Continental subduction: mass fluxes and interactions with the wider earth system

Simon Cuthbert

Research output: Contribution to conferencePaper


Substantial parts of ultra-high pressure (UHP) terrains probably represent subducted passive continental margins (PCM). This contribution reviews and synthesises research on processes operating in such systems and their implication for the wider Earth system. PCM sediments are large repositories of volatiles including hydrates, nitrogen species, carbonates and hydrocarbons. Sediments and upper/ mid-crustal basement are rich in incompatible elements and are fertile for melting. Lower crust may be more mafic and refractory. Juvenile rift-related mafic rocks also have the potential to generate substantial volumes of granitoid melts, especially if they have been hydrated. Exposed UHP terrains demonstrate the return of continental crust from mantle depths, show evidence for substantial fluxes of aqueous fluid, anatexis and, in entrained orogenic peridotites, metasomatism of mantle rocks by crust- derived C-O-H fluids. However, substantial bodies of continental material may never return to the surface as coherent masses of rock, but remain sequestered in the mantle where they melt or become entrained in the deeper mantle circulation. Hence during subduction, PCM’s become partitioned by a range of mechanisms. Mechanical partitioning strips away weaker sediment and middle/upper crust, which circulate back up the subduction channel, while denser, stronger transitional pro-crust and lower crust may “stall” near the base of the lithosphere or be irreversibly subducted to join the global mantle circulation. Under certain conditions sediment and upper crustal basement may reach depths for UHPM. Further partitioning takes place by anatexis, which either aids stripping and exhumation of the more melt-prone rock-masses through mechanical softening, or separates melt from residuum so that melt escapes and is accreted to the upper plate leading to “undercrusting”, late-orogenic magmatism and further refinement of the crust. Melt that traverses sections of mantle will interact with it causing metasomatism and refertilisation. Partitioning also takes place by solid-fluid and melt-fluid partitioning. Dehydration may take place both during subduction and exhumation, and fluxes between dehydrating and hydrating rock masses influence the internal fluid budget of the orogen (essential for eclogitisation and densification of mafic lithologies). Ascending granitic melts advect dissolved water to shallow levels, or even the atmosphere. Irreversible subduction of PCM sediment carries water plus nitrogen species to the deeper mantle. Decarbonation of voluminous PCM carbonates depends on thermal regime and may release a pulse of CO2 to the atmosphere, but is limited in colder subduction zones hence transferring large volumes of carbon to the deep mantle. This may ultimately be mobilised by melting or dissolution to form fluid media for diamond formation.
Original languageEnglish
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2011
EventAmerican Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, San Francisco December 2011 - Moscone Centre, San Francisco, United States
Duration: 5 Dec 20119 Dec 2011


ConferenceAmerican Geophysical Union Fall Meeting, San Francisco December 2011
Abbreviated titleAGU Fall Meeting 2011
Country/TerritoryUnited States
CitySan Francisco
Internet address


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