Stalled slab dynamics
Recent seismic imaging of the mantle beneath western North America reveals complexities interpreted as structures ranging from plumes to lithospheric drips and slab fragments. A prominent high-velocity “curtain” beneath Idaho has been interpreted as a remnant of the subducted Farallon plate left dangling within the upper mantle since >40 Ma. Consequently, using numerical models, we explore the rheological, chemical, geometrical, and dynamic conditions under which a slab fragment might persist in the mantle for tens of millions of years. With thermal buoyancy alone, stalled slabs extending to 500 km depth tend to detach and sink vertically within ∼17 m.y. for the slab age and rheologic conditions explored here, and shorter slabs <300 km deep have the greatest impact on delaying detachment up to 28 m.y. Otherwise, we find that an unrealistic chemical density contrast of 90 kg/m3 with respect to the mantle is required for the stalled slab to remain attached to the lithosphere >40 m.y. An increase in upper- to lower-mantle viscosity contrast (1.4× to 100×) can slow sinking velocities and extend slab dangling time by up to 5 m.y. Dynamic effects such as those arising from active nearby subduction only slightly delay or do not affect stalled slab detachment timing but do affect the geometry of the slabs as they respond to suction pressures within the wedge. Overall, a combination of buoyant, viscous, geometric, and dynamic factors may allow cases of extended slab stalling, and conditions we explore here within realistic ranges can so far account for a delay of up to 28 m.y.