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NW Pacific slab rheology, the seismicity cutoff, and the olivine to spinel phase change

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Along the Kamchatka-Kuril-Japan-Izu-Bonin-Mariana subduction zones, the old age of the subducting Pacific Plate and the rapid subduction rate together suggest that earthquakes should occur to the bottom of the transition zone. However, the seismicity cutoff varies in depth between 350 km and 650 km. Along these subduction zones, the largest deep-focus earthquakes invariably occur near the depth of the local seismicity cutoff regardless of its depth. The events near the seismicity cutoffs also have systematically different focal mechanisms than shallower events. Furthermore, data from S660P arrivals, residual sphere analysis, and tomographic studies all show that the slab dip consistently steepens to a near-vertical orientation at the seismicity cutoff. This change in slab dip indicates a strength loss in the slab. We hypothesize the following causal connection among all these observations: The cold temperatures in the slab kinetically hinder the olivine to spinel phase change and allow the olivine to persist metastably to depths well below its equilibrium pressure. When the phase transition occurs, it nucleates very fine-grained spinel which acts as a lubricant, allowing the initiation of earthquake faulting at high confining pressures which further nucleates additional fine-grained spinel. The cold anomaly of the slab severely inhibits the growth of the nucleated spinel crystals. The presence of the fine-grained spinel crystals reduces the strength of the coldest part of the slab by several orders of magnitude, allowing high slab deformation rates. Additionally, the phase change, by increasing the density, provides a negative buoyancy force. Combined, these processes reduce the slab membrane strength and allow the slab to descend at a steeper dip.


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Correspondence to John C. Castle.

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Castle, J.C., Creager, K.C. NW Pacific slab rheology, the seismicity cutoff, and the olivine to spinel phase change. Earth Planet Sp 50, 977–985 (1998) doi:10.1186/BF03352192

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  • Olivine
  • Trench
  • Subduction Zone
  • Lower Mantle
  • Core Mantle Boundary