Crustal structure: a key constraint on the mechanism of ultra-high-pressure rock exhumation

Beaumont, C.; Jamieson, R. A.; Butler, J. P. and Warren, C. J. (2009). Crustal structure: a key constraint on the mechanism of ultra-high-pressure rock exhumation. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 287(1-2) pp. 116–129.



The distribution of ultra-high-pressure (UHP) metamorphic rocks demonstrates that burial (to > 100 km) and rapid exhumation (> 1 cm a− 1) of continental crust is a normal part of early ( 10 Ma) continental collision. Currently, there is no comprehensive model for this fundamental tectonic process that also satisfactorily explains the upper-crustal structures resulting from early collisional UHP rock exhumation. Characteristic features requiring explanation include: structural domes that are cored by UHP nappes; associated medium- to high-pressure nappes displaying a distinct “pressure gap”; overlying lower-grade rocks, including suture zone ophiolites; and, coeval foreland-directed thrust-faults and syn-exhumation normal faults. We present a geodynamical model involving crustal burial and exhumation in a subduction channel below an accretionary wedge. Competition between down-channel shear traction and up-channel buoyancy forces, expressed as the exhumation number, E, controls burial and exhumation, leading to rapid up-channel flow when E > 1. Exhuming UHP material forms a nappe stack and structural dome as it penetrates and destabilises the overlying wedge, driving thrusting and extension. This solution is compelling because it explains both the geology and the petrology of the Tso Morari and other UHP complexes, and because it demonstrates that pulse-like buoyant exhumation from deep in the subduction channel creates observed upper crustal structures. This places constraints on the exhumation mechanism and provides a test of alternative models. Other proposed mechanisms, such as continuous circulation in a lithospheric-scale wedge or overpressured subduction channel, predict different types of upper-crustal structures and are therefore unsatisfactory explanations for early collisional exhumation of UHP terranes.

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