Volatile recycling at the Lesser Antilles arc

The aim of the NERC VOILA (Volatile cycling in the Lesser Antilles arc) research programme is to take a holistic approach to the cycling of volatiles (water, along with other volatiles such as carbon dioxide and sulphur) into the deep Earth at the Lesser Antilles subduction zone. Here the North and South American plates, soaked with water from the Atlantic Ocean subduct beneath the Caribbean plate (Fig.1).   The project combines a range of Earth scientists with skills in petrology, geochemistry, numerical modelling as well as marine geophysics to track the passage of the water as it goes into and out of the subduction zone system. Many fundamental aspects of the solid-Earth’s water cycle remain poorly understood. One of the most important interfaces is at subduction zones, but fundamental questions such as: what is the distribution of water in the down-going plate, how is slab dehydration distributed with depth and variable along strike, how does dehydration affect flow in the subduction mantle wedge, and what controls the location of the volcanic arc are unanswered. In this project we will study the Lesser Antilles arc in the Caribbean, as it represents a clear end-member in subduction zones. The incoming plate was formed at the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is expected to be much wetter than those in the Pacific. We will test this hypothesis as part of a new multi-disciplinary research program with scientists from 5 UK universities, and host-nation collaborators.

Voila fieldwork
Fig.2 VOILA fieldwork. Clockwise from top: Deploying an OBS; Deploying the mcs streamer; Marine mammal observation; Doing the gravity base station tie in Antigua; Collecting samples; Installing a land seismic station on St Vincent.

In March 2016 onboard the RRS James Cook (cruise JC133) we deployed a large array
of seismometers on the seabed to record distant earthquakes in order to image the wedge (area between the top of the underlying subducting slab and the seabed). We will use methods similar to medical X-ray imaging to determine the seismic velocity and attenuation structure and hence the pathways of the water and melt.  The seismic array will also record local earthquakes from the scraping of the North American and Caribbean plates which will help regional hazard assessment and answer specific questions such as what is the link between pathways of fluids and the types of earthquakes? The VOILA passive array is the largest of its type ever deployed at an Atlantic subduction zone. 

Experiment map
Fig.3 Details of the JC133/JC149 experiment (in the context of previous geophysical work in the region).

In April-June 2017 we returned on the RRS James Cook (JC149) to pick up the seabed seismometers (and their precious data recordings) and we collected a set of controlled-source seismic data on the incoming plate (Fig.3). The project used 49 Ocean-bottom seismometers and a 3 km long surface towed streamer. From the data we will determine the hydration of the incoming plate, and specifically whether it varies along the strike of the arc. The experiment will target a portion of the incoming plate covering two major fracture zones and the segment in between and will compare its structure with that at the peak of the fore-bulge (generated by bending of the plate as it enters the subduction zone). Combining the different observations allows us to constrain the along-arc distribution of faulting and degree of serpentinisation of the incoming plate.


Cooper GF, Macpherson CG, Blundy JD, Maunder B, Allen RW, Goes S, Collier JS, Bie L, Harmon N, Hicks SP, Iveson AA, Prytulak J, Rietbrock A, Rychert CA, Davidson JP, 2020, Variable water input controls evolution of the Lesser Antilles volcanic arc, Nature, Vol: 582, Pages: 525-529, ISSN: 0028-0836
Davy R, Collier JS, Henstock TJ, the VoiLA consortium, 2020, Wide‐angle seismic imaging of two modes of crustal accretion in mature Atlantic Ocean crust, Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, Vol: 125, Pages: 1-21, ISSN: 2169-9313
Bie L, Rietbrock A, Hicks S, Allen R, Blundy J, Clouard V, Collier J, Davidson J, Garth T, Goes S, Harmon N, Henstock T, van Hunen J, Kendall M, Kruger F, Lynch L, Macpherson C, Robertson R, Rychert K, Tait S, Wilkinson J, Wilson M, 2020, Along‐arc heterogeneity in local seismicity across the lesser antilles subduction zone from a dense ocean‐bottom seismometer network, Seismological Research Letters, Vol: 91, Pages: 237-247, ISSN: 0895-0695
Harmon N, Rychert C, Collier J, Henstock T, van Hunen J, Wilkinson JJ, 2019, Mapping geologic features onto subducted slabs, Geophysical Journal International, Vol: 219, Pages: 725-733, ISSN: 0956-540X
Allen R, Collier J, Stewart A, Henstock T, Goes S, Rietbrock A, 2019, The role of arc migration in the development of the Lesser Antilles: a new tectonic model for the Cenozoic evolution of the eastern Caribbean, Geology, Vol: 47, Pages: 891-895, ISSN: 0091-7613
Schlaphorst D, Kendall JM, Collier JS, Verdon JP, Blundy J, Baptie B, Latchman JL, Massin F, Bouin MP, 2016, Water, oceanic fracture zones and the lubrication of subducting plate boundaries-insights from seismicity, Geophysical Journal International, Vol: 204, Pages: 1405-1420


External Collaborators
  • Tim Henstock (Southampton University)
  • Andreas Rietbrock (Liverpool University)

See also

Project VoiLA website