Understanding how new subduction zones form is essential for complete articulation of plate tectonic theory. Formation of new subduction zones by collapse of oceanic transform faults or fracture zones is suggested on the basis of empirical evidence. This process has heretofore been investigated with two-dimensional (2-D) numerical models, which thus ignore its intrinsic three-dimensional (3-D) geometry, lateral propagation, and dynamics. Here, we investigate a 3-D thermomechanical model, in which old and thick oceanic lithosphere (plate) is separated by a transform fault from a thinner and younger oceanic plate containing a transform-orthogonal spreading ridge. The results suggest that the older plate starts to sink spontaneously at the ridge–transform fault junction, and then subduction initiation laterally propagates along the transform away from the ridge. Two key factors control the 3-D subduction initiation (SI) dynamics in nature: (1) the age of the sinking plate, which controls its negative buoyancy; and (2) the thermal structure of the overriding plate, which reflects its spreading history. Our numerical models not only shed new light on the SI dynamics of Cenozoic subduction zones (e.g., the Izu-Bonin-Mariana zone in the Pacific Ocean), but also have implications for fossil convergent plate margins (e.g., the Bitlis-Zagros suture zone, west of the Strait of Hormuz). In the latter case, systematic variations in ages of supra–subduction zone ophiolites may reflect diachronous SI and its lateral propagation.

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