Whether and how subduction increases the oxidation state of Earth's mantle are two of the most important unresolved questions in solid Earth geochemistry. Using data from the southern Cascade arc (California, USA), we show quantitatively for the first time that increases in arc magma oxidation state are fundamentally linked to mass transfer of isotopically heavy sulfate from the subducted plate into the mantle wedge. We investigate multiple hypotheses related to plate dehydration and melting and the rise and reaction of slab melts with mantle peridotite in the wedge, focusing on electron balance between redox-sensitive iron and sulfur during these processes. These results show that unless slab-derived silicic melts contain much higher dissolved sulfur than is indicated by currently available experimental data, arc magma generation by mantle wedge melting must involve multiple stages of mantle metasomatism by slab-derived oxidized and sulfur-bearing hydrous components.

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