The subducting oceanic lithosphere may carry a large amount of chemically bound water into the deep Earth interior, returning water to the mantle, facilitating melting, and hence keeping the mantle mobile and, in turn, nurturing plate tectonics. Bending-related faulting in the trench–outer rise region prior to subduction has been recognized to be an important process, promoting the return flux of water into the mantle. Extensional faults in the trench–outer rise are opening pathways into the lithosphere, supporting hydration of the lithosphere, including alteration of dry peridotite to water-rich serpentine. In this paper, we review and summarize recent work suggesting that bend faulting is indeed a key process in the global water cycle, albeit not yet well understood. Two features are found in a worldwide compilation of tomographic velocity models derived from wide-angle seismic data, indicating that oceanic lithosphere is strongly modified when approaching a deep-sea trench: (1) seismic velocities in both the lower crust and upper mantle are significantly reduced compared to the structure found in the vicinity of mid-ocean ridges and in mature crust away from subduction zones; and (2) profiles shot perpendicular to the trench show both crustal and upper mantle velocities decreasing systematically approaching the trench axis, highlighting an evolutionary process because velocity reduction is related to deformation, alteration, and hydration. P-wave velocity anomalies suggest that mantle serpentinization at trenches is a global feature of all subducting oceanic plates older than 10–15 Ma. Yet, the degree of serpentinization in the uppermost mantle is not firmly established, but may range from <4% to as much as 20%, assuming that velocity reduction is solely due to hydration. A case study from the Nicaraguan trench argues that the ratio between P-wave and S-wave velocity (Vp/Vs) is a key parameter in addressing the amount of hydration. In the crust, the Vp/Vs ratio increases from <1.8 away from the trench to >1.9 in the trench, supporting the development of water-filled cracks where bend faulting occurs. In the mantle, the Vp/Vs ratio increases from ∼1.75 in the outer rise to values of >1.8 at the trench, indicating the increasing intensity of serpentinization.

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