The dynamics of laterally variable subductions: laboratory models applied to the Hellenides
We designed three-dimensional dynamically self-consistent laboratory models of subduction to analyse the relationships between overriding plate deformation and subduction dynamics in the upper mantle. We investigated the effects of the subduction of a lithosphere of laterally variable buoyancy on the temporal evolution of trench kinematics and shape, horizontal flow at the top of the asthenosphere, dynamic topography and deformation of the overriding plate. Two subducting units, which correspond to a negatively buoyant oceanic plate and positively buoyant continental one, are juxtaposed via a trench-perpendicular interface (analogue to a tear fault) that is either fully-coupled or shear-stress free. Differential rates of trench retreat, in excess of 6 cm yr −1 between the two units, trigger a more vigorous mantle flow above the oceanic slab unit than above the continental slab unit. The resulting asymmetrical sublithospheric flow shears the overriding plate in front of the tear fault, and deformation gradually switches from extension to transtension through time. The consistency between our models results and geological observations suggests that the Late Cenozoic deformation of the Aegean domain, including the formation of the North Aegean Trough and Central Hellenic Shear zone, results from the spatial variations in the buoyancy of the subducting lithosphere. In particular, the lateral changes of the subduction regime caused by the Early Pliocene subduction of the old oceanic Ionian plate redesigned mantle flow and excited an increasingly vigorous dextral shear underneath the overriding plate. The models suggest that it is the inception of the Kefalonia Fault that caused the transition between an extension dominated tectonic regime to transtension, in the North Aegean, Mainland Greece and Peloponnese. The subduction of the tear fault may also have helped the propagation of the North Anatolian Fault into the Aegean domain.