Subduction polarity reversal usually involves the break off or tearing of the downgoing plate (DP) along the continent-ocean transition zone, in order to initiate subduction of the overriding plate (OP) with opposite polarity. We propose that subduction polarity reversal can also be caused by DP-OP coupling and can account for the early Paleozoic geological relationships in the Western Kunlun orogenic belt in the northwestern Tibetan Plateau. Our synthesis of elemental and isotopic data reveals transient (~2 m.y.) changes in the sources of early Paleozoic arc magmatism in the southern Kunlun terrane. The early-stage (ca. 530–487 Ma) magmatic rocks display relatively high εNd(t) (+0.3 to +8.7), εHf(t) (−3.6 to +16.0), and intra-oceanic arc-like features. In contrast, the late-stage (485–430 Ma) magmatic rocks have predominantly negative εNd(t) (−4.5 to +0.3), εHf(t) (−8.8 to +0.9), and higher incompatible trace elements (e.g., Th), similar to the sub-continental lithospheric mantle beneath the Tarim craton. This abrupt temporal-spatial variation of arc magmatism, together with the detrital zircon evidence, indicate that subduction polarity reversal of the Proto-Tethys Ocean occurred in a period of ~10 m.y., consistent with the time interval reflected by ophiolite age. This rapid polarity reversal corresponds with the absence of ultrahigh-pressure (UHP) metamorphic and post-collisional magmatic rocks, features normally characteristic of slab break-off or tearing. Numerical modeling shows that this polarity reversal was caused by plate coupling during arc-continent collision. This coupling modified the normal succession of arc-continent collision events, preventing slab break-off or tearing-induced buoyant rock rebound and asthenosphere upwelling. Our model successfully explains early Paleozoic orogenesis in the Western Kunlun orogenic belt and may be applied elsewhere where post-collisional magmatic and UHP rocks are absent.

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