Observations at convergent margins concerning sediment subduction, subduction erosion, and the growth of continental crust
At ocean margins where two plates converge, the oceanic plate sinks or is subducted beneath an upper one topped by a layer of terrestrial crust. This crust is constructed of continental or island arc material. The subduction process either builds juvenile masses of terrestrial crust through arc volcanism or new areas of crust through the piling up of accretionary masses (prisms) of sedimentary deposits and fragments of thicker crustal bodies scraped off the subducting lower plate. At convergent margins, terrestrial material can also bypass the accretionary prism as a result of sediment subduction, and terrestrial matter can be removed from the upper plate by processes of subduction erosion. Sediment subduction occurs where sediment remains attached to the subducting oceanic plate and underthrusts the seaward position of the upper plate's resistive buttress (backstop) of consolidated sediment and rock. Sediment subduction occurs at two types of convergent margins: type 1 margins where accretionary prisms form and type 2 margins where little net accretion takes place. At type 2 margins (∼19,000 km in global length), effectively all incoming sediment is subducted beneath the massif of basement or framework rocks forming the landward trench slope. At accreting or type 1 margins, sediment subduction begins at the seaward position of an active buttress of consolidated accretionary material that accumulated in front of a starting or core buttress of framework rocks. Where small-to-medium-sized prisms have formed (∼16,300 km), approximately 20% of the incoming sediment is skimmed off a detachment surface or decollement and frontally accreted to the active buttress. The remaining 80% subducts beneath the buttress and may either underplate older parts of the frontal body or bypass the prism entirely and underthrust the leading edge of the margin's rock framework. At margins bordered by large prisms (∼8,200 km), roughly 70% of the incoming trench floor section is subducted beneath the frontal accretionary body and its active buttress. In rounded figures the contemporary rate of solid-volume sediment subduction at convergent ocean margins (∼43,500 km) is calculated to be 1.5 km³/yr. Correcting type 1 margins for high rates of terrigenous seafloor sedimentation during the past 30 m.y. or so sets the long-term rate of sediment subduction at 1.0 km³/yr. The bulk of the subducted material is derived directly or indirectly from continental denudation. Interstitial water currently expulsed from accreted and deeply subducted sediment and recycled to the ocean basins is estimated at 0.9 km³/yr. The thinning and truncation caused by subduction erosion of the margin's framework rock and overlying sedimentary deposits have been demonstrated at many convergent margins but only off northern Japan, central Peru, and northern Chile has sufficient information been collected to determine average or long-term rates, which range from 25 to 50 km³/m.y. per kilometer of margin. A conservative long-term rate applicable to many sectors of convergent margins is 30 km³/km/m.y. If applied to the length of type 2 margins, subduction erosion removes and transports approximately 0.6 km³/yr of upper plate material to greater depths. At various places, subduction erosion also affects sectors of type 1 margins bordered by small- to medium-sized accretionary prisms (for example, Japan and Peru), thus increasing the global rate by possibly 0.5 km³/yr to a total of 1.1 km³/yr. Little information is available to assess subduction erosion at margins bordered by large accretionary prisms. Mass balance calculations allow assessments to be made of the amount of subducted sediment that bypasses the prism and underthrusts the margin's rock framework. This subcrustally subducted sediment is estimated at 0.7 km³/yr. Combined with the range of terrestrial matter removed from the margin's rock framework by subduction erosion, the global volume of subcrustally subducted material is estimated to range from 1.3 to 1.8 km³/yr. Subcrustally subducted material is either returned to the terrestrial crust by arc-related igneous processes or crustal underplating or is lost from the crust by mantle absorption. Geochemical and isotopic data support the notion that upper mantle melting returns only a small percent of the subducted material to the terrestrial crust as arc igneous rocks. Limited areal exposures of terrestrial rocks metamorphosed at deep (>20-30 km) subcrustal pressures and temperatures imply that only a small fraction of subducted material is reattached via deep crustal underplating. Possibly, therefore much of the subducted terrestrial material is recycled to the mantle at a rate near 1.6 km³/yr, which is effectively equivalent to the commonly estimated rate at which the mantle adds juvenile igneous material to the Earth's layer of terrestrial rock.