Volcanic arc

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Volcanic arc formation along a subducting plate Subduction-en.svg
Volcanic arc formation along a subducting plate

A volcanic arc (also known as a magmatic arc [1] :6.2) is a belt of volcanoes formed above a subducting oceanic tectonic plate, [2] with the belt arranged in an arc shape as seen from above. Volcanic arcs typically parallel an oceanic trench, with the arc located further from the subducting plate than the trench. The oceanic plate is saturated with water, mostly in the form of hydrous minerals such as micas, amphiboles, and serpentine minerals. As the oceanic plate is subducted, it is subjected to increasing pressure and temperature with increasing depth. The heat and pressure break down the hydrous minerals in the plate, releasing water into the overlying mantle. Volatiles such as water drastically lower the melting point of the mantle, causing some of the mantle to melt and form magma at depth under the overriding plate. The magma ascends to form an arc of volcanoes parallel to the subduction zone.


Volcanic arcs are distinct from volcanic chains formed over hotspots in the middle of a tectonic plate. Volcanoes often form one after another as the plate moves over the hotspot, and so the volcanoes progress in age from one end of the chain to the other. The Hawaiian Islands form a typical hotspot chain, with the older islands to the northwest and Hawaii Island itself, which is just 400,000 years ago, at the southeast end of the chain over the hotspot. Volcanic arcs do not generally exhibit such a simple age-pattern.

There are two types of volcanic arcs:

In some situations, a single subduction zone may show both aspects along its length, as part of a plate subducts beneath a continent and part beneath adjacent oceanic crust. The Aleutian Islands and adjoining Alaskan Peninsula are an example of such a subduction zone.

The active front of a volcanic arc is the belt where volcanism develops at a given time. Active fronts may move over time (millions of years), changing their distance from the oceanic trench as well as their width.

Tectonic setting

A volcanic arc is part of an arc-trench complex, which is the part of a subduction zone that is visible at the Earth's surface. A subduction zone is where a tectonic plate composed of relatively thin, dense oceanic lithosphere sinks into the Earth's mantle beneath a less dense overriding plate. The overriding plate may be either another oceanic plate or a continental plate. The subducting plate, or slab, sinks into the mantle at an angle, so that there is a wedge of mantle between the slab and the overriding plate. [1] :5

The boundary between the subducting plate and the overriding plate coincides with a deep and narrow oceanic trench. This trench is created by the gravitational pull of the relatively dense subducting plate pulling the leading edge of the plate downward. [3] :44–45 Multiple earthquakes occur within the subducting slab with the seismic hypocenters located at increasing depth under the island arc: these quakes define the Wadati–Benioff zones. [3] :33 The volcanic arc forms on the overriding plate over the point where the subducting plate reaches a depth of roughly 120 kilometres (75 mi) [4] and is a zone of volcanic activity between 50 and 200 kilometers (31 and 124 mi) in width. [5]

The shape of a volcanic arc is typically convex towards the subducting plate. This is a consequence of the spherical geometry of the Earth. The subducting plate behaves like a flexible thin spherical shell, and such a shell be bent downwards by an angle of θ, without tearing or wrinkling, only on a circle whose radius is θ/2. This means that arcs where the subducting slab descends at a shallower angle will be more tightly curved. Prominent arcs whose slabs subduct at about 45 degrees, such as the Kuril Islands, the Aleutian Islands, and the Sunda Arc, have a radius of about 20 to 22 degrees. [6]

Volcanic arcs are divided into those in which the overriding plate is continental (Andean-type arcs) and those in which the overriding plate is oceanic (intraoceanic or primitive arcs). The crust beneath the arc is up to twice as thick as average continental or oceanic crust: The crust under Andean-type arcs is up to 80 kilometers (50 mi) thick, while the crust under intraoceanic arcs is 20 to 35 kilometers (12 to 22 mi) thick. Both shortening of the crust and magmatic underplating contribute to thickening of the crust. [1] :6

Volcanic arcs are characterized by explosive eruption of calc-alkaline magma, though young arcs sometimes erupt tholeiitic magma [7] and a few arcs erupt alkaline magma. [8] Calc-alkaline magma can be distinguished from tholeiitic magma, typical of mid-ocean ridges, by its higher aluminium and lower iron content [9] :143–146 and by its high content of large-ion lithophile elements, such as potassium, rubidium, caesium, strontium, or barium, relative to high-field-strength elements, such as zirconium, niobium, hafnium, rare-earth elements (REE), thorium, uranium, or tantalum. [10] Andesite is particularly characteristic of volcanic arcs, though it sometimes also occurs in regions of crustal extension. [11]

In the rock record, volcanic arcs can be recognized from their thick sequences of volcaniclastic rock (formed by explosive volcanism) interbedded with greywackes and mudstones and by their calc-alkaline composition. In more ancient rocks that have experienced metamorphism and alteration of their composition (metasomatism), calc-alkaline rocks can be distingiushed by their content of trace elements that are little affected by alteration, such as chromium or titanium, whose content is low in volcanic arc rocks. [7] Because volcanic rock is easily weathered and eroded, older volcanic arcs are seen as plutonic rocks, the rocks that formed underneath the arc (e.g. the Sierra Nevada batholith), [12] or in the sedimentary record as lithic sandstones. [13] Paired metamorphic belts, in which a belt of high-temperature, low-pressure metamorphism is located parallel to a belt of low-temperature, high-pressure metamorphism, preserve an ancient arc-trench complex in which the high-temperature, low-pressure belt corresponds to the volcanic arc. [7]


In a subduction zone, loss of water from the subducted slab induces partial melting of the overriding mantle and generates low-density, calc-alkaline magma that buoyantly rises to intrude and be extruded through the lithosphere of the overriding plate. Most of the water carried downwards by the slab is contained in hydrous (water-bearing) minerals, such as mica, amphibole, or serpentinite minerals. Water is lost from the subducted plate when the temperature and pressure become sufficient to break down these minerals and release their water content. The water rises into the wedge of mantle overlying the slab and lowers the melting point of mantle rock to the point where magma is generated. [1] :5.3

While there is wide agreement on the general mechanism, research continues on the explanation for focused volcanism along a narrow arc some distance from the trench. [1] :4.2 [14] The distance from the trench to the volcanic arc is greater for slabs subducting at a shallower angle, and this suggests that magma generation takes place when the slab reached a critical depth for the breakdown of an abundant hydrous mineral. This would produce an ascending "hydrous curtain" that accounts for focused volcanism along the volcanic arc. However, some models suggest that water is continuously released from the slab from shallow depths down to 70 to 300 kilometers (43 to 186 mi), and much of the water released at shallow depths produces serpentinization of the overlying mantle wedge. [1] :4.2.42 According to one model, only about 18 to 37 percent of the water content is released at sufficient depth to produce arc magmatism. The volcanic arc is then interpreted as the depth at which the degree of melting becomes great enough to allow the magma to separate from its source rock. [5]

It is now known that the subducting slab may be located anywhere from 60 to 173 kilometers (37 to 107 mi) below the volcanic arc, rather than a single characteristic depth of around 120 kilometers (75 mi), which requires more elaborate models of arc magmatism. For example, water released from the slab at moderate depths might react with amphibole minerals in the lower part of the mantle wedge to produce water-rich chlorite. This chlorite-rich mantle rock is then dragged downwards by the subducting slab, and eventually breaks down to become the source of arc magmatism. [4] The location of the arc depends on the angle and rate of subduction, which determine where hydrous minerals break down and where the released water lowers the melting point of the overlying mantle wedge enough for melting. [15]

The location of the volcanic arc may be determined by the presence of a cool shallow corner at the tip of the mantle wedge, where the mantle rock is cooled by both the overlying plate and the slab. Not only does the cool shallow corner suppress melting, but its high stiffness hinders the ascent of any magma that is formed. Arc volcanism takes place where the slab descends out from under the cool shallow corner, allowing magma to be generated and rise through warmer, less stiff mantle rock. [14]

Magma may be generated over a broad area but become focused into a narrow volcanic arc by a permeability barrier at the base of the overriding plate. Numerical simulations suggest that crystallization of rising magma creates this barrier, causing the remaining magma to pool in a narrow band at the apex of the barrier. This narrow band corresponds to the overlying volcanic arc. [16]


Cascade Volcanic Arc, a continental volcanic arc Cascadia subduction zone USGS.png
Cascade Volcanic Arc, a continental volcanic arc
The Aleutian Arc, with both oceanic and continental parts. Map of alaska volcanoes okmok.jpg
The Aleutian Arc, with both oceanic and continental parts.

Two classic examples of oceanic island arcs are the Mariana Islands in the western Pacific Ocean and the Lesser Antilles in the western Atlantic Ocean. The Cascade Volcanic Arc in western North America and the Andes along the western edge of South America are examples of continental volcanic arcs. The best examples of volcanic arcs with both sets of characteristics are in the North Pacific, with the Aleutian Arc consisting of the Aleutian Islands and their extension the Aleutian Range on the Alaska Peninsula, and the Kuril–Kamchatka Arc comprising the Kuril Islands and southern Kamchatka Peninsula.

Continental arcs

Island arcs

Ancient island arcs

See also

Related Research Articles

Subduction A geological process at convergent tectonic plate boundaries where one plate moves under the other

Subduction is a geological process in which the oceanic lithosphere is recycled into the Earth's mantle at convergent boundaries. Where the oceanic lithosphere of a tectonic plate converges with the less dense lithosphere of a second plate, the heavier plate dives beneath the second plate and sinks into the mantle. A region where this process occurs is known as a subduction zone, and its surface expression is known as an arc-trench complex. The process of subduction has created most of the Earth's continental crust. Rates of subduction are typically measured in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

Convergent boundary Region of active deformation between colliding tectonic plates

A convergent boundary is an area on Earth where two or more lithospheric plates collide. One plate eventually slides beneath the other, a process known as subduction. The subduction zone can be defined by a plane where many earthquakes occur, called the Wadati–Benioff zone. These collisions happen on scales of millions to tens of millions of years and can lead to volcanism, earthquakes, orogenesis, destruction of lithosphere, and deformation. Convergent boundaries occur between oceanic-oceanic lithosphere, oceanic-continental lithosphere, and continental-continental lithosphere. The geologic features related to convergent boundaries vary depending on crust types.

Dacite Volcanic rock intermediate in composition between andesite and rhyolite

Dacite is a volcanic rock formed by rapid solidification of lava that is high in silica and low in alkali metal oxides. It has a fine-grained (aphanitic) to porphyritic texture and is intermediate in composition between andesite and rhyolite. It is composed predominantly of plagioclase feldspar and quartz.

Andesite Type of volcanic rock

Andesite is a volcanic rock of intermediate composition. In a general sense, it is the intermediate type between silica-poor basalt and silica-rich rhyolite. It is fine-grained (aphanitic) to porphyritic in texture, and is composed predominantly of sodium-rich plagioclase plus pyroxene or hornblende.

Island arc Arc-shaped archipelago formed by intense seismic activity of long chains of active volcanoes

Island arcs are long chains of active volcanoes with intense seismic activity found along convergent tectonic plate boundaries. Most island arcs originate on oceanic crust and have resulted from the descent of the lithosphere into the mantle along the subduction zone. They are the principal way by which continental growth is achieved.

Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt Active volcanic belt that covers central-southern Mexico

The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, also known as the Transvolcanic Belt and locally as the Sierra Nevada, is an active volcanic belt that covers central-southern Mexico. Several of its highest peaks have snow all year long, and during clear weather, they are visible to a large percentage of those who live on the many high plateaus from which these volcanoes rise.

Magmatism Emplacement of magma on the outer layers of a terrestrial planet, which solidifies as igneous rocks

Magmatism is the emplacement of magma within and at the surface of the outer layers of a terrestrial planet, which solidifies as igneous rocks. It does so through magmatic activity or igneous activity, the production, intrusion and extrusion of magma or lava. Volcanism is the surface expression of magmatism.

Adakite Volcanic rock type

Adakites are volcanic rocks of intermediate to felsic composition that have geochemical characteristics of magma originally thought to have formed by partial melting of altered basalt that is subducted below volcanic arcs. Most magmas derived in subduction zones come from the mantle above the subducting plate when hydrous fluids are released from minerals that break down in the metamorphosed basalt, rise into the mantle, and initiate partial melting. However, Defant and Drummond recognized that when young oceanic crust is subducted, adakites are typically produced in the arc. They postulated that when young oceanic crust is subducted it is "warmer" than crust that is typically subducted. The warmer crust enables melting of the metamorphosed subducted basalt rather than the mantle above. Experimental work by several researchers has verified the geochemical characteristics of "slab melts" and the contention that melts can form from young and therefore warmer crust in subduction zones.

Andean Volcanic Belt Volcanic belt in South America

The Andean Volcanic Belt is a major volcanic belt along the Andean cordillera in Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. It is formed as a result of subduction of the Nazca Plate and Antarctic Plate underneath the South American Plate. The belt is subdivided into four main volcanic zones which are separated by volcanic gaps. The volcanoes of the belt are diverse in terms of activity style, products, and morphology. While some differences can be explained by which volcanic zone a volcano belongs to, there are significant differences within volcanic zones and even between neighboring volcanoes. Despite being a type location for calc-alkalic and subduction volcanism, the Andean Volcanic Belt has a broad range of volcano-tectonic settings, as it has rift systems and extensional zones, transpressional faults, subduction of mid-ocean ridges and seamount chains as well as a large range of crustal thicknesses and magma ascent paths and different amounts of crustal assimilations.

Slab window Type of gap in a subducted oceanic plate

In geology, a slab window is a gap that forms in a subducted oceanic plate when a mid-ocean ridge meets with a subduction zone and plate divergence at the ridge and convergence at the subduction zone continue, causing the ridge to be subducted. Formation of a slab window produces an area where the crust of the over-riding plate is lacking a rigid lithospheric mantle component and thus is exposed to hot asthenospheric mantle. This produces anomalous thermal, chemical and physical effects in the mantle that can dramatically change the over-riding plate by interrupting the established tectonic and magmatic regimes. In general, the data used to identify possible slab windows comes from seismic tomography and heat flow studies.

Back-arc region

The back-arc region is the area behind a volcanic arc. In island volcanic arcs, it consists of back-arc basins of oceanic crust with abyssal depths, which may be separated by remnant arcs, similar to island arcs. In continental arcs, the back-arc region is part of continental platform, either dry land (subaerial) or forming shallow marine basins.

Mantle wedge Triangular shaped piece of mantle that lies above a subducting tectonic plate

A mantle wedge is a triangular shaped piece of mantle that lies above a subducting tectonic plate and below the overriding plate. This piece of mantle can be identified using seismic velocity imaging as well as earthquake maps. Subducting oceanic slabs carry large amounts of water; this water lowers the melting temperature of the above mantle wedge. Melting of the mantle wedge can also be contributed to depressurization due to the flow in the wedge. This melt gives rise to associated volcanism on the earth's surface. This volcanism can be seen around the world in places such as Japan and Indonesia.

In igneous petrology and volcanology, flux melting occurs when water and other volatile components are introduced to hot solid rock, depressing the solidus. In engineering and metallurgy, flux is a substance, such as salt, that produces a low melting point (liquidus) mixture with a metal oxide. In the same way, the addition of water and other volatile compounds to rocks composed of silicate minerals lowers the melting temperature (solidus) of those rocks.

Subduction zone metamorphism Changes of rock due to pressure and heat near a subduction zone

A subduction zone is a region of the earth's crust where one tectonic plate moves under another tectonic plate; oceanic crust gets recycled back into the mantle and continental crust gets created by the formation of arc magmas. Arc magmas account for more than 20% of terrestrially produced magmas and are produced by the dehydration of minerals within the subducting slab as it descends into the mantle and are accreted onto the base of the overriding continental plate. Subduction zones host a unique variety of rock types created by the high-pressure, low-temperature conditions a subducting slab encounters during its descent. The metamorphic conditions the slab passes through in this process creates and destroys water bearing (hydrous) mineral phases, releasing water into the mantle. This water lowers the melting point of mantle rock, initiating melting. Understanding the timing and conditions in which these dehydration reactions occur, is key to interpreting mantle melting, volcanic arc magmatism, and the formation of continental crust.

A continental arc is a type of volcanic arc occurring as an "arc-shape" topographic high region along a continental margin. The continental arc is formed at an active continental margin where two tectonic plates meet, and where one plate has continental crust and the other oceanic crust along the line of plate convergence, and a subduction zone develops. The magmatism and petrogenesis of continental crust are complicated: in essence, continental arcs reflect a mixture of oceanic crust materials, mantle wedge and continental crust materials.

Flat slab subduction is characterized by a low subduction angle beyond the seismogenic layer and a resumption of normal subduction far from the trench. A slab refers to the subducting lower plate. Although, some would characterize flat slab subduction as any shallowly dipping lower plate as in western Mexico. Flat slab subduction is associated with the pinching out of the asthenosphere, an inland migration of arc magmatism, and an eventual cessation of arc magmatism. The coupling of the flat slab to the upper plate is thought to change the style of deformation occurring on the upper plate's surface and form basement-cored uplifts like the Rocky Mountains. The flat slab also may hydrate the lower continental lithosphere and be involved in the formation of economically important ore deposits. During the subduction, a flat slab itself may be deformed, or buckling, causing sedimentary hiatus in marine sediments on the slab. The failure of a flat slab is associated with ignimbritic volcanism and the reverse migration of arc volcanism. Multiple working hypotheses about the cause of flat slabs are subduction of thick, buoyant oceanic crust (15–20 km) and trench rollback accompanying a rapidly overriding upper plate and enhanced trench suction. The west coast of South America has two of the largest flat slab subduction zones. Flat slab subduction is occurring at 10% of subduction zones.

Divergent double subduction Special type of Tectonic process

Divergent double subduction, also called outward dipping double-sided subduction, is a special type of subduction process in which two parallel subduction zones with different directions are developed on the same oceanic plate. In conventional plate tectonics theory, an oceanic plate subducts under another plate and new oceanic crust is generated somewhere else, commonly along the other side of the same plates However, in divergent double subduction, the oceanic plate subducts on two sides. This results in the closure of ocean and arc–arc collision.

Aleutian subduction zone Convergence boundary between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate

The Aleutian subduction zone is a 2,500 mi (4,000 km) long convergent boundary between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate, that extends from the Alaska Range to the Kamchatka Peninsula. Here, the Pacific Plate is being subducted underneath the North American Plate and the rate of subduction changes from west to east from 7.5 to 5.1 cm per year. The Aleutian subduction zone includes two prominent features, the Aleutian Arc and the Aleutian Trench. The Aleutian Arc was created via volcanic eruptions from dehydration of the subducting slab at ~100 km depth. The Aleutian Trench is a narrow and deep morphology that occurs between the two converging plates as the subducting slab dives beneath the overriding plate.

Dharwar Craton Part of the Indian Shield in south India

The Dharwar Craton is an Archean continental crust craton formed between 3.6-2.5 billion years ago (Ga), which is located in southern India and considered as the oldest part of the Indian peninsula.

Chile Ridge Submarine oceanic ridge in the Pacific Ocean

The Chile Ridge, also known as the Chile Rise, is a submarine oceanic ridge formed by the divergent plate boundary between the Nazca Plate and the Antarctic Plate. It extends from the triple junction of the Nazca, Pacific, and Antarctic plates to the Southern coast of Chile. The Chile Ridge is easy to recognize on the map, as the ridge is divided into several segmented fracture zones which are perpendicular to the ridge segments, showing an orthogonal shape toward the spreading direction. The total length of the ridge segments is about 550–600 km.


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Further reading