Central Andes −21, −22.1°S
11. Central Andes −24.2°S
Schurr et al. (2003)
Stachnik et al. (2004)
The inversion of converted and scattered teleseismic waves method does not clearly identify the zones of fluid accumulation (e.g., Rondenay et al. 2010), but rather fronts of serpentinization (Bostock et al. 2002), whose location is consistent with thermal and petrological subduction models at shallow depth (<~70 km). Serpentinization of the slab and mantle wedge is ascribed to a series of dehydration reactions that lead to permanent changes in the mineralogy and represents a major component of the fluid cycle at shallow depth (e.g., Reynard 2013).
Beneath the Cascades (Figure 2B), several small low seismic velocity zones are present, but no pronounced low-velocity zone can be distinctly observed in the mantle wedge where partial melt is expected (Rondenay et al. 2008), whereas electrical data clearly identified conductive zones interpreted as fluid accumulation areas, noted as A, B, C (Figure 2C; Evans et al. 2013). Region A is consistent with the presence of fluids from slab dehydration at shallow depth, B with a zone of fluid accumulation possibly related to the volcanic plumbing system, and C is in agreement with the presence of deeper partial melting. These conductive anomalies correspond to zones of seismic velocity reduction in Figure 2B, but they could not be clearly identified on the seismic profile without additional constraints from the electromagnetic study.
Relating electrical and seismic parameters to map fluid distribution
Electrical conductivity-seismic velocity relationships in fluid-bearing materials
Attempts to relate electrical and seismic properties of fluid-bearing materials are scarce (Kazatchenko et al. 2004; Pommier and Garnero 2014). These petrophysical models are based on theoretical approaches and laboratory measurements and aim to improve the interpretation of geophysical data. Another approach would consist of exploring electrical conductivity-seismic velocity relationships by considering their values from field measurements.
with a correlation coefficient R of 0.78 for P waves and 0.96 for S waves. These relationships suggest that the higher the electrical conductivity of the anomaly, the higher its seismic attenuation, suggesting a plausible link in their cause.
Several and possibly combined causes can explain increases in electrical conductivity, Qp−1, and Qs−1. Because temperature affects both electrical and elastic parameters of fluid-bearing materials (e.g., Faul et al. 2004; ten Grotenhuis et al. 2005), thermal contrasts could explain the trend observed in Figure 3. For instance, the increase in EC between the Mariana electrical anomaly and the more conductive one in Honshu (difference of approximately 0.30 S/m, Table 1) can be explained by an increase from 1,200°C to 1,300°C, considering a hydrous basalt (6.3 wt.% H2O) as the fluid phase (Ni et al. 2011), a melt fraction of 5%, and using the Hashin-Shtrikman upper bound (Hashin and Shtrikman 1962). The difference in seismic wave attenuation (Qp−1 = 93 to 132 in Mariana, 150 in Honshu, Table 2) can be caused by a temperature change of 50°C (1,200°C to 1,250°C) or less on the corresponding frequency range according to the model by Faul et al. (2004) for a dunite containing 5% melt.
The geometry of the interconnected fluid phase in solid matrix can also explain the relationship between electrical conductivity and P wave and S wave attenuations. At defined fluid fraction, a change in fluid interconnectivity and geometry is likely to influence seismic velocities (S wave velocities more than P wave velocities, Watt et al. 1976), which will affect Poisson's ratio and increase seismic attenuation (e.g., Jackson et al. 2004). Fluid interconnectivity can also affect electrical conductivity significantly enough to explain the variations observed in Figure 3 (several tenths of S/m) (e.g., ten Grotenhuis et al. 2005). The spatial distribution of fluid can also be responsible for seismic and electrical anisotropy observed in the field (e.g., Kawakatsu et al. 2009; Caricchi et al. 2011), which is not considered in the present study.
Fluid composition affects electrical conductivity and may affect seismic velocities, though the effect of fluids (in particular, water) on seismic observables is poorly constrained and calibrated (Aizawa et al. 2008). The difference in electrical conductivity between the backarc anomaly in Honshu (>0.15 S/m) and in Mariana (approximately 0.01 S/m) (Table 1) is comparable to the conductivity increase caused by the addition of 7 wt.% H2O to a basalt at 1,200°C, using the conductivity model by Ni et al. (2011). This would be consistent with the fact that the Mariana slab may have released most of its aqueous fluids, whereas the younger Honshu slab can still be expelling them, enriching partial melt accumulation zones with aqueous phase and leading to higher conductivity values.
An increase in the fluid content increases electrical conductivity (e.g., Nesbitt 1993), increases seismic wave attenuation (e.g., Jackson et al. 2004), and decreases seismic velocities (e.g., Mainprice 1997). Laboratory studies showed that electrical conductivity is very sensitive to fluid fraction (e.g., Caricchi et al. 2011; Yoshino et al. 2012), suggesting that a small change in fluid fraction can explain the differences in electrical conductivity between the different anomalies plotted in Figure 3 (assuming a similar temperature).The relationship between electrical conductivity and seismic wave attenuation presented in Figure 3 suggests that the fluid conditions affect electrical conductivity and seismic wave attenuation in a similar manner, assuming that fluids are responsible for the electric and seismic signals. Further electrical and seismic investigations are needed to demonstrate if the slope (or intercept) of this empirical relationship depends on the amount of fluids and their storage conditions and therefore place quantitative constraints on the nature of zones of fluid accumulation.
Relating electrical conductivity and seismic velocities to subduction settings
Subduction settings can also be expressed through the slab thermal parameter (slab age × convergence speed) (Kirby et al. 1991). Its value is small for slow subduction of young lithosphere (e.g., Mexico, Cascades) and high for fast subduction of old lithosphere (e.g., Tonga, Java). No distinct relationship is observed between electrical conductivity of mantle wedge anomalies (forearc and backarc) and the slab thermal parameter. However, as underlined in Figure 4C, seismic wave attenuation tends to be higher for low slab thermal parameter values. This would be consistent with an abundant release of fluids related to the dehydration process of a young crust, whereas the fast subduction of an old lithosphere does not promote fluid accumulation, leading to low seismic attenuation.
Geophysical parameters and global slab water flux
Geochemical studies proposed to estimate the fluxes of fluids (particularly water) in subduction, and models have been developed to estimate the amount of water expelled under compaction at shallow depth, as well as the amount of water reaching the deep mantle (e.g., Carlson and Miller 2003; van Keken et al.2011).
Concluding remarks: potential for improving the understanding of subduction settings using a joint electrical-seismic approach
Although thermo-mechanical models of subduction do not necessarily agree on the time-evolution, they all point out extreme temperature gradients across the slab-mantle interface (e.g., Syracuse et al.2010). As underlined by Poli and Schmidt (2002), this suggests that a wide pressure-temperature-composition space has to be characterized to predict the evolution of subducting slabs. Because of the sensitivity of geophysical parameters to temperature and composition, electrical and seismic field studies, when combined with thermo-mechanical models, can be a useful tool to understand the pathways that led to the current state of a subduction system and may help define plausible scenarios for its evolution.
A few attempts combined the P-T paths of slabs from thermal models and phase equilibria on hydrous basalt or peridotite compositions (e.g., Poli and Schmidt 2002; Syracuse et al.2010). Recently, Unsworth and Rondenay (2013) compared possible P-T paths of the slab with seismic velocity attenuation for a basaltic melt after Hacker (2008), attempting to relate dynamic models of subduction to the seismic properties of melt. Our knowledge of subduction would benefit from further joint investigations that promote the interpretation of seismic velocity and electrical conductivity in terms of composition and subduction dynamics. The recent expansion of geophysical experiments such as the EarthScope USArray seismic-magnetotelluric network offers the potential to improve significantly the relationships between electrical and elastic parameters.
This manuscript benefitted from discussions with and informal reviews by Stéphane Rondenay and Ed Garnero. Discussions with Kurt Leinenweber were also appreciated. The author thanks two anonymous reviewers for their comments.
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