skip to main content

Title: Constraints on the Rheology of the Lithosphere From Flexure of the Pacific Plate at the Hawaiian Islands

The rheology of oceanic lithosphere is important to our understanding of mantle dynamics and to the emergence and manifestations of plate tectonics. Data from experimental rock mechanics suggest rheology is dominated by three different deformation mechanisms including frictional sliding, low‐temperature plasticity, and high‐temperature creep, from shallow depths at relatively cold temperatures to large depths at relatively high temperatures. However, low‐temperature plasticity is poorly understood. This study further constrains low‐temperature plasticity by comparing observations of flexure at the Hawaiian Islands to predictions from 3‐D viscoelastic loading models with a realistic lithospheric rheology of frictional sliding, low‐temperature plasticity, and high‐temperature creep. We find that previously untested flow laws significantly underpredict the amplitude and overpredict the wavelength of flexure at Hawaii. These flow laws can, however, reproduce observations if they are weakened by a modest reduction (25–40%) in the plastic activation energy. Lithospheric rheology is strongly temperature dependent, and so we explore uncertainties in the thermal structure with different conductive cooling models and convection simulations of plume‐lithosphere interactions. Convection simulations show that thermal erosion from a plume only perturbs the lithospheric temperature significantly at large depths so that when it is added to the thermal structure, it produces a small increase in deflection. In addition, defining the temperature profile by the cooling plate model produces only modest weakening relative to the cooling half‐space model. Therefore, variation of the thermal structure does not appear to be a viable means of bringing laboratory‐derived flow laws for low‐temperature plasticity into agreement with geophysical field observations and modeling.

more » « less
Award ID(s):
Author(s) / Creator(s):
 ;  ;  
Publisher / Repository:
DOI PREFIX: 10.1029
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Geochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    Flexure occurs on intermediate geologic timescales (∼1 Myr) due to volcanic‐island building at the Island of Hawaii, and the deformational response of the lithosphere is simultaneously elastic, plastic, and ductile. At shallow depths and low temperatures, elastic deformation transitions to frictional failure on faults where stresses exceed a threshold value, and this complex rheology controls the rate of deformation manifested by earthquakes. In this study, we estimate the seismic strain rate based on earthquakes recorded between 1960 and 2019 at Hawaii, and the estimated strain rate with 10−18–10−15s−1in magnitude exhibits a local minimum or neutral bending plane at 15 km depth within the lithosphere. In comparison, flexure and internal deformation of the lithosphere are modeled in 3D viscoelastic loading models where deformation at shallow depths is accommodated by frictional sliding on faults and limited by the frictional coefficient (μf), and at larger depths by low‐temperature plasticity and high‐temperature creep. Observations of flexure and the seismic strain rate are best‐reproduced by models withμf = 0.3 ± 0.1 and modified laboratory‐derived low‐temperature plasticity. Results also suggest strong lateral variations in the frictional strength of faults beneath Hawaii. Our models predict a radial pattern of compressive stress axes relative to central Hawaii consistent with observations of earthquake pressure (P) axes. We demonstrate that the dip angle of this radial axis is essential to discerning a change in the curvature of flexure, and therefore has implications for constraining lateral variations in lithospheric strength.

    more » « less
  2. The strength of lithospheric plates is a central component of plate tectonics, governed by brittle processes in the shallow portion of the plate and ductile behavior in the deeper portion. We review experimental constraints on ductile deformation of olivine, the main mineral in the upper mantle and thus the lithosphere. Olivine deforms by four major mechanisms: low-temperature plasticity, dislocation creep, dislocation-accommodated grain-boundary sliding (GBS), and diffusion-accommodated grain-boundary sliding (diffusion creep). Deformation in most of the lithosphere is dominated by GBS, except in shear zones—in which diffusion creep dominates—and in the brittle-ductile transition—in which low-temperature plasticity may dominate. We find that observations from naturally deformed rocks are consistent with extrapolation of the experimentally constrained olivine flow laws to geological conditions but that geophysical observations predict a weaker lithosphere. The causes of this discrepancy are unresolved but likely reside in the uncertainty surrounding processes in the brittle-ductile transition, at which the lithosphere is strongest. ▪ Ductile deformation of the lithospheric mantle is constrained by experimental data for olivine. ▪ Olivine deforms by four major mechanisms: low-temperature plasticity, dislocation creep, dislocation-accommodated grain-boundary sliding, and diffusion creep. ▪ Observations of naturally deformed rocks are consistent with extrapolation of olivine flow laws from experimental conditions. ▪ Experiments predict stronger lithosphere than geophysical observations, likely due to gaps in constraints on deformation in the brittle-ductile transition. 
    more » « less
  3. SUMMARY Recent modelling studies have shown that laboratory-derived rheology is too strong to reproduce observations of flexure at the Hawaiian Islands, while the same rheology appears consistent with outer rise—trench flexure at circum-Pacific subduction zones. Collectively, these results indicate that the rheology of an oceanic plate boundary is stronger than that of its interior, which, if correct, presents a challenge to understanding the formation of trenches and subduction initiation. To understand this dilemma, we first investigate laboratory-derived rheology using fully dynamic viscoelastic loading models and find that it is too strong to reproduce the observationally inferred elastic thickness, Te, at most plate interior settings. The Te can, however, be explained if the yield stress of low-temperature plasticity is significantly reduced, for example, by reducing the activation energy from 320 kJ mol−1, as in Mei et al., to 190 kJ mol−1 as was required by previous studies of the Hawaiian Islands, implying that the lithosphere beneath Hawaii is not anomalous. Second, we test the accuracy of the modelling methods used to constrain the rheology of subducting lithosphere, including the yield stress envelope (YSE) method, and the broken elastic plate model (BEPM). We show the YSE method accurately reproduces the model Te to within ∼10 per cent error with only modest sensitivity to the assumed strain rate and curvature. Finally, we show that the response of a continuous plate is significantly enhanced when a free edge is introduced at or near an edge load, as in the BEPM, and is sensitive to the degree of viscous coupling at the free edge. Since subducting lithosphere is continuous and generally mechanically coupled to a sinking slab, the BEPM may falsely introduce a weakness and hence overestimate Te at a trench because of trade-off. This could explain the results of recent modelling studies that suggest the rheology of subducting oceanic plate is stronger than that of its interior. However, further studies using more advanced thermal and mechanical models will be required in the future in order to quantify this. 
    more » « less
  4. Abstract

    Localized frictional sliding on faults in the continental crust transitions at depth to distributed deformation in viscous shear zones. This brittle‐ductile transition (BDT), and/or the transition from velocity‐weakening (VW) to velocity‐strengthening (VS) friction, are controlled by the lithospheric thermal structure and composition. Here, we investigate these transitions, and their effect on the depth extent of earthquakes, using 2D antiplane shear simulations of a strike‐slip fault with rate‐and‐state friction. The off‐fault material is viscoelastic, with temperature‐dependent dislocation creep. We solve the heat equation for temperature, accounting for frictional and viscous shear heating that creates a thermal anomaly relative to the ambient geotherm which reduces viscosity and facilitates viscous flow. We explore several geotherms and effective normal stress distributions (by changing pore pressure), quantifying the thermal anomaly, seismic and aseismic slip, and the transition from frictional sliding to viscous flow. The thermal anomaly can reach several hundred degrees below the seismogenic zone in models with hydrostatic pressure but is smaller for higher pressure (and these high‐pressure models are most consistent with San Andreas Fault heat flow constraints). Shear heating raises the BDT, sometimes to where it limits rupture depth rather than the frictional VW‐to‐VS transition. Our thermomechanical modeling framework can be used to evaluate lithospheric rheology and thermal models through predictions of earthquake ruptures, postseismic and interseismic crustal deformation, heat flow, and the geological structures that reflect the complex deformation beneath faults.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    We present constraints on the hydration state and rheology of the lithospheric mantle beneath the North Anatolian fault zone (NAFZ). Peridotite xenoliths from the Biyikali and Çorlu volcanic centers record deformational microstructures consistent with shearing in a lithosphere‐scale transcurrent fault system. Analysis by Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy indicates that nominally anhydrous phases retain some OH, but bulk rock concentrations are generally restricted to <50 ppm H2O by weight. From the rock microstructure, we determined differential stress magnitude and active deformation mechanism(s); combined with estimates of hydration state, we constrained the rheology. Recrystallized grain size piezometry shows that the mantle beneath the NAFZ sustained differential stresses of 10–20 MPa, largely independent of depth. The dominant deformation mechanism(s) change with depth; xenoliths extracted from shallower depths record evidence for grain size‐sensitive creep possibly in the presence of melt. At intermediate depths, both dislocation creep and grain size‐sensitive mechanisms were active, and we did not observe evidence for deformation in the presence of melt. The deepest samples were dominated by dislocation creep. The strong temperature sensitivity of creep mechanisms, combined with the low variability in differential stress, contributes to a stratified viscosity profile ranging from 1018 Pa s for the deepest samples to >1022 Pa s at shallower depths (assuming a melt‐free rheology). Although difficult to quantify from the rock record, melt likely reduced the viscosity of the shallow lithospheric mantle. Vertical stratification in viscosity beneath the NAFZ, the result of melt‐present deformation and/or transitions in the dominant deformation mechanism, has important consequences for the seismic cycle of strike‐slip fault systems.

    more » « less