Melting of subducted sediments reconciles geophysical images of subduction zones

M. W. Förster*, K. Selway

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

23 Citations (Scopus)


Sediments play a key role in subduction. They help control the chemistry of arc volcanoes and the location of seismic hazards. Here, we present a new model describing the fate of subducted sediments that explains magnetotelluric models of subduction zones, which commonly show an enigmatic conductive anomaly at the trenchward side of volcanic arcs. In many subduction zones, sediments will melt trenchward of the source region for arc melts. High-pressure experiments show that these sediment melts will react with the overlying mantle wedge to produce electrically conductive phlogopite pyroxenites. Modelling of the Cascadia and Kyushu subduction zones shows that the products of sediment melting closely reproduce the magnetotelluric observations. Melting of subducted sediments can also explain K-rich volcanic rocks that are produced when the phlogopite pyroxenites melt during slab roll-back events. This process may also help constrain models for subduction zone seismicity. Since melts and phlogopite both have low frictional strength, damaging thrust earthquakes are unlikely to occur in the vicinity of the melting sediments, while increased fluid pressures may promote the occurrence of small magnitude earthquakes and episodic tremor and slip.

Original languageEnglish
Article number1320
JournalNature Communications
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes


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