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Dynamic slab segmentation due to brittle–ductile damage in the outer rise
Nature  (IF49.962),  Pub Date : 2021-11-10, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03937-x
T. V. Gerya, D. Bercovici, T. W. Becker

Subduction is the major plate driving force, and the strength of the subducting plate controls many aspects of the thermochemical evolution of Earth. Each subducting plate experiences intense normal faulting1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 during bending that accommodates the transition from horizontal to downwards motion at the outer rise at trenches. Here we investigate the consequences of this bending-induced plate damage using numerical subduction models in which both brittle and ductile deformation, including grain damage, are tracked and coupled self-consistently. Pervasive slab weakening and pronounced segmentation can occur at the outer-rise region owing to the strong feedback between brittle and ductile damage localization. This slab-damage phenomenon explains the subduction dichotomy of strong plates and weak slabs10, the development of large-offset normal faults6,7 near trenches, the occurrence of segmented seismic velocity anomalies11 and distinct interfaces imaged within subducted slabs12,13, and the appearance of deep, localized intraplate areas of reduced effective viscosity14 observed at trenches. Furthermore, brittle–viscously damaged slabs show a tendency for detachment at elevated mantle temperatures. Given Earth’s planetary cooling history15, this implies that intermittent subduction with frequent slab break-off episodes16 may have been characteristic for Earth until more recent times than previously suggested17.