Early-Stage Subduction Invasion

Boulder, Colo., USA: Our planet’s lithosphere is broken into several tectonic plates. Their configuration is ever-shifting, as supercontinents are assembled and broken up, and oceans form, grow, and then start to close in what is known as the Wilson cycle.

In the Wilson cycle, when a supercontinent like Pangea is broken up, an interior ocean is formed. In the case of Pangea, the interior ocean is the Atlantic. This ocean has a rift in the middle, and passive margins on the side, which means no seismic or volcanic activity occurs along its shores. Destined to keep expanding, an Atlantic-type ocean will eventually become the exterior ocean of the next supercontinent. Currently, Earth’s exterior ocean is the Pacific. The Pacific also has a rift in the middle, but it is bounded by subduction zones and thus will eventually close. Along its margins, earthquakes and eruptions abound—a pattern known as the ring of fire.

The ocean-closing phase of each Wilson cycle requires the transition from passive to active (subducting) margins at the edges of the interior ocean. The oceanic crust along the coast of the Atlantic is old and heavy, so it is primed to subduct, but before it can do so, it must break and bend. The only force in nature that can break oceanic plates like these is slab pull from another subduction zone.

But this doesn’t happen spontaneously. So how does subduction initiate around interior oceans?

There currently are two subduction zones in the Atlantic: the Lesser Antilles and Scotia. But neither of them formed spontaneously in the Atlantic; they were forced by subduction zones in the Pacific during the Cretaceous and then propagated along transform margins, where the continent is narrow and there is barely a land bridge. They jumped oceans.

Today, on the eastern shore of the Atlantic, in Gibraltar, we have the opportunity to observe the very earliest stages of this process, known as subduction invasion, while the jump occurs from a different basin—in this case, the Mediterranean.

This is an incredibly valuable opportunity because the chances of observing the very start of any given tectonic process are limited. And subduction initiation is difficult to observe because it leaves almost no traces behind. Once subduction starts, it erases the record of its initial stages; the subducted plate ends up in the mantle, never to be exposed at the surface again (except in the rare case of ophiolites).

The activity of the Gibraltar subduction zone in the Mediterranean has been hotly debated. The Gibraltar arc formed in the Oligocene as a part of the Western Mediterranean subduction zones. While we can see a subducted plate in the mantle underneath it, almost no further movement is currently happening.

A new paper by Duarte et al., just published in Geology, suggests that Gibraltar is active—it is just currently experiencing a slow movement phase because the subducting slab is very narrow, and it is trying to pull down the entire Atlantic plate.

“[These are] some of the oldest pieces of crust on Earth, super strong and rigid—if it were any younger, the subducting plate would just break off and subduction would come to a halt,” explains Duarte. “Still, it is just barely strong enough to make it, and thus moves very slowly.”

A new computational, gravity-driven 3-D model, developed by the authors, shows that this slow phase will last for another 20 million years. After that, the Gibraltar subduction zone will invade the Atlantic Ocean and accelerate. That will be the beginning of the recycling of crust on the eastern side of the Atlantic, and might be the start of the Atlantic itself beginning to close, initiating a new phase in the Wilson cycle.

Broadly, this study shows that subduction invasion, the process whereby a new subduction zone forms in an exterior ocean and then migrates to an interior ocean, is likely a common mechanism of subduction initiation in Atlantic-type oceans, and thus plays a key role in the geological evolution of our planet.

Locally, the finding that the Gibraltar subduction is still currently active has important implications for seismic activity in the area. Recurrence intervals are expected to be very long during this slow phase, but the potential for high-magnitude events, such as the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, remains and requires preparedness.

Much remains to be figured out about the future of the Gibraltar arc. One of the next aspects that Duarte will focus on is determining the exact geometry of the subduction, which will require assessing the relative strength of the nearby continental margins.

Gibraltar Subduction Zone Is Invading the Atlantic

João C. Duarte, Nicolas Riel, Filipe M. Rosas, Anton Popov, Christian Schuler, Boris J.P. Kaus
Contact: João Duarte, University of Lisbon, jdduarte@fc.ul.pt

GEOLOGY articles published ahead of print are online at https://pubs.geoscienceworld.org/geology/early-publication. Representatives of the media may obtain complimentary copies of articles by contacting Katie Busser. Please discuss articles of interest with the authors before publishing stories on their work, and please make reference to GEOLOGY in articles published. Non-media requests for articles may be directed to GSA Sales and Service, gsaservice@geosociety.org.


For Immediate Release
15 February 2024
GSA Release No. 24-02

Contributed by Arianna Soldati, GSA Science Communication Fellow

Katie Busser

Map of Atlantic subduction zones
Map highlighting the Atlantic subduction zones, the fully developed Lesser Antilles and Scotia arcs on the western side and the incipient Gibraltar arc on the eastern side. From Duarte et al., 2018.

Map of the evolution of the Gibraltar subduction zone
Maps showing the evolution of the Gibraltar subduction zone from 30 million years ago to 50 million years into the future. From Duarte et al., 2024.