Most flat-slab subduction regions are marked by an absence of arc volcanism, which is consistent with closure of the hot mantle wedge as the subducting plate flattens below the continent. Farther inland, low surface heat flow is observed, which is generally attributed to cooling of the continent by the underlying flat slab. However, modern flat slabs have only been in place for <20 Ma, and it is unclear whether there has been sufficient time for cooling to occur. We use numerical models to assess temporal variations in continental thermal structure during flat-slab subduction. Our models show that the flat slab leads to continental cooling on timescales of tens of millions of years. Cool slab temperatures must diffuse through the continental lithosphere, resulting in a delay between slab emplacement and surface cooling. Therefore, the timescales primarily depend on the flat-slab depth with shallower slabs resulting in shorter timescales. The magnitude of cooling increases for a shallow or long-lived flat slab, old subducting plate, and fast convergence rates. For regions with flat slabs at 45–70 km depth (e.g., Mexico and Peru), shallow continental cooling initiates 5–10 Ma after slab emplacement, and low surface heat flow in these regions is largely explained by the presence of the flat slab. However, for the Pampean region in Chile, with an ~100-km-deep slab, our models predict that conductive cooling has not yet affected the surface heat flow. The low heat flow observed requires additional processes such as advective cooling from the infiltration of fluids released through dehydration of the flat slab.

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