- Oceanic trench
The oceanic trenches are hemispheric-scale long but narrow topographic depressions of the sea floor. They are also the deepest parts of the ocean floor.
Trenches define one of the most important natural boundaries on the Earth’s solid surface: the one between two lithospheric plates. There are three types of lithospheric plate boundaries: divergent (where lithosphere and oceanic crust is created at mid-ocean ridges), convergent (where one lithospheric plate sinks beneath another and returns to the mantle), and transform (where two lithospheric plates slide past each other).
Trenches are a distinctive morphological feature of plate boundaries. Along convergent plate boundaries, plates move together at rates that vary from a few mm to over ten cm per year. A trench marks the position at which the flexed, subducting slab begins to descend beneath another lithospheric slab. Trenches are generally parallel to a volcanic island arc, and about 200 km (120 mi) from a volcanic arc. Oceanic trenches typically extend 3 to 4 km (1.9 to 2.5 mi) below the level of the surrounding oceanic floor. The greatest ocean depth to be sounded is in the Challenger Deep of the Mariana Trench, at a depth of 10,911 m (35,797 ft) below sea level. Oceanic lithosphere moves into trenches at a global rate of about a tenth of a square metre per second.
There are about 50,000 km (31,000 mi) of convergent plate margins, mostly around the Pacific Ocean—the reason for the reference “Pacific-type” margin—but they are also in the eastern Indian Ocean, with relatively short convergent margin segments in the Atlantic Ocean and in the Mediterranean Sea. Trenches are sometimes buried and lack bathymetric expression, but the fundamental structures that these represent mean that the great name should also be applied here. This applies to Cascadia, Makran, southern Lesser Antilles, and Calabrian trenches. Trenches along with volcanic arcs and zones of earthquakes that dip under the volcanic arc as deeply as 700 km (430 mi) are diagnostic of convergent plate boundaries and their deeper manifestations, subduction zones. Trenches are related to but distinguished from continental collision zones (like that between India and Asia to form the Himalaya), where continental crust enters the subduction zone. When buoyant continental crust enters a trench, subduction eventually stops and the convergent plate margin becomes a collision zone. Features analogous to trenches are associated with collisions zones; these are sediment-filled foredeeps referred to as peripheral foreland basins, such as that which the Ganges River and Tigris-Euphrates rivers flow along.
History of the term "trench"
Trenches were not clearly defined until the late 1940s and 1950s. The bathymetry of the ocean was of no real interest until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the initial laying of Transatlantic telegraph cables on the seafloor between the continents. Even then the elongated bathymetric expression of trenches was not recognized until well into the 20th century. The term “trench” does not appear in Murray and Hjort’s (1912) classic oceanography book. Instead they applied the term “deep“ for the deepest parts of the ocean, such as Challenger Deep. Experiences from World War I battlefields emblazoned the concept of the trench warfare as an elongate depression defining an important boundary, so it was no surprise that the term “trench” was used to describe natural features in the early 1920s. The term was first used in a geologic context by Scofield two years after the war ended to describe a structurally-controlled depression in the Rocky Mountains. Johnstone, in his 1923 textbook An Introduction to Oceanography, first used the term in its modern sense for any marked, elongate depression of the sea bottom.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Felix Andries Vening Meinesz developed a unique gravimeter that could measure gravity in the stable environment of a submarine and used it to measure gravity over trenches. His measurements revealed that trenches are sites of downwelling in the solid Earth. The concept of downwelling at trenches was characterized by Griggs in 1939 as the tectogene hypothesis, for which he developed an analogue model using a pair of rotating drums. World War II in the Pacific led to great improvements of bathymetry in especially the western and northern Pacific, and the linear nature of these deeps became clear. The rapid growth of deep sea research efforts, especially the widespread use of echosounders in the 1950s and 1960s confirmed the morphological utility of the term. The important trenches were identified, sampled, and their greatest depths sonically plumbed. The heroic phase of trench exploration culminated in the 1960 descent of the Bathyscaphe Trieste, which set an unbeatable world record by diving to the bottom of the Challenger Deep. Following Robert S. Dietz’ and Harry Hess’ articulation of the seafloor spreading hypothesis in the early 1960s and the plate tectonic revolution in the late 1960s the term “trench“ has been redefined with plate tectonic as well as bathymetric connotations.
Although trenches would seem to be positionally stable over time, it is hypothesized that some trenches, particularly those associated with subduction zones where two oceanic plates converge, retrograde, that is, they move backward into the plate which is subducting, akin to a backward-moving wave. This has been termed trench rollback (also hinge rollback). This is one explanation for the existence of back-arc basins.
Trenches are centerpieces of the distinctive physiography of a convergent plate margin. Transects across trenches yield asymmetric profiles, with relatively gentle (~5°) outer (seaward) slope and a steeper (~10–16°) inner (landward) slope. This asymmetry is due to the fact that the outer slope is defined by the top of the downgoing plate, which must bend as it starts its descent. The great thickness of the lithosphere requires that this bending be gentle. As the subducting plate approaches the trench, it is first bent upwards to form the outer trench swell, then descends to form the outer trench slope. The outer trench slope is disrupted by a set of subparallel normal faults which staircase the seafloor down to the trench. The plate boundary is defined by the trench axis itself. Beneath the inner trench wall, the two plates slide past each other along the subduction decollement, the seafloor intersection of which defines the trench location. The overriding plate contains volcanic arc (generally) and a forearc. The volcanic arc is caused by physical and chemical interactions between the subducted plate at depth and asthenospheric mantle associated with the overriding plate. The forearc lies between the trench and the volcanic arc. Forearcs have the lowest heatflow from the interior Earth because there is no asthenosphere (convecting mantle) between the forearc lithosphere and the cold subducting plate.
The inner trench wall marks the edge of the overriding plate and the outermost forearc. The forearc consists of igneous and metamorphic crust, and this crust acts as buttress to a growing accretionary prism (sediments scraped off the downgoing plate onto the inner trench wall, depending on how much sediment is supplied to the trench). If the flux of sediments is high, material will be transferred from the subducting plate to the overriding plate. In this case an accretionary prism grows and the location of the trench migrates progressively away from the volcanic arc over the life of the convergent margin. Convergent margins with growing accretionary prisms are called accretionary convergent margins and make up nearly half of all convergent margins. If the sediment flux is low, material will be transferred from the overriding plate to the subducting plate by a process of tectonic ablation known as subduction erosion and carried down the subduction zone. Forearcs undergoing subduction erosion typically expose igneous rocks. In this case, the location of the trench will migrate towards the magmatic arc over the life of the convergent margin. Convergent margins experiencing subduction erosion are called nonaccretionary convergent margins and comprise more than half of convergent plate boundaries. This is an oversimplification, because different parts of a convergent margin can experience sediment accretion and subduction erosion over its life.
The asymmetric profile across a trench reflects fundamental differences in materials and tectonic evolution. The outer trench wall and outer swell comprise seafloor that takes a few million years to move from where subduction-related deformation begins near the outer trench swell until sinking beneath the trench. In contrast, the inner trench wall is deformed by plate interactions for the entire life of the convergent margin. The forearc is continuously subjected to subduction-related earthquakes. This protracted deformation and shaking ensures that the inner trench slope is controlled by the angle of repose of whatever material it is composed of. Because they are composed of igneous rocks instead of deformed sediments, non-accretionary trenches have steeper inner walls than accretionary trenches.
The composition of the inner trench slope and a first-order control on trench morphology is determined by sediment supply. Active accretionary prisms are common for trenches near continents where large rivers or glaciers reach the sea and supply great volumes of sediment which naturally flow to the trench. These filled trenches are confusing because in a plate tectonic sense they are indistinguishable from other convergent margins but lack the bathymetric expression of a trench. The Cascadia margin of the northwest USA is a filled trench, the result of sediments delivered by the rivers of the NW USA and SW Canada. The Lesser Antilles convergent margin shows the importance of proximity to sediment sources for trench morphology. In the south, near the mouth of the Orinoco River, there is no morphological trench and the forearc plus accretionary prism is almost 500 km (310 mi) wide. The accretionary prism is so large that it forms the islands of Barbados and Trinidad. Northward the forearc narrows, the accretionary prism disappears, and only north of 17°N the morphology of a trench is seen. In the extreme north, far away from sediment sources, the Puerto Rico Trench is over 8,600 m (28,200 ft) deep and there is no active accretionary prism. A similar relationship between proximity to rivers, forearc width, and trench morphology can be observed from east to west along the Alaskan-Aleutian convergent margin. The convergent plate boundary offshore Alaska changes along its strike from a filled trench with broad forearc in the east (near the coastal rivers of Alaska) to a deep trench with narrow forearc in the west (offshore the Aleutian islands). Another example is the Makran convergent margin offshore Pakistan and Iran, which is a trench filled by sediments from the Tigris-Euphrates and Indus rivers. Thick accumulations of turbidites along a trench can be supplied by down-axis transport of sediments that enter the trench 1,000–2,000 km (620–1,200 mi) away, as is found for the Peru-Chile Trench south of Valparaíso and for the Aleutian Trench. Convergence rate can also be important for controlling trench depth, especially for trenches near continents, because slow convergence causes the capacity of the convergent margin to dispose of sediment to be exceeded.
There an evolution in trench morphology can be expected as oceans close and continents converge. While the ocean is wide, the trench may be far away from continental sources of sediment and so may be deep. As the continents approach each other, the trench may become filled with continental sediments and become shallower. A simple way to approximate when the transition from subduction to collision has occurred is when the plate boundary previously marked by a trench is filled enough to rise above sealevel.
Accretionary prisms and sediment transport
Accretionary prisms grow by frontal accretion, whereby sediments are scraped off, bulldozer-fashion, near the trench, or by underplating of subducted sediments and perhaps oceanic crust along the shallow parts of the subduction decollement. Frontal accretion over the life of a convergent margin results in younger sediments defining the outermost part of the accretionary prism and the oldest sediments defining the innermost portion. Older (inner) parts of the accretionary prism are much more lithified and have steeper structures than the younger (outer) parts. Underplating is difficult to detect in modern subduction zones but may be recorded in ancient accretionary prisms such as the Franciscan Group of California in the form of tectonic mélanges and duplex structures. Different modes of accretion are reflected in morphology of the inner slope of the trench, which generally shows three morphological provinces. The lower slope comprises imbricate thrust slices that form ridges. The mid slope may comprise a bench or terraces. The upper slope is smoother but may be cut by submarine canyons. Because accretionary convergent margins have high relief, are continuously deformed, and accommodate a large flux of sediments, they are vigorous systems of sediment dispersal and accumulation. Sediment transport is controlled by submarine landslides, debris flows, turbidity currents, and contourites. Submarine canyons transport sediment from beaches and rivers down the upper slope. These canyons form by channelized turbidites and generally lose definition with depth because continuous faulting disrupts the submarine channels. Sediments move down the inner trench wall via channels and a series of fault-controlled basins. The trench itself serves as an axis of sediment transport. If enough sediment moves to the trench, it may be completely filled so that turbidity currents are able to carry sediments well beyond the trench and may even surmount the outer swell. Sediments from the rivers of SW Canada and NW USA spill over where the Cascadia trench would be and cross the Juan de Fuca plate to reach the spreading ridge several hundred kilometres to the west.
The slope of the inner trench slope of an accretionary convergent margin reflects continuous adjustments to the thickness and width of the accretionary prism. The prism maintains a ‘critical taper’, established in conformance with Mohr-Coulomb Theory for the pertinent materials. A package of sediments scraped off the downgoing lithospheric plate will deform until it and the accretionary prism that it has been added to attain a critical taper (constant slope) geometry. Once critical taper is attained, the wedge slides stably along its basal decollement. Strain rate and hydrologic properties strongly influence the strength of the accretionary prism and thus the angle of critical taper. Fluid pore pressures modify rock strength and are important controls of critical taper angle. Low permeability and rapid convergence may result in pore pressures that exceed lithostatic pressure and a relatively weak accretionary prism with a shallowly tapered geometry, whereas high permeability and slow convergence result in lower pore pressure, stronger prisms, and steeper geometry.
The Hellenic Trench of the Hellenic arc system is unusual because this convergent margin subducts evaporites. The slope of the surface of the southern flank of the Mediterranean Ridge (its accretionary prism) is low, about 1°, which indicates very low shear stress on the decollement at the base of the wedge. Evaporites influence the critical taper of the accretionary complex, as their mechanical properties differ from those of siliciclastic sediments, and because of their effect upon fluid flow and fluid pressure, which control effective stress. In the 1970s, the linear deeps of the Hellenic trench south of Crete were interpreted to be similar to trenches at other subduction zones, but with the realization that the Mediterranean Ridge is an accretionary complex, it became apparent that the Hellenic trench is actually a starved forearc basin, and that the plate boundary lies south of the Mediterranean Ridge.
Water and biosphere
The volume of water escaping from within and beneath the forearc results in some of Earth’s most dynamic and complex interactions between aqueous fluids and rocks. Most of this water is trapped in pores and fractures in the upper lithosphere and sediments of the subducting plate. The average forearc is underrun by a solid volume of oceanic sediment that is 400 m (1,300 ft) thick. This sediment enters the trench with 50-60% porosity. These sediments are progressively squeezed as they are subducted, reducing void space and forcing fluids out along the decollement and up into the overlying forearc, which may or may not have an accretionary prism. Sediments accreted to the forearc are another source of fluids. Water is also bound in hydrous minerals, especially clays and opal. Increasing pressure and temperature experienced by subducted materials converts the hydrous minerals to denser phases that contain progressively less structurally-bound water. Water released by dehydration accompanying phase transitions is another source of fluids introduced to the base of the overriding plate. These fluids may travel through the accretionary prism diffusely, via interconnected pore spaces in sediments, or may follow discrete channels along faults. Sites of venting may take the form of mud volcanoes or seeps and are often associated with chemosynthetic communities. Fluids escaping from the shallowest parts of a subduction zone may also escape along the plate boundary but have rarely been observed draining along the trench axis. All of these fluids are dominated by water but also contain dissolved ions and organic molecules, especially methane. Methane is often sequestered in an ice-like form (methane clathrate, also called gas hydrate) in the forearc. These are a potential energy source and can rapidly break down. Destabilization of gas hydrates has contributed to global warming in the past and will likely do so in the future.
Chemosynthetic communities thrive where cold fluids seep out of the forearc. Cold seep communities have been discovered in inner trench slopes down to depths of 7000 m in the western Pacific, especially around Japan, in the Eastern Pacific along North, Central and South America coasts from the Aleutian to the Peru-Chile trenches, on the Barbados prism, in the Mediterranean, and in the Indian Ocean along the Makran and Sunda convergent margins. These communities receive much less attention than the chemosynthetic communities associated with hydrothermal vents. Chemosynthetic communities are located in a variety of geological settings: above over-pressured sediments in accretionary prisms where fluids are expelled through mud volcanoes or ridges (Barbados, Nankai and Cascadia); along active erosive margins with faults; and along escarpments caused by debris slides (Japan trench, Peruvian margin). Surface seeps may be linked to massive hydrate deposits and destabilization (e.g. Cascadia margin). High concentrations of methane and sulfide in the fluids escaping from the seafloor are the principal energy sources for chemosynthesis.
Empty trenches and subduction erosion
Trenches distant from an influx of continental sediments lack an accretionary prism, and the inner slope of such trenches is commonly composed of igneous or metamorphic rocks. Non-accretionary convergent margins are characteristic of (but not limited to) primitive arc systems. Primitive arc systems are those built on oceanic lithosphere, such as the Izu-Bonin-Mariana, Tonga-Kermadec, and Scotia (South Sandwich) arc systems. The inner trench slope of these convergent margins exposes the crust of the forearc, including basalt, gabbro, and serpentinized mantle peridotite. These exposures allow easy access to study the lower oceanic crust and upper mantle in place and provide a unique opportunity to study the magmatic products associated with the initiation of subduction zones. Most ophiolites probably originate in a forearc environment during the initiation of subduction, and this setting favors ophiolite emplacement during collision with blocks of thickened crust. Not all non-accretionary convergent margins are associated with primitive arcs. Trenches adjacent to continents where there is little influx of sediments carried by rivers, such as the central part of the Peru-Chile Trench, may also lack an accretionary prism.
Igneous basement of a nonaccretionary forearc may be continuously exposed by subduction erosion. This transfers material from the forearc to the subducting plate and can be accomplished by frontal erosion or basal erosion. Frontal erosion is most active in the wake of seamounts being subducted beneath the forearc. Subduction of large edifices (seamount tunneling) oversteepens the forearc, causing mass failures that carry debris towards and ultimately into the trench. This debris may be deposited in graben of the downgoing plate and subducted with it. In contrast, structures resulting from subduction erosion of the base of the forearc are difficult to recognize from seismic reflection profiles, so the possibility of basal erosion is difficult to confirm. Subduction erosion may also diminish a once-robust accretionary prism if the flux of sediments to the trench diminishes.
Nonaccretionary forearcs may also be the site of serpentine mud volcanoes. These form where fluids released from the downgoing plate percolate upwards and interact with cold mantle lithosphere of the forearc. Mantle peridotite is hydrated into serpentinite, which is much less dense than peridotite and so will rise diapirically when there is an opportunity to do so. Some nonaccretionary forearcs are subjected to strong extensional stresses, for example the Marianas, and this allows buoyant serpentinite to rise to the seafloor where they form serpentinite mud volcanoes. Chemosynthetic communities are also found on non-accretionary margins such as the Marianas, where they thrive on vents associated with serpentinite mud volcanoes.
Factors affecting trench depth
There are several factors that control the depth of trenches. The most important control is the supply of sediment, which fills the trench so that there is no bathymetric expression. It is therefore not surprising that the deepest trenches (deeper than 8,000 m (26,000 ft)) are all nonaccretionary. In contrast, all trenches with growing accretionary prisms are shallower than 8,000 m (26,000 ft). A second order control on trench depth is the age of the lithosphere at the time of subduction. Because oceanic lithosphere cools and thickens as it ages, it subsides. The older the seafloor, the deeper it lies and this determines a minimum depth from which seafloor begins its descent. This obvious correlation can be removed by looking at the relative depth, the difference between regional seafloor depth and maximum trench depth. Relative depth may be controlled by the age of the lithosphere at the trench, the convergence rate, and the dip of the subducted slab at intermediate depths. Finally, narrow slabs can sink and roll back more rapidly than broad plates, because it is easier for underlying asthenosphere to flow around the edges of the sinking plate. Such slabs may have steep dips at relatively shallow depths and so may be associated with unusually deep trenches, such as the Challenger Deep.
Major oceanic trenches
Trench Ocean Depth Mariana Trench Pacific Ocean 11,033 m (36,198 ft) Tonga Trench Pacific Ocean 10,882 m (35,702 ft) Kuril–Kamchatka Trench Pacific Ocean 10,542 m (34,587 ft) Philippine Trench Pacific Ocean 10,540 m (34,580 ft) Kermadec Trench Pacific Ocean 10,047 m (32,963 ft) Izu-Bonin Trench (Izu-Ogasawara Trench) Pacific Ocean 9,780 m (32,090 ft) Japan Trench Pacific Ocean 9,000 m (30,000 ft) Puerto Rico Trench Atlantic Ocean 8,800 m (28,900 ft) Peru-Chile Trench or Atacama Trench Pacific Ocean 8,065 m (26,460 ft)
Notable oceanic trenches
(*) The 5 deepest trenches in the world
Ancient oceanic trenches
Trench Location Intermontane Trench Western North America; between Intermontane Islands and North America Insular Trench Western North America; between Insular Islands and Intermontane Islands Farallon Trench Western North America Tethyan Trench South of Turkey, Iran, Tibet and Southeast Asia
- Oceanic ridge
- Physical oceanography
- List of landforms
- Trough (geology)
- List of submarine topographical features
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