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Volcanic arc: Map


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Mariana Islands, an oceanic island arc
Cascade Volcanic Arc, a continental volcanic arc

A volcanic arc is a chain of volcanic island or mountains formed as an oceanic tectonic plate subducts under another tectonic plate and produces magma at depth under the over-riding plate. The magma ascends to form an arc of volcanoes parallel to the subduction zone.

There are two types of volcanic arcs: oceanic arcs (commonly called island arcs, a type of archipelago) and continental arcs. In the former, oceanic crust subducts beneath other oceanic crust on an adjacent plate, while in the latter case the oceanic crust subducts beneath continental crust. In some situations, a single subduction zone may show both aspects along its length, as part of a plate subducts beneath a continent and part beneath adjacent oceanic crust.

Two classic examples of oceanic island arcs are the Mariana Islandsmarker in the western Pacific Oceanmarker and the Lesser Antilles in the western Atlantic Oceanmarker. The Cascade Volcanic Arc in western North America and the Andes along the western edge of South America are examples of continental volcanic arcs. The best examples of volcanic arcs with both sets of characteristics are in the North Pacific, with the Aleutian Arc consisting of the Aleutian Islandsmarker and their extension the Aleutian Range on the Alaska Peninsulamarker, and the Kuril-Kamchatka Arc comprising the Kuril Islandsmarker and southern Kamchatka Peninsulamarker.


In the subduction zone, loss of water from the subducted slab induces partial melting of the overriding mantle and generates low-density, calc-alkaline magma that buoyantly rises to intrude and be extruded through the lithosphere of the overriding plate. This loss of water is due to the destabilization of the mineral chlorite at approximately 40-60 km depth.Grove, T. L., N. Chatterjee, S. W. Parman, and E. Médard (2006), The Influence of H2O on Mantle Wedge Melting, Earth and Planetary Science Letters, 249, 74-89. This is the reason for island arc volcanism at consistent distances from the subducting slab: because the temperature-pressure conditions for flux-melting volcanism due to chlorite destabilization will always occur at the same depth, the distance from the trench to the arc volcanoes is determined only by the dip angle of the subducting slab.

On the subducting side of the island arc is a deep and narrow oceanic trench, which is the trace at the Earth’s surface of the boundary between the downgoing and overriding plates. This trench is created by the gravitational pull of the relatively dense subducting plate pulling the leading edge of the plate downward. Multiple earthquakes occur along this subduction boundary with the seismic hypocenters located at increasing depth under the island arc: these quakes define the Wadati-Benioff zones.

Ocean basins that are being reduced by subduction are called 'remnant oceans' as they will slowly be shrunken out of existence and crushed in the subsequent orogenic collision. This process has happened over and over in the geologic history of the Earth.

The Aleutian Arc, with both oceanic and continental parts.


Continental arcs

Island arcs

Ancient Island arcs

See also


  1. Grove, T.L., C. B. Till, N. Chatterjee, and E. Médard (submitted 2008), Transport of H2O in subduction zones and its role in the formation and location of arc volcanoes, Nature.

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