The supposed low viscosity of serpentine may strongly influence subduction- zone dynamics at all time scales, but until now its role could not be quantified because measurements relevant to intermediate- depth settings were lacking. Deformation experiments on the serpentine antigorite at high pressures and temperatures ( 1 to 4 gigapascals, 200 degrees to 500 degrees C) showed that the viscosity of serpentine is much lower than that of the major mantle- forming minerals. Regardless of the temperature, low- viscosity serpentinized mantle at the slab surface can localize deformation, impede stress buildup, and limit the downdip propagation of large earthquakes at subduction zones. Antigorite enables viscous relaxation with characteristic times comparable to those of long- term postseismic deformations after large earthquakes and slow earthquakes. Antigorite viscosity is sufficiently low to make serpentinized faults in the oceanic lithosphere a site for subduction initiation.
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