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Effective elastic thickness variations along the Andean margin and their relationship to subduction geometry

AuthorsPérez-Gussinyé, M.; Lowry, A. R.; Morgan, J. Phipps; Tassara, A.
KeywordsLithospheric flexure
Andean margin
Subduction geometry
Continental lithospheric structure
Issue DateFeb-2008
PublisherAmerican Geophysical Union
CitationGeochemistry, geophysics, geosystems 9(2): Q02003(2008)
AbstractWe present a new map of the spatial variations in effective elastic thickness, Te, along the Andes estimated using Bouguer coherence. The Te variations reflect interactions between subducting slab and preexisting terrane structure. In the forearc, conductive cooling of the continent by the subducting slab exerts primary control on rigidity, resulting in Te that is highest (~40 km) where the oceanic lithosphere is oldest and coldest (~20°S). In the central Andes, Te is relatively low (~20 km) along the volcanic chain and the Altiplano and Puna plateaus. We interpret this weakening to reflect a high geothermal gradient maintained by advective magmatic processes, a shallow and hot asthenosphere, and a very weak lower crust throughout this region. East of the plateaus, high Te delineates underthrusting of the Brazilian shield. Finally, north and south of the plateaus, flat subduction areas are characterized by high Te, high shear wave velocity, thick thermal lithosphere, and low heat flow, indicating that continental lithosphere there is thicker, colder, and stronger. On the basis of these relationships we suggest that variations in slab dip along the margin relate to variations in structure of the continental lithosphere. In particular, we propose that upper plate structure influences the width and viscosity of the asthenospheric wedge, which control the suction moment responsible for the subduction angle at depths ≥70–100 km. For example, when oceanic lithosphere subducts beneath thin continental lithosphere, the low-viscosity asthenosphere allows the slab to detach from the continent and sink into the mantle at normal angles. However, when oceanic lithosphere subducts close or beneath thick and strong continental lithosphere, the asthenospheric wedge narrows and corner flow drags high-viscosity mantle from the base of the thick (>150 km), cold continent into the wedge. Suction forces increase with both narrowing of the wedge and its increasing viscosity. We estimate the asthenospheric viscosity underneath thick, cold continents to be ≥1020 Pa s, sufficient to induce flat subduction. Later, after prolonged hydration and weakening of the continent's base, asthenospheric flow into the wedge may resume, allowing the slab to sink again into the mantle at normal angles.
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