Abstract

The central approximation of plate tectonics is that the plates are rigid, which gives the theory its rigor and predictive power. Space geodetic measurements are consistent with the rigidity of stable plate interiors, but some failures of plate-circuit closure, in particular of oceanic plates, indicate that plates may be measurably non-rigid. We explore the hypothesis that horizontal thermal contraction causes deformation of oceanic plates. Here we show significant expected displacement fields due to thermal contraction for the Pacific plate based on a previously proposed relationship between seafloor age and strain rate and on two end-member assumptions on how strain compatibility is enforced. The predicted maximum 2.2 mm/yr southeastward motion of the northeastern part of the plate relative to the Pacific-Antarctic Rise may contribute to a large part of the non-closure of the Pacific–North America plate motion circuit. Our predicted displacement rates cannot (yet) be confirmed by current space geodetic data and will require seafloor geodesy with 1 mm/yr accuracy. The spatial distribution of predicted moment rate agrees reasonably well with that of intraplate earthquake epicenters, similar to what is observed for plate boundary zones. Our results suggest that plate-scale horizontal thermal contraction is significant, and that it may be partly released seismically.

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