We examine the importance of dispersed volcanic ash as a critical component of the aluminosilicate sediment entering the Nankai Trough, located south of Japan’s island of Honshu, via the subducting Philippine Sea plate. Multivariate statistical analyses of an extensive major, trace, and rare earth element data set from bulk sediment and discrete ash layers at Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) Sites C0011 and C0012 quantitatively determine the abundance and accumulation of multiple aluminosilicate inputs to the Nankai subduction zone. We identify the eolian input of continental material to both sites, and we further find that there are an additional three ash sources from Kyushu and Honshu, Japan and other regions. Some of these ash sources may themselves represent mixtures of ash inputs, although the final compositions appear statistically distinct. The dispersed ash comprises 38 ± 7 weight percent (wt%) of the bulk sediment at Site C0011, and 34 ± 4 wt% at Site C0012. When considering the entire sediment thickness at Site C0011, the dispersed ash component supplies 38000 ± 7000 g/cm2 of material to the Nankai subduction system, whereas Site C0012 supplies 20000 ± 3000 g/cm2. These values are enormous compared to the ~2500 g/cm2 (C0011) and ~1200 g/cm2 (C0012) of ash in the discrete ash layers. Therefore, the mass of volcanic ash and chemically equivalent alteration products (e.g., smectite) that are dispersed throughout the stratigraphic succession of bulk sediment appears to be up to 15–17 times greater than the mass of discrete ash layers. The composition of the dispersed ash component at Site C0011 appears linked to that of the discrete layers, and the mass accumulation rate for dispersed ash correlates best with discrete ash layer thickness. In contrast, at Site C0012 the mass accumulation rate for dispersed ash correlates better with the number of ash layers. Together, the discrete ash layers, dispersed ash, and clay-mineral assemblages present a complete record of volcanism and erosion of volcanic sources; and indicate that mass balances and subduction factory budgets should include the mass of dispersed ash for a more accurate assessment of volcanic contributions to large-scale geochemical cycling.

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