Mantle Phase Changes and Deep-Earthquake Faulting in Subducting Lithosphere

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Science  12 Apr 1991:
Vol. 252, Issue 5003, pp. 216-225
DOI: 10.1126/science.252.5003.216


Inclined zones of earthquakes are the primary expression of lithosphere subduction. A distinct deep population of subduction-zone earthquakes occurs at depths of 350 to 690 kilometers. At those depths ordinary brittle fracture and frictional sliding, the faulting processes of shallow earthquakes, are not expected. A fresh understanding of these deep earthquakes comes from developments in several areas of experimental and theoretical geophysics, including the discovery and characterization of transformational faulting, a shear instability connected with localized phase transformations under nonhydrostatic stress. These developments support the hypothesis that deep earthquakes represent transformational faulting in a wedge of olivine-rich peridotite that is likely to persist metastably in coldest plate interiors to depths as great as 690 km. Predictions based on this deep structure of mantle phase changes are consistent with the global depth distribution of deep earthquakes, the maximum depths of earthquakes in individual subductions zones, and key source characteristics of deep events.

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