Rayleigh - Taylor instabilities from hydration and melting propel 'cold plumes' at subduction zones

Taras V. Gerya, David A. Yuen

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466 Scopus citations


It is commonly thought that hot diapiric flows prevail in the mantle wedge above the subducting slab. However, hydration and partial melting along the slab can create a situation in which a Rayleigh-Taylor instability can develop at the top of a cold subducting slab. We have numerically modeled this parodoxically interesting geological phenomenon, in which rising diapiric structures, colder than the asthenosphere by 300-400°C, are driven upward by compositional buoyancy, with a high-resolution two-dimensional regional model. These 'cold plumes' with a compositional, hydrous origin, launched from a depth of greater than 100 km, are lubricated by viscous heating, have an upward velocity in excess of 10 cm/yr, penetrate the relatively hot asthenosphere in the mantle wedge within a couple of million years and thus can cool the surroundings. These 'cold plumes' are fueled by partial melting of the hydrated mantle and subducted oceanic crust due to fluid release from dehydration reactions wihin the slab, including the decomposition of serpentine. There may be a spatial correlation between seismicity and the particular depth of cold-plume initiation. Published by Elsevier Science B.V.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)47-62
Number of pages16
JournalEarth and Planetary Science Letters
Issue number1-2
StatePublished - Jul 15 2003

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by RFBR Grant # 03-05-64633, by an Alexander von Humboldt Foundation Research Fellowship to T.V.G., the geophysics program of the National Science Foundation and by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft within the scope of Sonderforschungsbereich 526 at Ruhr-University. The authors appreciate discussions with J. Van Decar, concerning the recognition of the ‘cold-plume’ phenomena, Tetsu Seno, Shigenori Maruyama and S. Omori, concerning Japanese plate tectonics and other matters. We thank Lilli Yang for drawing Fig. 1. Constructive reviews by Jeroen van Hunen and Garrett Ito are greatly appreciated. [RV]


  • 2-D numerical modeling
  • Magmatic activity
  • Mantle plumes
  • Seismicity
  • Subduction zones


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