Science China Earth Sciences

, Volume 61, Issue 7, pp 823–852 | Cite as

Dynamics of thinning and destruction of the continental cratonic lithosphere: Numerical modeling

  • Mingqi Liu
  • Zhonghai Li


Thinning of the cratonic lithosphere is common in nature, but its destruction is not. In either case, the mechanisms for both thinning and destruction are still widely under debate. In this study, we have made a review on the processes and mechanisms of thinning and destruction of cratonic lithosphere according to previous studies of geological/geophysical observations and numerical simulations, with specific application to the North China Craton (NCC). Two main models are suggested for the thinning and destruction of the NCC, both of which are related to subduction of the oceanic lithosphere. One is the “bottom-up” model, in which the deeply subducting slab perturbs and induces upwelling from the hydrous mantle transition zone (MTZ). The upwelling produces mantle convection and erodes the bottom of the overriding lithosphere by the fluid-melt-peridotite reaction. Mineral compositions and rheological properties of the overriding lithospheric mantle are changed, allowing downward dripping of lithospheric components into the asthenosphere. Consequently, lithospheric thinning or even destruction occurs. The other is the “top-down” model, characterized by the flat subduction of oceanic slab beneath the overriding cratonic lithosphere. Dehydration reactions from the subducting slab would significantly hydrate the lithospheric mantle and decrease its rheological strength. Then the subduction angle may be changed from shallow to steep, inducing lateral upwelling of the asthenosphere. This upwelling would heat and weaken the overriding lithospheric mantle, which led to the weakened lithospheric mantle dripping into the asthenosphere. These two models have some similarities, in that both take the subducting oceanic slab and relevant fluid migration as the major driving mechanism for thinning or destruction of the overriding cratonic lithosphere. The key difference between the two models is the effective depth of the subducting oceanic slab. One is stagnation and flattening in the MTZ, whereas the other is flat subduction at the bottom of the cratonic lithosphere. In the NCC, the eastern lithosphere was likely affected by subduction of the Izanagi slab during the Mesozoic, which would have perturbed the asthenosphere and the MTZ, and induced fluid migration beneath the NCC lithosphere. The upwelling fluid may largely have controlled the reworking of the NCC lithosphere. In order to discuss and analyze these two models further, it is crucial to understand the role of fluids in the subduction zone and the MTZ. Here, we systematically discuss phase transformations of hydrous minerals and the transport processes of water in the subduction system. Furthermore, we analyze possible modes of fluid activity and the problems to explore the applied feasibility of each model. In order to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the mechanisms for thinning and destruction of cratonic lithosphere, we also consider four additional possible dynamic models: extension-induced lithospheric thinning, compression-induced lithospheric thickening and delamination, large-scale mantle convection and thermal erosion, and mantle plume erosion. Compared to the subduction-related models presented here, these four models are primarily controlled by the relatively simple and single process and mechanism (extension, compression, convection, and mantle plume, respectively), which could be the secondary driving mechanisms for the thinning and destruction of lithosphere.


Lithospheric thinning Cratonic destruction Big mantle wedge Plate subduction Fluid migration Numerical modeling 


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Thorough and constructive reviews by the editor Yong-Fei Zheng and three anonymous reviewers help improvement of the presentation. In addition, constructive comments by Ling Chen and Juan Li are gratefully acknowledged. This work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China (Grant Nos. 41622404, 41688103), the Strategic Priority Research Program (B) of Chinese Academy of Sciences (Grant No. XDB18000000), and the National Key Basic Research and Development Program of China (Grant No. 2015CB856106).


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© Science China Press and Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Key Laboratory of Computational Geodynamics, College of Earth and Planetary SciencesUniversity of Chinese Academy of SciencesBeijingChina
  2. 2.Institute of GeologyChinese Academy of Geological SciencesBeijingChina

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