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How Mantle Slabs Drive Plate Tectonics

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Science  04 Oct 2002:
Vol. 298, Issue 5591, pp. 207-209
DOI: 10.1126/science.1074161

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Abstract

The gravitational pull of subducted slabs is thought to drive the motions of Earth's tectonic plates, but the coupling between slabs and plates is not well established. If a slab is mechanically attached to a subducting plate, it can exert a direct pull on the plate. Alternatively, a detached slab may drive a plate by exciting flow in the mantle that exerts a shear traction on the base of the plate. From the geologic history of subduction, we estimated the relative importance of “pull” versus “suction” for the present-day plates. Observed plate motions are best predicted if slabs in the upper mantle are attached to plates and generate slab pull forces that account for about half of the total driving force on plates. Slabs in the lower mantle are supported by viscous mantle forces and drive plates through slab suction.

  • * To whom correspondence should be addressed. E-mail: cpconrad{at}umich.edu

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