TitleSubmarine slope failures along the convergent continental margin of the Middle America Trench
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2011
AuthorsHarders R, Ranero CR, Weinrebe W, Behrmann JH
JournalGeochemistry, Geophysics, Geosystems
Date Publishedjun
KeywordsConvergent margin, landslides, slope failure, Subduction erosion, submarine mass wasting, tectonics
AbstractWe present the first comprehensive study of mass wasting processes in the continental slope of a convergent margin of a subduction zone where tectonic processes are dominated by subduction erosion. We have used multibeam bathymetry along ∼1300 km of the Middle America Trench of the Central America Subduction Zone and deep-towed side-scan sonar data. We found abundant evidence of large-scale slope failures that were mostly previously unmapped. The features are classified into a variety of slope failure types, creating an inventory of 147 slope failure structures. Their type distribution and abundance define a segmentation of the continental slope in six sectors. The segmentation in slope stability processes does not appear to be related to slope preconditioning due to changes in physical properties of sediment, presence/absence of gas hydrates, or apparent changes in the hydrogeological system. The segmentation appears to be better explained by changes in slope preconditioning due to variations in tectonic processes. The region is an optimal setting to study how tectonic processes related to variations in intensity of subduction erosion and changes in relief of the underthrusting plate affect mass wasting processes of the continental slope. The largest slope failures occur offshore Costa Rica. There, subducting ridges and seamounts produce failures with up to hundreds of meters high headwalls, with detachment planes that penetrate deep into the continental margin, in some cases reaching the plate boundary. Offshore northern Costa Rica a smooth oceanic seafloor underthrusts the least disturbed continental slope. Offshore Nicaragua, the ocean plate is ornamented with smaller seamounts and horst and graben topography of variable intensity. Here mass wasting structures are numerous and comparatively smaller, but when combined, they affect a large part of the margin segment. Farther north, offshore El Salvador and Guatemala the downgoing plate has no large seamounts but well-defined horst and graben topography. Off El Salvador slope failure is least developed and mainly occurs in the uppermost continental slope at canyon walls. Off Guatemala mass wasting is abundant and possibly related to normal faulting across the slope. Collapse in the wake of subducting ocean plate topography is a likely failure trigger of slumps. Rapid oversteepening above subducting relief may trigger translational slides in the middle Nicaraguan upper Costa Rican slope. Earthquake shaking may be a trigger, but we interpret that slope failure rate is lower than recurrence time of large earthquakes in the region. Generally, our analysis indicates that the importance of mass wasting processes in the evolution of margins dominated by subduction erosion and its role in sediment dynamics may have been previously underestimated. Copyright 2011 by the American Geophysical Union.