SUMMARY Boundary layer theory is used to derive scaling relationships for plate stresses in a mantle convection system with a low-viscosity asthenosphere. The theory assumes a plate tectonic like mode of mantle convection with flow driven by an active upper boundary layer. The theory predicts that the confinement of horizontal mantle flow within a low-viscosity, sublithospheric channel can lead to an increase in plate stress compared to the case lacking a channel (even if the absolute viscosity of the sublithosphere mantle does not change between the two cases). The theory further predicts increasing shear stress with decreasing low-viscosity channel thickness. If the thickness of tectonic plates is determined dominantly by a dehydrated chemical lithosphere, then the plate normal stress is predicted to also increase with decreasing channel thickness. We use 3-D spherical shell simulations of mantle convection with temperature-, depth- and stress dependent rheology to test scaling trends. The simulations and theoretical scalings demonstrate that a low-viscosity layer (asthenosphere) can amplify convective stresses. If the level of convective stress plays a role in maintaining and/or reactivating plate boundaries, this suggests that a relatively thin low viscosity layer may help to maintain plate tectonics. The numerical simulations support this suggestion as they show that an increase in the thickness of a low viscosity channel can cause the system to transition from an active-lid mode of convection to a stagnant lid state. Collectively, the simulations and theoretical scalings lead to the conclusion that the role of the asthenosphere in maintaining plate tectonics does not come principally from a basal lubrication effect, associated with a low absolute asthenosphere viscosity, but, instead, from a mantle flow channelization effect, associated with a high viscosity contrast from the asthenosphere to the mantle below.
Oxford University Press
on behalf of
The Deutsche Geophysikalische Gesellschaft (DGG) and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS).