EGU24-11199, updated on 09 Mar 2024
EGU General Assembly 2024
© Author(s) 2024. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Weak Blocks in a Strong Matrix: Exploring parameter-spaces for the biggest controls on subduction interface mechanics 

Alex Clarke1, Paola Vannucchi2, and Jason Morgan3
Alex Clarke et al.
  • 1Institut für Geowissenschaften, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, J. J. Becher-Weg 21, D-55128, Mainz, Germany
  • 2Department of Earth Science, University of Florence, Via la Pira, 4, 50121 Florence, Italy
  • 3Institute of Marine Sciences, Passeig Marítim de la Barceloneta, 37-49, 08003 Barcelona, Spain

Subduction zone plate boundary shear zones are often heterogenous, polyrheological units with a block-in-matrix structure analogous to exhumed mélanges. Field study of these units reveal extreme variability in block and matrix lithologies, geometries, and internal structures. Subduction zone plate interfaces are host to a wide range of slip magnitudes and velocities, including some of the largest earthquakes on our planet.

Previous studies on the mechanical behaviour of these mélange units in shear zones have shown that the material properties of the blocks and matrix, as well as the proportions of each, strongly influence the rheological behaviour of the zone. Analysis of the Osa Mélange in SW Costa Rica has also shown that blocks may be weakened by alteration and brecciation, and/or the matrix strengthened by diagenesis/metamorphism, such that the blocks become weaker than their surrounding matrix at shallow depths of subduction. Rheological inversion may also occur at greater depths by processes such as heterogenous dehydration of serpentinite. Such an inversion of the typically-envisaged rheological relationship can have a profound influence on the distribution of stresses, location of ruptures, and the resultant slip behaviour. 

Using COMSOL Metaphysics, we conducted a systematic series of finite element numerical experiments of simple-shear in models consisting of one or multiple inclusions. The geometry, arrangement, number, and material properties of these inclusions were varied systematically — as was the material properties of the surrounding matrix — and the magnitude and location of von Mises stress minima and maxima were recorded. These experiments assessed varying the Young’s Modulus of blocks and matrix from Eblock > Ematrix to Ematrix > Eblock in comparison to varying block proportion, block aspect ratio, block angularity, block rotation angle, and the difference in Poisson’s ratio between the blocks and the matrix. 

Our data shows that the difference in Young’s Modulus between the blocks and the matrix has a greater influence on the magnitude and structure of the stress field than any other studied factor and that weak blocks in a strong matrix lead to significantly greater accumulated stresses in all geometrical configurations. Whether the blocks or matrix are expected to yield first will depend on the interplay between the difference in strength and the difference in Young’s Modulus of the two materials. In the inverted rheological relationship, failure in one block leads to greater increases in the stresses in neighbouring blocks than in the normal rheological relationship.

Clustered failure of blocks in a subduction channel has been proposed as a causal mechanism for non-volcanic tremor, with the accompanying accelerated strain being analogous to slow slip events. Rheological inversion markedly increases the likelihood that blocks fail before the matrix and that failure of one block triggers a cascade of similar failure events. This study demonstrates the significance of rheological inversion to considerations of the mechanics of subduction zone plate boundary shear zones.

How to cite: Clarke, A., Vannucchi, P., and Morgan, J.: Weak Blocks in a Strong Matrix: Exploring parameter-spaces for the biggest controls on subduction interface mechanics , EGU General Assembly 2024, Vienna, Austria, 14–19 Apr 2024, EGU24-11199,, 2024.