Effects of basal drag on subduction dynamics from 2D numerical models

Lior Suchoy*, Saskia Goes, Benjamin Maunder, Fanny Garel, Rhodri Davies

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    9 Citations (Scopus)


    Subducting slabs are an important driver of plate motions, yet the relative importance of different forces in governing subduction motions and styles remains incompletely understood. Basal drag has been proposed to be a minor contributor to subduction forcing because of the lack of correlation between plate size and velocity in observed and reconstructed plate motions. Furthermore, in single subduction system models, low basal drag leads to subduction behaviour most consistent with the observation that trench migration velocities are generally low compared to convergence velocities. By contrast, analytical calculations and global mantle flow models indicate basal drag can be substantial. In this study, we revisit this problem by examining the drag at the base of the lithosphere, for a single subduction system, in 2D models with a free trench and composite non-linear rheology. We compare the behaviour of short and long plates for a range of asthenospheric and lithospheric rheologies. We reproduce results from previous modelling studies, including low ratios of trench over plate motions. However, we also find that any combination of asthenosphere and lithosphere viscosity that produces Earth-like subduction behaviour leads to a correlation of velocities with plate size, due to the role of basal drag. By examining Cenozoic plate motion reconstructions, we find that slab age and plate size are positively correlated: higher slab pull for older plates tends to be offset by higher basal drag below these larger plates. This, in part, explains the lack of plate velocity-size correlation in observations, despite the important role of basal drag in the subduction force balance..

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)79-93
    Number of pages15
    JournalSolid Earth
    Issue number1
    Publication statusPublished - 20 Jan 2021


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