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 is a chain of volcanoes formed above a subducting plate, [1] positioned in an arc shape as seen from above. Offshore volcanoes form islands, resulting in a volcanic island arc. Generally, volcanic arcs result from the subduction of an oceanic tectonic plate under another tectonic plate, and often parallel an oceanic trench. The oceanic plate is saturated with water, and volatiles such as water drastically lower the melting point of the mantle. As the oceanic plate is subducted, it is subjected to greater and greater pressures with increasing depth. This pressure squeezes water out of the plate and introduces it to the mantle. Here the mantle melts and forms magma at depth under the overriding plate. The magma ascends to form an arc of volcanoes parallel to the subduction zone.

Volcano A rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface

A volcano is a rupture in the crust of a planetary-mass object, such as Earth, that allows hot lava, volcanic ash, and gases to escape from a magma chamber below the surface.

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

Subduction is a geological process that takes place at convergent boundaries of tectonic plates where one plate moves under another and is forced to sink due to gravity into the mantle. Regions where this process occurs are known as subduction zones. Rates of subduction are typically in centimeters per year, with the average rate of convergence being approximately two to eight centimeters per year along most plate boundaries.

Island arc arc-shaped archipelago

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.


These should not be confused with hotspot volcanic chains, where volcanoes often form one after another in the middle of a tectonic plate, 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; the older islands (tens of millions of years old) to the northwest are smaller and more lush than the recently created (400,000 years ago) Hawaii island itself, which is more rocky. Hotspot volcanoes are also known as "intra-plate" volcanoes, and the islands they create are known as Volcanic Ocean Islands. Volcanic arcs do not generally exhibit such a simple age-pattern.

Hotspot (geology) Volcanic regions thought to be fed by underlying mantle that is anomalously hot compared with the surrounding mantle

In geology, the places known as hotspots or hot spots are volcanic regions thought to be fed by underlying mantle that is anomalously hot compared with the surrounding mantle. Their position on the Earth's surface is independent of tectonic plate boundaries. There are two hypotheses that attempt to explain their origins. One suggests that hotspots are due to mantle plumes that rise as thermal diapirs from the core–mantle boundary. The other hypothesis is that lithospheric extension permits the passive rising of melt from shallow depths. This hypothesis considers the term "hotspot" to be a misnomer, asserting that the mantle source beneath them is, in fact, not anomalously hot at all. Well-known examples include the Hawaii, Iceland and Yellowstone hotspots.

Hawaiian Islands An archipelago in the North Pacific Ocean, currently administered by the US state of Hawaii

The Hawaiian Islands are an archipelago of eight major islands, several atolls, numerous smaller islets, and seamounts in the North Pacific Ocean, extending some 1,500 miles from the island of Hawaiʻi in the south to northernmost Kure Atoll. Formerly the group was known to Europeans and Americans as the Sandwich Islands, a name chosen by James Cook in honor of the then First Lord of the Admiralty John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. The contemporary name is derived from the name of the largest island, Hawaii Island.

There are two types of volcanic arcs:

Oceanic crust The uppermost layer of the oceanic portion of a tectonic plate

Oceanic crust is the uppermost layer of the oceanic portion of a tectonic plate. It is composed of the upper oceanic crust, with pillow lavas and a dike complex, and the lower oceanic crust, composed of troctolite, gabbro and ultramafic cumulates. The crust overlies the solidified and uppermost layer of the mantle. The crust and the solid mantle layer together constitute oceanic lithosphere.

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.

Continental crust Layer of rock that forms the continents and continental shelves

Continental crust is the layer of igneous, sedimentary, and metamorphic rocks that forms the continents and the areas of shallow seabed close to their shores, known as continental shelves. This layer is sometimes called sial because its bulk composition is richer in silicates and aluminium minerals and has a lower density compared to the oceanic crust, called sima which is richer in magnesium silicate minerals and is denser. Changes in seismic wave velocities have shown that at a certain depth, there is a reasonably sharp contrast between the more felsic upper continental crust and the lower continental crust, which is more mafic in character.

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.

Volcanoes are present in almost any mountain belt, but this does not make it a volcanic arc. Often there are isolated, but impressively huge volcanoes in a mountain belt. For instance, Vesuvius and the Etna volcanoes in Italy are part of separate but different kinds of mountainous volcanic ensembles.

Mount Etna active stratovolcano on the east coast of Sicily, Italy

Mount Etna, or Etna, is an active stratovolcano on the east coast of Sicily, Italy, in the Metropolitan City of Catania, between the cities of Messina and Catania. It lies above the convergent plate margin between the African Plate and the Eurasian Plate. It is the highest active volcano in Europe outside the Caucasus. It is currently 3,326 m (10,912 ft) high, though this varies with summit eruptions. It is the highest peak in Italy south of the Alps. Etna covers an area of 1,190 km2 (459 sq mi) with a basal circumference of 140 km. This makes it by far the largest of the three active volcanoes in Italy, being about two and a half times the height of the next largest, Mount Vesuvius. Only Mount Teide on Tenerife in the Canary Islands surpasses it in the whole of the European–North-African region west of the Black Sea. In Greek Mythology, the deadly monster Typhon was trapped under this mountain by Zeus, the god of the sky and thunder and king of gods, and the forges of Hephaestus were said to also be located underneath it.

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.

Volcanism phenomena and processes associated with the action of volcanos, geysers and fumaroles

Volcanism is the phenomenon of eruption of molten rock (magma) onto the surface of the Earth or a solid-surface planet or moon, where lava, pyroclastics and volcanic gases erupt through a break in the surface called a vent. It includes all phenomena resulting from and causing magma within the crust or mantle of the body, to rise through the crust and form volcanic rocks on the surface.

Oceanic trench Long and narrow depressions of the sea floor

Oceanic trenches are topographic depressions of the sea floor, relatively narrow in width, but very long. These oceanographic features are the deepest parts of the ocean floor. Oceanic trenches are a distinctive morphological feature of convergent plate boundaries, along which lithospheric plates move towards each other at rates that vary from a few millimeters to over ten centimeters per year. A trench marks the position at which the flexed, subducting slab begins to descend beneath another lithospheric slab. Trenches are generally parallel to a volcanic island arc, and about 200 km (120 mi) from a volcanic arc. Oceanic trenches typically extend 3 to 4 km below the level of the surrounding oceanic floor. The greatest ocean depth measured is in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 11,034 m (36,201 ft) below sea level. Oceanic lithosphere moves into trenches at a global rate of about 3 km2/yr.


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. This loss of water is due to the destabilization of the mineral chlorite at approximately 40–60 km depth. [2] [3] This is the reason for island arc volcanism at consistent distances from the subducting slab: because the temperature-pressure conditions for flux-melting volcanism due to chlorite destabilization will always occur at the same depth, the distance from the trench to the arc volcanoes is determined only by the dip angle of the subducting slab.

Water chemical compound

Water is a transparent, tasteless, odorless, and nearly colorless chemical substance, which is the main constituent of Earth's streams, lakes, and oceans, and the fluids of most living organisms. It is vital for all known forms of life, even though it provides no calories or organic nutrients. Its chemical formula is H2O, meaning that each of its molecules contains one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, connected by covalent bonds. Water is the name of the liquid state of H2O at standard ambient temperature and pressure. It forms precipitation in the form of rain and aerosols in the form of fog. Clouds are formed from suspended droplets of water and ice, its solid state. When finely divided, crystalline ice may precipitate in the form of snow. The gaseous state of water is steam or water vapor. Water moves continually through the water cycle of evaporation, transpiration (evapotranspiration), condensation, precipitation, and runoff, usually reaching the sea.

Slab (geology) The portion of a tectonic plate that is being subducted

In geology, a slab is the portion of a tectonic plate that is being subducted.

A mantle is a layer inside a planetary body bounded below by a core and above by a crust. Mantles are made of rock or ices, and are generally the largest and most massive layer of the planetary body. Mantles are characteristic of planetary bodies that have undergone differentiation by density. All terrestrial planets, a number of asteroids, and some planetary moons have mantles.

On the subducting side of the arc is a deep and narrow oceanic trench, which is the trace at the Earth's surface of the boundary between the down-going and overriding plates. This trench is created by the gravitational pull of the relatively dense subducting plate pulling the leading edge of the plate downward. Multiple earthquakes occur along this subduction boundary with the seismic hypocenters located at increasing depth under the island arc: these quakes define the Wadati–Benioff zones. The volcanic arc forms when the subducting plate reaches a depth of about 100 kilometres (62 mi).

Ocean basins that are being reduced by subduction are called 'remnant oceans' as they will slowly be shrunken out of existence and crushed in the subsequent orogenic collision. This process has happened over and over in the geologic history of the Earth.

In the rock record, volcanic arcs can be seen as the volcanic rocks themselves, but because volcanic rock is easily weathered and eroded, it is more typical that they are seen as plutonic rocks, the rocks that formed underneath the arc (e.g. the Sierra Nevada batholith), or in the sedimentary record as lithic sandstones.


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

Obduction was originally defined by Coleman to mean the overthrusting of oceanic lithosphere onto continental lithosphere at a convergent plate boundary where continental lithosphere is being subducted beneath oceanic lithosphere.

Convergent boundary Region of active deformation between colliding lithospheric plates

Convergent boundaries are areas on Earth where two or more lithospheric plates collide. One plate eventually slides beneath the other causing a process known as subduction. The subduction zone can be defined by a plane where many earthquakes occur, called the 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.

Andesite An intermediate volcanic rock

Andesite ( or ) is an extrusive igneous, volcanic rock, of intermediate composition, with aphanitic to porphyritic texture. In a general sense, it is the intermediate type between basalt and rhyolite, and ranges from 57 to 63% silicon dioxide (SiO2) as illustrated in TAS diagrams. The mineral assemblage is typically dominated by plagioclase plus pyroxene or hornblende. Magnetite, zircon, apatite, ilmenite, biotite, and garnet are common accessory minerals. Alkali feldspar may be present in minor amounts. The quartz-feldspar abundances in andesite and other volcanic rocks are illustrated in QAPF diagrams.

Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt arc of volcanic mountains across central-southern Mexico

The Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt, also known as the Transvolcanic Belt and locally as the Sierra Nevada, is a 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.

Kuril–Kamchatka Trench An oceanic trench in the northwest Pacific off the southeast coast of Kamchatka and parallels the Kuril Island chain to meet the Japan Trench east of Hokkaido

The Kuril–Kamchatka Trench or Kuril Trench is an oceanic trench in the northwest Pacific Ocean. It lies off the southeast coast of Kamchatka and parallels the Kuril Island chain to meet the Japan Trench east of Hokkaido. It extends from a triple junction with the Ulakhan Fault and the Aleutian Trench near the Commander Islands, Russia, in the northeast, to the intersection with the Japan Trench in the southwest.

The andesite line is the most significant regional geologic distinction in the Pacific Ocean basin. It separates the mafic basaltic volcanic rocks of the Central Pacific Basin from the partially submerged continental areas of more felsic andesitic volcanic rock on its margins. The andesite line parallels the subduction zones and deep oceanic trenches around the Pacific basin. It is the surface expression of melting within and above the plunging subducting slab. It follows the western edge of the islands off California and passes south of the Aleutian Arc, along the eastern edge of the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Kuril Islands, Japan, the Mariana Islands, Yap, Palau, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Tonga, and New Zealand's North Island. The dissimilarity continues northeastward along the western edge of the Andes mountains of South America to Mexico, returning then to the islands off California. Indonesia, the Philippines, Japan, New Guinea, and New Zealand lie outside the andesite line.

Magmatism geological process

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.

Volcanic belt A large volcanically active region

A volcanic belt is a large volcanically active region. Other terms are used for smaller areas of activity, such as volcanic fields. Volcanic belts are found above zones of unusually high temperature (700-1400 °C) where magma is created by partial melting of solid material in the Earth's crust and upper mantle. These areas usually form along tectonic plate boundaries at depths of 10–50 km. For example, volcanoes in Mexico and western North America are mostly in volcanic belts, such as the Trans-Mexican Volcanic Belt that extends 900 km from west to east across central-southern Mexico and the Northern Cordilleran Volcanic Province in western Canada.

Cobb hotspot

The Cobb Hotspot is a marine volcanic hotspot located at, which is 460 km (290 mi) west of Oregon and Washington, North America, in the Pacific Ocean. Over geologic time, the Earth's surface has migrated with respect to the hotspot through plate tectonics, creating the Cobb-Eicklberg seamount chain. The hotspot is currently collocated with the Juan de Fuca Ridge.

Coast Range Arc

The Coast Range Arc was a large volcanic arc system, extending from northern Washington through British Columbia and the Alaska Panhandle to southwestern Yukon. The Coast Range Arc lies along the western margin of the North American Plate in the Pacific Northwest of western North America. Although taking its name from the Coast Mountains, this term is a geologic grouping rather than a geographic one, and the Coast Range Arc extended south into the High Cascades of the Cascade Range, past the Fraser River which is the northward limit of the Cascade Range proper.

Mariana Plate A small tectonic plate west of the Mariana Trench

The Mariana Plate is a micro tectonic plate located west of the Mariana Trench which forms the basement of the Mariana Islands which form part of the Izu-Bonin-Mariana Arc. It is separated from the Philippine Sea Plate to the west by a divergent boundary with numerous transform fault offsets. The boundary between the Mariana and the Pacific Plate to the east is a subduction zone with the Pacific Plate subducting beneath the Mariana. This eastern subduction is divided into the Mariana Trench, which forms the southeastern boundary, and the Izu-Ogasawara Trench the northeastern boundary. The subduction plate motion is responsible for the shape of the Mariana plate and back arc.

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

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.

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.

Divergent double subduction Two parallel subduction zones with different directions are developed on the same oceanic plate

Divergent double subduction is a special type of subduction system where 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. This concept was first proposed and applied to the Lachlan fold belt in southern Australia. Since then, geologists have applied this model to other regions such as the Solonker Suture Zone of the Central Asian Orogenic belt, the Jiangnan Orogen, the Lhasa–Qiangtang collision zone and the Baker terrane boundary. Active examples of this system are 1) the Molucca Sea Collision Zone in Indonesia, in which the Molucca Sea plate subducts below the Eurasian plate and the Philippine Sea plate on two sides, and 2) the Adria microplate in the Central Mediterranean, subducting both on its western side and on its eastern side . Note that the term "divergent" is used to describe one oceanic plate subducting in different directions on two opposite sides. It should not be confused with use of the same term in 'divergent plate boundary' which refers to a spreading center that separates two plates moving away from each other.

Aleutian subduction zone Convergence boundary between the North American Plate and the Pacific Plate, that extends from the Alaska Range to the Kamchatka Peninsula.

The Aleutian subduction zone is a ~2500 mile-long convergence 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 cm/yr to 5.1 cm/yr. The Aleutian subduction zone includes two prominent features, the Aleutian arc and the Aleutian trench. The island arc was created via volcanic eruptions from dehydration of the subducting slab at ~100 km depth. The trench is a narrow and deep morphology that occurs between the two converging plates as the subucting slab dives beneath the overriding plate.


  1. "Volcanic arc definition from the Dictionary of Geology" . Retrieved 2014-11-01.
  2. Grove, T. L., N. Chatterjee, S. W. Parman, and E. Médard (2006), The Influence of H2O on Mantle Wedge Melting, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 249, 74–89.
  3. Grove, T.L., C. B. Till, N. Chatterjee, and E. Médard (submitted 2008), Transport of H2O in subduction zones and its role in the formation and location of arc volcanoes, Nature.