Laboratory models of the thermal evolution of the mantle during rollback subduction

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The subduction of oceanic lithosphere plays a key role in plate tectonics, the thermal evolution of the mantle and recycling processes between Earth's interior and surface. Information on mantle flow, thermal conditions and chemical transport in subduction zones come from the geochemistry of arc volcanoes, seismic images and geodynamic models. The majority of this work considers subduction as a two-dimensional process, assuming limited variability in the direction parallel to the trench. In contrast, observationally based models increasingly appeal to three-dimensional flow associated with trench migration and the sinking of oceanic plates with a translational component of motion (rollback). Here we report results from laboratory experiments that reveal fundamental differences in three-dimensional mantle circulation and temperature structure in response to subduction with and without a rollback component. Without rollback motion, flow in the mantle wedge is sluggish, there is no mass flux around the plate and plate edges heat up faster than plate centres. In contrast, during rollback subduction flow is driven around and beneath the sinking plate, velocities increase within the mantle wedge and are focused towards the centre of the plate, and the surface of the plate heats more along the centreline.

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