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Topography of the Overriding Plate During Progressive Subduction: A Dynamic


Model to Explain Forearc Subsidence

Article  in  Geophysical Research Letters · September 2017


DOI: 10.1002/2017GL074672

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PUBLICATIONS
Geophysical Research Letters
RESEARCH LETTER Topography of the Overriding Plate During Progressive
10.1002/2017GL074672
Subduction: A Dynamic Model to Explain
Key Points:
• Three-dimensional dynamic analogue
Forearc Subsidence
subduction models are used to study Zhihao Chen1,2 , Wouter P. Schellart1,3 , João C. Duarte1,4,5 , and Vincent Strak1,4,5
time-evolving topography of
overriding plate 1
School of Earth, Atmosphere and Environment, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia, 2Japan Agency for Marine-Earth
• Forearc topographic subsidence
rapidly develops during slab Science and Technology, Yokohama, Japan, 3Department of Earth Sciences, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Amsterdam,
free-sinking phase and decreases Netherlands, 4Instituto Dom Luiz, Faculdade de Ciências, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal, 5Departamento de
during steady state slab rollback Geologia, Faculdade de Ciências, Universidade de Lisboa, Lisbon, Portugal
phase
• Trench suction at subduction interface
is predominantly responsible for the
transient forearc subsidence
Abstract Overriding plate topography provides constraints on subduction zone geodynamics. We
investigate its evolution using fully dynamic laboratory models of subduction with techniques of
stereoscopic photogrammetry and particle image velocimetry. Model results show that the topography is
characterized by an area of forearc dynamic subsidence, with a magnitude scaling to 1.44–3.97 km in nature,
Correspondence to:
and a local topographic high between the forearc subsided region and the trench. These topographic
Z. Chen,
zhihao.chen@monash.edu features rapidly develop during the slab free-sinking phase and gradually decrease during the steady state
slab rollback phase. We propose that they result from the variation of the vertical component of the trench
suction force along the subduction zone interface, which gradually increases with depth and results from
Citation:
Chen, Z., Schellart, W. P., Duarte, J. C., & the gradual slab steepening during the initial transient slab sinking phase. The downward mantle flow in the
Strak, V. (2017). Topography of the nose of the mantle wedge plays a minor role in driving forearc subsidence.
overriding plate during progressive
subduction: A dynamic model to
explain forearc subsidence. Geophysical
Research Letters, 44. https://doi.org/ 1. Introduction
10.1002/2017GL074672
The origin, evolution, and spatial variability of topography at subduction zones have been studied with
Received 21 JUN 2017 geodynamic models for more than two decades (Bonnardot, Hassani, & Tric, 2008; Buiter et al., 2001;
Accepted 5 SEP 2017 Guillaume et al., 2010; Gvirtzman & Nur, 2001; Hampel & Pfiffner, 2006; Hassani et al., 1997; Husson et al.,
Accepted article online 11 SEP 2017
2012; Martinod et al., 2013, 2015; Schellart & Spakman, 2015; Yang et al., 2016; Zhong & Gurnis, 1992,
1994). Topography shapes the free top surface of the lithosphere and contains important information about
the dynamics of the tectonic plates and the sublithospheric mantle. For example, dynamic topography is
caused by the vertical movement of the lithosphere in response to its viscous coupling with the underlying
sublithospheric mantle. It is different from isostatically supported topography generated by isostatic equili-
brium (e.g., crustal thickness variations) and has instead been ascribed to the vertical component of mantle
flow below the plates (Boschi et al., 2010; Braun, 2010; Coblentz & Karlstrom, 2011; Flament et al., 2013; Gurnis
et al., 1998; Hager et al., 1985; Lithgow-Bertelloni & Silver, 1998; Pysklywec & Mitrovica, 1998; Saleeby & Foster,
2004). Another important form of topography results from the tectonic forces in the plates and at the plate
boundaries, such as subduction zones. Investigating topography around subduction zones can provide
quantitative and conceptual insights into the interaction between the plates, the slabs, mantle flow, and
the associated stresses. As the present-day topography is only transient, geodynamic modeling can be an
effective tool to study the evolution of topography back in time and to gain insights into the driving mechan-
isms of topography formation and evolution.
A number of geodynamic modeling studies have previously been conducted to investigate the evolution of
subduction-associated topography during progressive subduction (Cattin et al., 1997; Hampel & Pfiffner,
2006; Hassani et al., 1997; Husson et al., 2012; Zhong & Gurnis, 1994), during slab detachment (Bonnardot,
Hassani, & Tric, 2008; Buiter et al., 2001; Gvirtzman & Nur, 2001; Pysklywec & Mitrovica, 1998), or during
progressive slab sinking after slab detachment (Braun, 2010; Flament et al., 2013; Gurnis et al., 1998; Hager
et al., 1985; Schellart & Spakman, 2015; Yang et al., 2016). In earlier analogue subduction models investigating
topography, an overriding plate was either excluded (Husson et al., 2012) or included, but in that case there
was either a large physical gap between the two plates (Guillaume et al., 2013, 2010) or convergence in the
©2017. American Geophysical Union.
models was kinematically imposed with a piston to sustain subduction (Luth et al., 2010; Martinod et al., 2013;
All Rights Reserved. Sokoutis & Willingshofer, 2011). Such models provide new insights that can help understand the

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Geophysical Research Letters 10.1002/2017GL074672

geodynamics of topography associated with subduction. However, the lack of an overriding plate or the large
physical gap between the plates prevented the existence of a subduction zone interface with proper
dimensions and rheological scaling. Therefore, to study the effect of forces acting at the subduction zone
interface on topography, we used a modeling approach that is based on recently developed buoyancy-
driven analogue models of subduction incorporating an overriding plate and a realistic interplate coupling
(Chen et al., 2015, 2016; Duarte et al., 2013, 2015; Meyer & Schellart, 2013). This modeling approach allows
one to investigate the evolution of topography in the forearc region of subduction zones in a fully dynamic
framework.
In this work, we have conducted fully dynamic analogue models of time-evolving subduction in three-
dimensional space (no externally imposed velocity or force boundary condition). In order to capture and
record the progressive subduction process, we have used a stereoscopic particle image velocimetry (sPIV)
system that can simultaneously track surface topography, surface deformation, and flow in the
sublithospheric mantle. In our models, topographic subsidence was observed in the forearc lithosphere
and the mantle flow velocity field in the mantle wedge was mapped to determine if any causal link could
be established. Based on an analysis of forces acting on the forearc lithosphere and a comparison of our
model results with previous geodynamic modeling studies, we provide new insights into the mechanism that
drives subsidence in the forearc region of the overriding lithosphere at subduction zones.

2. Methods
The experiments were carried out in a transparent square tank (Figure 1). The tank was filled with
low-viscosity glucose syrup to a depth of 13.3 cm to simulate the viscous sublithospheric upper mantle,
such that the rigid tank bottom represents the 670 km discontinuity. Two mixtures of high-viscosity
silicone putty and iron powder in different proportions were used to represent the subducting oceanic
lithosphere and an overriding lithosphere and were placed on the surface of the glucose syrup. The over-
riding plate was neutrally buoyant with respect to the upper mantle, whereas a density difference of
100 kg/m3 between the subducting plate and the sublithospheric upper mantle was used to simulate
the negative buoyancy of the slab (Cloos, 1993). The viscosity ratio between the subducting plate and
the upper mantle was 188–203, which falls in the suggested range of ~100–500 as proposed in earlier
subduction modeling work (Funiciello et al., 2008; Ribe, 2010; Schellart, 2008). To achieve a weak coupling
at the subduction zone interface, the top surface of the subducting plate was lubricated with a mixture of
petrolatum and paraffin oil (Duarte et al., 2013), which has a relatively low effective viscosity of
~0.8–1.5 Pa s and low yield stress. It results in a reasonable viscosity ratio (191–383) between the sublitho-
spheric upper mantle (286–306 Pa s) and the weak lubricant material. The weak lubricant has proven
realistic in simulating the subduction zone interface from a comparison between dynamical subduction
experiments and natural observations (Duarte et al., 2015).
Both the trailing edges and the lateral edges of the subducting plate were free, representing mid-oceanic
ridges and strike-slip faults that offer negligible resistance to plate motion. The lateral edges of the
overriding plate were free, while the trailing edge was either free or fixed, representing a small and
relatively mobile plate or a large, relatively immobile plate, respectively. Subduction initiation was gener-
ated by manually pushing down an ~3–5 cm long slab segment at the tip of the subducting plate.
Thereafter, the subduction process was self-controlled due to the negative buoyancy of the subducted
slab, which is the only driving force in our experiments. Our experiments were scaled to nature assuming
that the sinking velocity of the slab can be approximated by the Stokes velocity (please refer to Duarte
et al., 2013 and Jacoby, 1973 for the scaling procedure and factors used in this type of experiments).
In the models, 1 cm corresponds to 50 km in nature, 1 s corresponds to 8300 years in nature, and
0.01 mm/s is equivalent to 0.6 cm/yr in nature.
In our experiments we scale for density contrasts in relation to the density of the sublithospheric upper
mantle. For such scaling procedure, a topographic correction factor should be introduced to scale the topo-
graphy developed in the models to nature (Schellart & Strak, 2016). Consequently, we can calculate the scaled
topography in nature (hp) using
lp m
hp ¼ C Topo h (1)
lm

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Figure 1. Three-dimensional configuration of experimental subduction setup. This setup of subduction includes a free
high-viscosity subducting plate, a free/fixed high-viscosity overriding plate, a low-viscosity sublithospheric upper mantle,
and a weak interplate mechanical coupling. The experiments have been conducted in a transparent plexiglass tank of
100 cm long by 100 cm wide, which has been filled with a 13.3 cm deep layer of glucose syrup simulating the viscous
sublithospheric upper mantle, such that the rigid tank bottom represents the 670 km discontinuity. The thickness of the
subducting plate and overriding plate are 2.0 cm, representing 100 km thick oceanic lithosphere, and 1.5 cm, representing
75 km thick lithosphere, respectively. The PIV system consists of a laser and three PIV high-resolution cameras. Two PIV
cameras were located above the tank to map the progressive evolution of topography of the overriding plate, and one PIV
camera was located on the side to map the progressive mantle flow simultaneously. Two normal cameras (one above and
another on the side) were used to record the subduction kinematics. The red line across the center of the overriding
plate indicates the position of the overriding plate topography profiles in Figure 3.

where lp/lm is the length scale ratio, hm is the topography formed in the analogue experiments, and CTopo is
the topographic correction factor
ρm
C Topo ¼ UM
(2)
ρpUM
p
where ρmUM is the density of the sublithospheric upper mantle in models and ρUM is the density of the sublitho-
spheric upper mantle in nature. In our experiments the density of glucose syrup representing the sublitho-
spheric upper mantle is 1,428 kg/m3 and in nature we choose the average density of the sublithospheric
upper mantle, which is 3,220 kg/m3, giving CTopo = 0.44. Considering that the length scale ratio lp/lm = 5.0 × 106
and CTopo = 0.44 in our models, 1 mm of topography in the experiments should represent 2.22 km of topo-
graphy in nature.
To monitor simultaneously the overriding plate topography and the upper mantle flow occurring in the
mantle wedge during progressive subduction, a stereoscopic particle image velocimetry (sPIV) technique
was used (Figure 1). The sPIV technique can monitor the subduction-induced mantle flow in the mantle
wedge during progressive subduction by using a laser sheet that illuminates fluorescent particles that
are homogeneously distributed throughout the mantle fluid. Please refer to Strak and Schellart (2014)
for detailed technical information about this type of recording. Furthermore, with a stereoscopic
photogrammetry technique we can compare top view photographs to calculate the overriding plate topo-
graphy. Two high-resolution PIV cameras were installed above the model with an angle of ~30° between
them and very light white powder was seeded on the top surface of the overriding plate to allow map-
ping the overriding plate topography. Another high-resolution PIV camera was located on the side to map
the cross-sectional velocity field of the subduction-induced mantle flow occurring in the mantle wedge of
the subduction zone along the central plane. To allow computing the cross-sectional mantle flow velocity
field we used an interval time, defined as one loop (L). Two normal cameras, one on top and another on
the side, were also used to track the kinematics of the subducting and overriding plates using white
passive tracers.

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3. Results
3.1. Topography of Overriding Plate
During the early free sinking phase of subduction (defined as the early subduction phase during which the
negatively buoyant slab is sinking through the sublithospheric upper mantle before the slab tip starts inter-
acting with the upper-lower mantle discontinuity), the topography of the overriding plate was characterized
by an elongated area of subsidence striking parallel to the trench and separated from the trench by a dis-
tance of 1–5 cm (Figures 2a and 2b and 2e and 2f). The magnitude of the maximum depression increased
with progressive subduction, reaching 1.35–1.79 mm (scaling to 3.00–3.97 km) in the center of the subduc-
tion zone (see Figures 3a and 3b, 3e and 3f, and 4b and 4c). Closer to the trench, the topography was still
negative but characterized by a trench-parallel ridge with a local relative high. After a phase of interaction
between the slab tip and the rigid bottom discontinuity, subduction reached a steady state rollback phase
during which the slab geometry, the trench kinematics, and plate kinematics remained relatively constant
(Figures 3c and 3d, 3g and 3h, and 4b and 4c). During this phase the magnitude of the depression progres-
sively decreased to 0.65–0.80 mm (scaling to 1.44–1.78 km) (Figures 2c and 2d, 2g and 2h, and 4b and 4c).
During the entire subduction process, the rest of the overriding plate, including the backarc region, had a
relative flat topography. The horizontal position of the maximum depression in the forearc region was always
located within 5 mm (scaling to 25 km) of the deepest point of contact between the subducting and overrid-
ing plates at the subduction zone interface (Figure 3). Furthermore, the local ridge in between the depression
and the trench became progressively less pronounced during the steady state rollback phase and almost dis-
appeared in the final stages of subduction (Figures 3c and 3d and 3g and 3h).

3.2. Subduction-Induced Mantle Flow in the Mantle Wedge


In the center of the subduction zone, the slab sinking and rolling back in the sublithospheric upper mantle
forced the mantle wedge material to flow in a poloidal fashion (Figure 3). This poloidal cell had a downwelling
component in the mantle wedge just above the top surface of the slab, as a result of viscous drag by the sink-
ing slab. The downwelling velocity reached ~7 mm/min (scaling to 7 cm/yr) during the free sinking phase and
~3 mm/min (scaling to 3 cm/yr) during the steady state phase (Figure 3), which correlates well with the velo-
cities attained by the subducting plate during these phases (Figures 4b and 4c). We also observed upward
mantle flow in the far backarc mantle wedge. This upwelling was stronger during the free sinking phase with
a maximum velocity of up to ~2 mm/min (scaling to 2 cm/yr), and it was located at ~75–175 mm (scaling to
375–875 km) from the trench (Figure 3a). The velocity magnitude thereafter decreased during the steady
state phase, and the upwelling migrated farther away from the trench as the poloidal cell became elongated
horizontally as a response to the slab draping over the 670 km discontinuity (Figures 3c and 3d and 3g and
3h). We note that the vertical velocities of the mantle wedge poloidal flow were higher during the free sinking
phase and lower during the steady state phase, generally, in good correlation with the subducting plate velo-
city (Figures 4b and 4c).

4. Discussion
4.1. Origin of the Topographic Subsidence in the Forearc Region
An important observation concerns the horizontal position of the maximum depression, which corresponds
with that of the deepest contact point between the subducting and overriding plates at the subduction zone
interface (Figure 3). This observation will help us to differentiate between the different possible driving forces
responsible for the forearc subsidence. We propose that there are three potential candidates to explain the
subsidence formation. Our subduction models are buoyancy driven as in nature and have a realistic subduc-
tion interface. Therefore, the three forces acting on the forearc region and likely leading to the forearc topo-
graphic subsidence in the models should be comparable in natural subduction settings. These three forces
are the shear force at the subduction zone interface, the trench suction force (normal to the subduction zone
interface), and the viscous drag force induced by the vertical movement of the mantle flow in the mantle
wedge region (Figure 4a).
In several previous works using two-dimensional numerical subduction models, the influence of the subduc-
tion zone interface shear force on the forearc topography has been investigated, through varying the coeffi-
cient of friction at the subduction zone interface (Buiter et al., 2001; Cattin et al., 1997; Hampel & Pfiffner,

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Figure 2. Topographic evolution of a free/fixed overriding plate during progressive subduction at (a, b and e, f) two different stages of the slab free-sinking phase,
during which the slab is sinking freely in the upper mantle, and (c, d and g, h) two different stages of the steady state slab rollback phase, during which the slab
is rolling back in a stable fashion. “L” is an abbreviation of “Loop.” The numbers after L indicate different loop numbers. The interval time of each loop is constant,
48 s for free overriding plate models and 20 s for fixed overriding plate models. Note that we define the reference point for elevation (z = 0 mm) at a point
close to the far-field edge of the overriding plate. In the color bar, red, orange, and yellow (positive) indicate positive topography (uplift), while blue (negative)
indicates negative topography (depression). The red dashed lines indicate the positions of the topographic profiles shown in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. Evolution of free/fixed overriding plate topography profile (top panels) and corresponding mantle flow velocity field (bottom panels) across the center of
the overriding plate at four different stages. In the color bar red (positive) indicates upward flow in the sublithospheric mantle, whereas blue indicates downward flow.
For the position of the topography profiles please refer to Figures 1 and 2. L is an abbreviation of Loop. The numbers after L indicate different loop numbers. The
interval time of each loop is constant, 48 s for free overriding plate models and 20 s for fixed overriding plate models. The red dashed line and red zone indicate the
approximate position of maximum subsidence in the forearc region of the overriding plate, while the blue zone indicates the approximate position of the trench.

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Figure 4. (a) Schematic diagram of interaction of plates and subduction-induced poloidal flow in the mantle wedge. Red arrows indicate the direction of subduction-
induced mantle flow in the mantle wedge. d1 is the topography at a point close to the far-field edge of the overriding plate, while d2 is the maximum depression in
the forearc region of the overriding plate. Note that we define the reference point for elevation (z = 0 mm) at a point close to the far-field edge of the overriding plate.
(b,c) Evolution of kinematics of subduction and maximum depression (d = d2  d1) in the forearc region of the overriding plate for free overriding plate (Figure 4b)
and fixed overriding plate (Figure 4c). Subducting plate and trench velocities are the velocities of subducting plate (trenchward is positive) and trench (retreat is
positive) moving with progressive subduction, respectively, while the subduction velocity is the rate at which the subducting plate submerges into the sublitho-
spheric upper mantle. Its magnitude can be calculated from the sum of the subducting plate velocity and trench velocity. The overriding plate deformation velocity is
the variation in total length of the overriding plate in the trench-normal direction divided by a time interval (trench-normal extension is positive). Red arrow, blue
arrow, and green arrow indicate the maxima of trench-normal subduction velocity, trench-normal subducting plate velocity, and subsidence during progressive
subduction. L is an abbreviation of Loop. The numbers after L indicate different loop numbers. The interval time of each loop is constant, 48 s for free overriding plate
models and 20 s for fixed overriding plate models. The variation of the trench suction force along the subduction zone interface for (d) the slab free-sinking phase
(when the slab dip angle progressively increases) and (e) the steady state slab rollback phase (when the slab dip angle remains approximately constant). The
two schematic drawings were inspired from Hassani et al. (1997).

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2006; Hassani et al., 1997; Zhong & Gurnis, 1994). Some modeling studies show that increasing the coefficient
of friction leads to an increase in forearc depression (Buiter et al., 2001; Hampel & Pfiffner, 2006; Zhong &
Gurnis, 1994), whereas others show an opposite relationship (Cattin et al., 1997; Hassani et al., 1997). In our
models, an internal subsidence area, located at 1–5 cm away from the trench, has been observed
particularly during the slab free-sinking phase. However, this transient subsidence cannot be explained by
the shear force at the subduction zone interface.
We have quantified the stress that drives dynamic subsidence in our models. To get the maximum vertical
stress for subsidence, the forearc subsidence map has been used, for which the maximum depth of the
depression has been quantified, which is ~1.5 mm (Figure 3). The density contrast between the sublitho-
spheric upper mantle (1,428 kg/m3) and air (1.225 kg/m3) is 1,426.775 kg/m3, while the gravitational accelera-
tion is 9.8 m/s2. From the product of the maximum depression depth, density contrast, and gravitational
acceleration, we calculate the maximum vertical stress for forearc dynamic subsidence in our models, which
is of the order 20.97 Pa. We can also estimate the shear stress at the subduction zone interface. The effective
flow stress of the lubrication material filled in the subduction channel of our models is 1.0–1.5 Pa at a shear
strain rate of 0.1 s1 (Duarte et al., 2014). We assume that the thickness of the subduction channel in our
models is ~1 mm (Duarte et al., 2013). The average subduction velocity in our models is ~0.06–0.13 mm/s
(Figure 4), giving an average shear rate in the subduction channel of 0.06–0.13 s1, and the subduction
dip angle is approximately 30–45°. From this we can calculate that the magnitude of the vertical component
of the shear stress at the subduction zone interface is 0.54–1.25 Pa, which is much less than the estimated
vertical stress for forearc dynamic subsidence (20.97 Pa). This comparison indicates that the shear force at
the subduction zone interface plays only a minor role in driving the internal transient forearc subsidence.
Nevertheless, the shear force at the subduction zone interface applies a bending moment to the overriding
plate, which would induce a more gradual increase in depression in the overriding plate toward the trench, as
observed in the experiments (Figures 3d and 3h).
The second force possibly causing the forearc topographic subsidence is trench suction, which is normal to
the subduction zone interface. This force has been proposed by Shemenda (1993) using analogue models of
subduction, in which it was described as hydrostatic suction that prevents the plates from being separated,
and it was suggested to provide a driver for backarc extension. In our models, trench suction also plays a role
in maintaining the two plates in contact. Furthermore, the magnitude of this force would correlate with the
level of resistance to translation of the overriding plate. Specifically, the magnitude of this force would be
related to the velocity of the slab in the direction perpendicular to the subduction zone interface during
progressive slab rollback (Figures 4d and 4e). Moving a longer distance implies larger trench suction.
During the slab free-sinking phase, we observe a progressive increase of the slab dip angle with progressive
subduction (Figures 3a and 3b and 3e and 3f). An increase in the slab dip angle results in a gradual increase of
the vertical component of the trench suction toward the lower part of the interface (Figure 4d), thereby caus-
ing a relatively deep topographic depression in the forearc region, with the maximum depth corresponding
to the lowest contact point of the interface (Figure 3). In contrast, during the steady state slab rollback phase
the vertical component of the trench suction is nearly the same along the subduction zone interface because
of the steady state slab rollback velocity along the interface and the relatively constant slab dip angle
(Figure 4e). This results in minor variations in the vertical component of the trench suction along the inter-
face, thereby generating a topographic subsidence in the forearc region that is spatially more constant with
respect to the slab free-sinking phase. Therefore, during the steady state phase the trench suction force, like
the shear force at the subduction zone interface, will mostly bend the overriding plate downward at the
trench, thereby promoting a forearc topographic subsidence that gradually increases toward the trench.
We have confirmed that the suction force at the subduction zone interface is predominantly responsible for
the transient forearc subsidence. This indicates that the vertical force for the dynamic subsidence and vertical
component of trench suction at the subduction zone interface have approximately equal magnitudes. We
can roughly estimate the trench suction force from quantifying the force that drives dynamic subsidence.
In our models, the width (perpendicular to trench) of the depression is ~0.05 m (Figure 2), and the length
of the depression is ~0.15 m. The average depth of the maximum depression is ~0.001 m. So the total volume
of the depression is ~3.75 × 106 m3. By multiplying the volume of the depression by the density contrast of
1426.775 kg/m3 and the gravitational acceleration, we get an average vertical force that drives the depression

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in our models of 0.052 N, which is also the approximate magnitude of the suction force. Furthermore, in our
models the width and thickness of the overriding plate are 0.15 m and 0.015 m, respectively, and we
assume that the slab dip angle is approximately 30–45°. This gives a subduction zone interface surface area
of 3.18–4.50 × 103 m2. The total shear force results from multiplying the shear stress (1.0–1.5 Pa, given
above) by the surface area of the subduction zone interface. The vertical component of the total shear
force at the interface is then 0.0016–0.0048 N, which is about an order of magnitude less than the trench
suction force.
We can also estimate the negative buoyancy force of the subducting slab and then compare it with the
suction force. The density contrast between the slab and lithospheric upper mantle in our models is
100 kg/m3. The width and thickness of the slab are 0.15 m and 0.02 m, respectively. We will assume that there
is a 10 cm long subducting slab. This gives a total negative buoyancy force of the subducting slab of 0.29 N,
compared with the estimated vertical suction force (0.052 N). Considering that the driving force in our models
only comes from the negatively buoyant subducting slab, our model results indicate that some 17.8% of the
negative buoyancy of the slab is used to drive the forearc dynamic subsidence during the transient slab free-
sinking phase.
The last force to be discussed as being a potential cause for the formation of overriding plate topography is
the force generated by vertical movement of mantle flow in the mantle wedge. Previous natural observations
and modeling studies have demonstrated that the vertical mantle flow can cause a long-wavelength,
low-amplitude topography, which is referred to as dynamic topography (Gurnis et al., 1998; Hager et al.,
1985; Lithgow-Bertelloni & Silver, 1998; Pysklywec & Mitrovica, 1998). In our models, an area of maximum
downward mantle velocity has always been observed in the mantle wedge very close to the downgoing slab
within 10 cm, scaling to 500 km, from the trench (Figure 3). Previous analogue and numerical subduction
models have shown that the corner flow induced by slab rollback in the mantle wedge can generate a
pressure gradient with higher suction in the nose of the mantle wedge and progressively lower away from
it (Hall et al., 2000; Kneller & van Keken, 2007, 2008; MacDougall et al., 2014). Such suction produced by
the vertical component of the subduction-induced mantle flow should also exist in our models and would
thus influence the forearc topography by a drag down effect. However, this drag force should play a minor
role in the formation of the forearc subsidence. This is because in our experiments the maxima of the forearc
subsidence were observed above the deepest contact point between the subducting and overriding plates at
the subduction zone interface (Figures 3b and 3f) rather than within 5–10 cm from the trench where the
downward mantle wedge velocity is maximum.

4.2. Comparison With Previous Studies


4.2.1. Analogue Modeling
Several analogue models of subduction have been previously conducted to investigate the topography
around subduction zones, in which the overriding plate was either excluded (Husson et al., 2012) or included,
but the two involved plates were separated by a thin layer of glucose syrup, with a distance up to 20 mm
(scaling to ~120 km for their models) at the surface between the two plates (Guillaume et al., 2013, 2010).
In the work of Husson et al. (2012), the model setup consisted of a free or fixed subducting plate but without
an overriding plate. Because of the lack of an overriding plate, the surface of the glucose syrup would repre-
sent the Earth’s surface and the topography of this surface was scanned. Their model results showed that the
forearc region is depressed to a depth of up to 0.20 mm. This subsidence corresponds to a dynamic topogra-
phy induced by vertical motion of the subduction-induced mantle flow. Considering the similar model setup
adopted in their models and our models, except for the lack of an overriding plate in their models, and that
the maximum subsidence depth in their models (0.2 mm) is far shallower than that in our models
(0.65–1.79 mm), these results support our analysis that the force generated by the downward motion of
mantle flow in the mantle wedge makes a secondary contribution to the observed forearc topographic
subsidence. In the work of Guillaume et al. (2013), a topographic profile parallel to and at ~15 mm away from
the trench showed that there is an area of subsidence existing in the middle of the overriding plate. This is
comparable with our model result showing a subsidence observed at an average distance of 30 mm away
from the trench. Some minor difference between the two studies is probably because in their models there
is a window in the middle of the slab but not in our models. Furthermore, in our models the subducting plate
is free while in their models the far-field edge of the subducting plate is fixed.

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4.2.2. Numerical Modeling


A number of numerical models have previously investigated the parameters that potentially affect the
overriding plate topography. These parameters include the coefficient of friction at the subduction zone
interface (Bonnardot, Hassani, Tric, Ruellan, et al., 2008; Buiter et al., 2001; Cattin et al., 1997; Hampel &
Pfiffner, 2006; Hassani et al., 1997; Zhong & Gurnis, 1992, 1994), the variation of the slab dip angle
(Brink, 2005; Hassani et al., 1997), the density contrast between the lithosphere and the asthenosphere
(i.e., the age of the lithosphere) (Bonnardot, Hassani, Tric, Ruellan, et al., 2008; Buiter et al., 2001;
Hampel & Pfiffner, 2006; Hassani et al., 1997; Zhong & Gurnis, 1992, 1994), the asthenosphere viscosity
(Bonnardot, Hassani, & Tric, 2008; He, 2012), the rheology of the subducting plate (Bonnardot, Hassani,
& Tric, 2008; Zhong & Gurnis, 1992, 1994), the trenchward velocity of the overriding plate (Buiter et al.,
2001; Hampel & Pfiffner, 2006), and the thickness of the overriding plate (He, 2012). Probably, the first
numerical subduction modeling studies in a dynamically self-consistent manner to investigate the topo-
graphy at subduction zones were published more than two decades ago (Zhong & Gurnis, 1992, 1994).
In these subduction models, a fault represents the interface between the subducting plate and the over-
riding plate and a viscous slab subducts into a viscous medium. This setup is similar to that of our mod-
els, except that they used a two-dimensional spatial setup (and our models are three-dimensional) and a
prescribed interface geometry (which is self-determined in our models). In the work from Zhong and
Gurnis (1992, 1994), the backarc region developed a topographic subsidence with a depth of up to
~1.5 km, typically ~150 km away from the trench, when the plates have a Newtonian rheology. They pro-
posed that it was caused by the mantle flow in the backarc extension region. In addition, in their models
a subsidence with a ~3 km depth was observed at the trench. This is comparable with and consistent
with our model results showing a subsidence depth of 1.0–1.72 mm at the trench, scaling to 2.22–
3.82 km in nature. Their model results implied that two main parameters, namely, the age of the litho-
sphere and the shear stress at the subduction zone interface, have a significant influence on the overrid-
ing plate topography. The impact of these two parameters on the overriding plate topography has been
tested later (Bonnardot, Hassani, Tric, Ruellan, et al., 2008; Buiter et al., 2001; Cattin et al., 1997; Hampel &
Pfiffner, 2006; Hassani et al., 1997). In these models, the age of the lithosphere, represented by the den-
sity contrast between the lithosphere and the asthenosphere, and the coefficient of friction along the
subduction zone interface have been varied. The observed topographic subsidence in the forearc region
was comparable with that in our models. For example, in the work of Hassani et al. (1997), when the
density contrast is 100 kg/m3, which is the same as that in our models, an area of topographic subsidence
was observed in the forearc region. In their models, the total convergence amount since subduction
initiation was only 400 km, indicating that the slab had not yet reached the 670 km discontinuity.
Therefore, their models can only be compared with the slab free-sinking phase in our models. They
ascribed the forearc topographic subsidence of the overriding plate to the hydrostatic suction (referred
to as trench suction in our models) at the subduction zone interface. This explanation for the formation
of topographic subsidence in the forearc region is in agreement with our present analysis. Furthermore, in
the work of Buiter et al. (2001), a velocity of 4 cm/yr was imposed on a subducting plate with a thickness
of 25 km. The model results showed a subsidence with a depth of up to 4 km in the forearc region, which
the authors ascribed to slab rollback. This is in general agreement with the findings presented in this
study. In addition, Buiter et al. (2001) found that an increase in the density contrast between the
lithosphere and the asthenosphere deepens the forearc subsidence to a maximum of 6 km. Such subsi-
dence depths are comparable to the subsidence depths observed in the experiment described in this
work (1.44–3.97 km).

5. Conclusions
In our models, two types of negative topography were observed in the forearc lithosphere: (1) a gradual
increase in subsidence toward the trench and (2) superimposed on this first topographic signal a local
depression striking parallel to the trench, which was most pronounced during the free sinking phase but
gradually decreased during the steady state subduction phase. Through analyzing three forces acting on
the forearc lithosphere and comparing our model results with previous investigations of overriding plate
topography using geodynamic models, we conclude that the shear force and trench suction force control
the first type (gradual, long wavelength) of forearc topographic subsidence, through bending the

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Geophysical Research Letters 10.1002/2017GL074672

overriding plate at the trench. Furthermore, the downdip increase of the vertical component of the trench
suction force along the subduction zone interface, caused by the progressive slab steepening during the free
sinking phase, is the main driver in the formation of the forearc topographic depression. Finally, the vertical
component of the subduction-induced mantle flow in the mantle wedge plays a minor role in driving the
topographic subsidence observed in the forearc region of the overriding plate.

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