The causes of continental arc flare ups and drivers of episodic magmatic activity in Cordilleran orogenic systems

James B. Chapman, Jessie E. Shields, Mihai N. Ducea, Scott R. Paterson, Snir Attia, Katie E. Ardill

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Continental arcs in Cordilleran orogenic systems display episodic changes in magma production rate, alternating between flare ups (70–90 km3 km−1 Myr−1) and lulls (< 20 km3 km−1 Myr−1) on timescales of tens of millions of years. Arc segments or individual magmatic suites may have even higher rates, up several 100 s of km3 km−1 Myr−1, during flare ups. These rates are largely determined by estimating volumes of arc crust, but do not reflect melt production from the mantle. The bulk of mantle-derived magmas are recycled back into the mantle by delamination of arc roots after differentiation in the deep crust. Mantle-derived melt production rates for continental arcs are estimated to be 140–215 km3 km−1 Myr−1 during flare ups and ≤ 15 km3 km−1 Myr−1 during lulls. Melt production rates averaged over multiple magmatic cycles are consistent with independent estimates for partial melting of the mantle wedge in subduction zones, however, the rates during flare ups and lulls are both anomalously high and anomalously low, respectively. The difference in mantle-derived melt production between flare ups and lulls is larger than predicted by petrologic and numerical models that explore the range of globally observed subduction parameters (e.g., convergence rate, height of the mantle wedge). This suggests that other processes are required to increase magmatism during flare ups and suppress magmatism during lulls. There are many viable explanations, but one possibility is that crystallized melts from the asthenospheric mantle wedge are temporarily stored in the deep lithosphere during lulls and then remobilized during flare ups. Basaltic melts may stall in the mantle lithosphere in inactive parts of the arc system, like the back-arc, refertilizing the mantle lithosphere and suppressing melt delivery to the lower crust. Subsequent landward arc migration (i.e., toward the interior of the continent) may encounter such refertilized mantle lithosphere magma source regions, contributing to magmatic activity during a flare up. A review of continental arcs globally suggests that flare ups commonly coincide with landward arc migration and that this migration may start tens of millions of years before the flare up occurs. The region of magmatic activity, or arc width, can also expand significantly during a flare up. Arc migration or expansion into different mantle source regions and across lithospheric and crustal boundaries can cause temporal shifts in the radiogenic isotopic composition of magmatism. In the absence of arc migration, temporal shifts are more muted. Isotopic studies of mantle xenoliths and exposures of deep arc crust suggest that that primary, mantle-derived magmas generated during flare ups reflect substantial contributions from the subcontinental mantle lithosphere. Arc migration may be caused by a variety of mechanisms, including slab anchoring or slab folding in the mantle transition zone that could generate changes in slab dip. Episodic slab shallowing is associated with many tectonic processes in Cordilleran orogenic systems, like alternations between shortening and extension in the upper plate. Studies of arc migration may help to link irregular magmatic production in continental arcs with geodynamic models for orogenic cyclicity.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number106307
StatePublished - Oct 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geology
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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