Obduction is the overthrusting of continental crust by oceanic crust or mantle rocks at a convergent plate boundary, such as closing of an ocean or a mountain building episode. This process is uncommon because the denser oceanic lithosphere usually subducts underneath the less dense continental plate.
Obduction occurs where a fragment of continental crust is caught in a subduction zone with resulting overthrusting of oceanic mafic and ultramafic rocks from the mantle onto the continental crust. Obduction often occurs where a small tectonic plate is caught between two larger plates, with the crust (both island arc and oceanic) welding onto an adjacent continent as a new terrane. When two continental plates collide, obduction of the oceanic crust between them is often a part of the resulting orogeny.
Most obductions appear to have initiated at back-arc basins above the subduction zones during the closing of an ocean or an orogeny.
The characteristic rocks of obducted oceanic lithosphere are the ophiolites. Ophiolites are an assemblage of oceanic lithosphere rocks that have been emplaced onto a continent. This assemblage consists of deep-marine sedimentary rock (chert, limestone, clastic sediments), volcanic rocks (pillow lavas, glass, ash, sheeted dykes and gabbros) and peridotite (mantle rock).
Types of obductions
Upwedging in subduction zones
This process is operative beneath and behind the inner walls of oceanic trenches (subduction zone) where slices of oceanic crust and mantle are ripped from the upper part of the descending plate and wedged and packed in high pressure assemblages against the leading edge of the other plate.
Progressive packing of ophiolite slices and arc fragments against the leading edge of a continent may continue over a long period of time and lead to a form of continental accretion.
Compressional telescoping onto Atlantic-type continental margins
The simplest form of this type of obduction may follow from the development of a subduction zone near the continental margin. Above and behind the subduction zone, a welt of oceanic crust and mantle rides up over the descending plate. The ocean, intervening between the continental margin and the subduction zone is progressively swallowed until the continental margin arrives at the subduction zone and a giant wedge or slice (nappe) of oceanic crust and mantle is pushed across the continental margin. Because the buoyancy of the relatively light continental crust is likely to prohibit its extensive subduction, a flip in subduction polarity will occur yielding an ophiolite sheet lying above a descending plate.
If however, a large tract of ocean intervenes between the continental margin the subduction zone, a fully developed arc and back arc basin may eventually arrive and collide with the continental margin. Further convergence may lead to overthrusting of the volcanic arc assemblage and may be followed by flipping the subduction polarity.
Gravity sliding onto Atlantic-type continental margins
This concept involves the progressive uplift of an actively spreading oceanic ridge, the detachment of slices from the upper part of the lithosphere and the subsequent gravity sliding of these slices onto the continental margin as ophiolites. This concept was advocated by Reinhardt for the emplacement of the Semail Ophiolite complex in Oman and argued by Church and Church and Stevens for the emplacement of the Bay of Islands sheet in western Newfoundland. This concept has subsequently been replaced by hypotheses that advocate subduction of the continental margin beneath oceanic lithosphere.
Transformation of a spreading ridge to a subduction zone
Many ophiolite complexes were emplaced as thin hot obducted sheets of oceanic lithosphere shortly after their generation by plate accretion. The change from a spreading plate boundary to a subduction plate boundary may result from rapid rearrangement of relative plate motion. A transform fault may also become a subduction zone, with the side with the higher, hotter, thinner lithosphere riding over the lower, colder lithosphere. This mechanism would lead to obduction of ophiolite complex if it occurred near a continental margin.
Interference of a spreading ridge and a subduction zone
In the situation where a spreading ridge approaches a subduction zone, the ridge collides with the subduction zone, at which time there will develop a complex interaction of subduction-related tectonic sedimentary, and spreading-related tectonic igneous activity. The left-over ridge may either subduct or ride upward across the trench onto arc trench gap and arc terranes as a hot ophiolite slice. These two mechanisms are shown in figure 2 B and C. Two examples of this interaction of a ridge colliding into a trench are well documented. The first one is the progressive diminution of the Farallon plate off California. Ophiolite obduction by the above proposed mechanism would not be expected as the two plates share a dextral transform boundary. However, the major collision of the Kula/Pacific plate with the Alaskan/Aleutian resulted in the initiation of subduction of the Pacific plate beneath Alaska, with no sign of either obduction or indeed any major manifestation of a ridge being “swallowed”.
Obduction from rear-arc basin
Dewey and Bird suggested that a common form of ophiolite obduction is related to the closure of rear-arc marginal basins and that, during such closure by subduction, slices of oceanic crust and mantle may be expelled onto adjacent continental forelands and emplaced as ophiolite sheets. In the high heat-flow region of a volcanic arc and rear-arc basin the lithosphere is particularly thin. This thin lithosphere may preferentially fail along gently dipping thrust surface if a compressional stress is applied to the region. Under these circumstances a thin sheet of lithosphere may become detached and begin to ride over adjacent lithosphere to finally become emplaced as a thin ophiolite sheet on the adjacent continental foreland. This mechanism is a form of plate convergence where a thin, hot layer of oceanic lithosphere is obducted over cooler and thicker lithosphere.
Obduction during continental collision
As an ocean is progressively trapped in between two colliding continental lithospheres, the rising wedges of oceanic crust and mantle rise are caught in the jaws of the continent/continent vise and detach and begin to move up the advancing continental rise. Continued convergence may lead to the overthrusting of the arc-trench gap and eventually overthrusting of the metamorphic plutonic and volcanic rocks of the volcanic arc.
Following total subduction of an oceanic tract, continuing convergence may lead to a further sequence of intra-continental mechanisms of crustal shortening. This mechanism is thought to be responsible for the various ocean basins of the Mediterranean region. The Alpine belt is believed to register a complex history of plate interactions during the general convergence of the Eurasian plate and African plates.
There are many examples of oceanic crustal rocks and deeper mantle rocks that have been obducted and exposed at the surface worldwide. New Caledonia is one example of recent obduction. The Klamath Mountains of northern California contain several obducted oceanic slabs. Obducted fragments also are found in Oman, the Troodos Mountains of Cyprus, Newfoundland, New Zealand, the Alps of Europe, the Shetland islands of Unst and Fetlar, and the Appalachians of eastern North America.
- List of tectonic plate interactions – Definitions and examples of the interactions between the relatively mobile sections of the lithosphere
- Robinson, Paul T.; Malpas, John; Dilek, Yildirim; Zhou, Mei-fu (2008). "The significance of sheeted dike complexes in ophiolites" (PDF). GSA Today. 18 (11): 4–10. doi:10.1130/GSATG22A.1.
- Dewey, J. F., 1976. Ophiolite Obduction. Tectonophysics, v. 31, p.93-120.
- Reinhardt, B.M., 1969. On the genesis and emplacement of ophiolites in the Oman Mountains geosyncline. Schweiz. Mineral. Petrog. Mitt., 49:1-30
- Church, W. R., 1972. Ophiolite: its definition, origin as oceanic crust, and mode of emplacement in orogenic belts, with special reference to the Appalachians. Dep. Energy, Mines Resourc. Can., Publ., 42:71-85.
- Church, W.R., and Stevens, R.K., 1971. Early Paleozoic ophiolite complexes of the Newfoundland Appalachians as mantle-oceanic crust sequences. J. Geophys. Res., 76:1460-1466.
- Dewey, J. F., 1975. The role of ophiolite obduction in the evolution of the Appalachian/Caledonian orogenic belt. In: N. Bogdanov (editor), Ophiolites in the Earth’s Crust. Acad. Sci. U.S.S.R. (in press)
- Dewey, J. F. and Bird, J.M., 1971. Origin and emplacement of the ophiolite suite: Appalachian ophiolites in Newfoundland. J. Geophys. Res., 76:3179-3206.