Transform Plate Boundary

What is a Subduction Zone?

Article Updated: 26 Apr , 2016

IF you don’t know anything about plate tectonics you might be wondering about what is a subduction zone. A subduction zone is a region of the Earth’s crust where tectonic plates meet. Tectonic plates are massive pieces of the Earth’s crust that interact with each other. The places where these plates meet are called plate boundaries. Plate boundaries occur where plates separate, slide alongside each other or collide into each other. Subduction zones happen where plates collide.

When two tectonic plates meet it is like the immovable object meeting the unstoppable force. However tectonic plates decide it by mass. The more massive plate, normally a continental will force the other plate, an oceanic plate down beneath it. This is the subduction zone. When the other plate is forced down the process is called subduction. The plate enters into the magma and eventually it is completely melted. That is how the surface of the earth makes way for the crust created over time at other plate boundaries.

Subduction zones have key characteristics that help geologist and seismologist identify them. The first is mountain formation. Subduction zones always have mountain ranges caused by plate subduction. The next is volcanic activity as a plate is subducted the pressure and heat turns it into magma. These pockets of magma find paths to the surface and create volcanoes. A good example is the subduction zone near Chile. The final sign is deep marine trenches. These are the best evidence of a subduction zone as they are visible evidence of the crease formed by subduction of a plate. The most famous is the Mariana Trench.

There are some interesting theories about why Subduction occurs in the Earth’s crust. One common theory is that subduction was initiated by major impacts by asteroids or comets early in Earth’s history. This makes a lot of sense due to the geologic evidence of large impacts scattered around the world.

Understanding how subduction zones work is important because it helps scientist to identify areas of high volcanic and seismic activity. Monitoring these areas can help them warn people who live near them of imminent events and also people who could be affected by the side effects of such events such as ash clouds or tsunamis.

Subduction continues to be one of the most powerful and dynamic processes on planet Earth and as technology improves we can come to understand more about this amazing process.

We have written many articles about the subduction zone for Universe Today. For example, here is one on the Ring of Fire and plate boundaries.

You should also check out plate tectonics and subduction.

If you’d like more info on the subduction zone, check out the U.S. Geological Survey Website. And here’s a link to NASA’s Earth Observatory.

We’ve also recorded related episodes of Astronomy Cast about Plate Tectonics. Listen here, Episode 142: Plate Tectonics.


Subduction is a process in geology where one tectonic plates slides underneath another one and merges into the Earth’s mantle. The denser plate is the one that slips under the less dense plate; the younger plate is the less dense one. The process is not a smooth one. The tectonic plates grate against each other, which often causes earthquakes. The plate that slips under does not stay that way. Due to the heat caused by it rubbing against the other plate as well as the natural heat of the mantle, the plate melts and turns into magma. The area where subduction occurs is known as the subduction zone.

When one plate begins to slip underneath another one a trench is formed. The earthquakes that result due to the plates grinding against each other often cause magma to spill out through the trench in submarine volcanoes. Various formations such as mountain ranges, islands, and trenches are caused by subduction and the volcanoes and earthquakes it triggers. In addition to causing earthquakes, subduction can also trigger tsunamis.

When the older plate is holding a continent however, it does not sink, which is reassuring. Instead, the less dense material slips into a trench behind the denser oceanic crust where it gets stuck. The pressure continues to build until the trench flips over and the less dense plate slips underneath the one with the continent.

It is possible for a whole tectonic plate to disappear. This happens when the plate goes through subduction faster than new material can be added to the plate through seafloor spreading. The spreading pushes the plate slowly toward the subduction zone until the whole thing disappears. When this happens, the other tectonic plates rearrange to cover the area.

Subduction zones are mainly located in the Pacific Ocean. This is because seafloor spreading – the process by which new oceanic crust is created – occurs mostly in the Pacific. Thus the new material pushes the older plates outward and then they need to undergo subduction. This also explains why so many earthquakes originate in the Pacific Ocean near the Ring of Fire. That is where the subduction zones are concentrated.

Continental plates also converge, but this is not considered subduction because these plates do not have different densities and thicknesses to subduct. Landforms such as the Himalayas are formed from these convergences though.


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