28 Jul 2023
 | 28 Jul 2023

The influence of viscous slab rheology on numerical models of subduction

Natalie Hummel, Susanne Buiter, and Zoltán Erdös

Abstract. Numerical models of subduction commonly use diffusion and dislocation creep laws from laboratory deformation experiments to determine the rheology of the lithosphere. The specific implementation of these laws varies from study to study, and the impacts of this variation on model behavior have not been thoroughly explored. We run simple 2D numerical models of free subduction in SULEC, with viscoplastic slabs following: 1) a diffusion creep law, 2) a dislocation creep law, and 3) both in parallel. We compare the results of these models to a model with a constant-viscosity slab to determine the relative importance of each creep mechanism in subducting lithosphere and the impact of the implementation of different lithospheric flow laws on subduction dynamics. We find that dislocation creep dominates diffusion creep throughout subducting lithosphere with moderate (5 mm) grain size in the upper mantle. However, both diffusion and dislocation creep predict very high viscosities in the cold core of the slab. The resulting high slab stiffness causes the subducting plate to curl under itself at the mantle transition zone, affecting patterns in subduction velocity, slab dip, and trench migration over time. Peierls creep and localized grain size reduction likely limit the stress and viscosity in the cores of real slabs. Numerical models implementing only power-law creep and neglecting Peierls creep are likely to overestimate the stiffness of subducting lithosphere, which may impact model results in a variety of respects. Our models also demonstrate a feedback between effective slab length and subduction velocity. Analogue and numerical models with constant-viscosity slabs lack this feedback, but still capture the qualitative patterns observed in more complex models.

Natalie Hummel, Susanne Buiter, and Zoltán Erdös

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-1656', Anonymous Referee #1, 30 Jul 2023
    • AC3: 'Reply on RC1', Natalie Hummel, 25 Oct 2023
  • RC2: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-1656', Anonymous Referee #2, 23 Aug 2023
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Natalie Hummel, 25 Oct 2023
  • RC3: 'Comment on egusphere-2023-1656', Fabio A. Capitanio, 31 Aug 2023
    • AC1: 'Reply on RC3', Natalie Hummel, 25 Oct 2023
Natalie Hummel, Susanne Buiter, and Zoltán Erdös
Natalie Hummel, Susanne Buiter, and Zoltán Erdös


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Short summary
Simulations of subducting tectonic plates often use material properties extrapolated from the behavior of small rock samples in a laboratory to conditions found in the Earth. We explore several typical approaches to simulating these extrapolated material properties and show that they produce very rigid subducting plates with unrealistic dynamics. Our findings imply that subducting plates deform by additional mechanisms that are less commonly implemented in simulations.