Date of Award

Spring 5-15-2016

Author's School

Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Author's Department

Earth & Planetary Sciences

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Type



Plate tectonics is central to many aspects of the geology and evolution of terrestrial planets, yet it is only observed on the Earth while all other known planets are covered with a stagnant lithosphere. Plate motions on the Earth are mostly driven by the pull of subducting slabs, therefore understanding the initiation of subduction is crucial to understanding plate tectonics initiation. On a one-plate planet which lacks the forces due to plate motions, some other mechanisms will have to cause the first episode of subduction to mobilize the surface. Sublithospheric convection has been proposed as a possible mechanism that induce stresses in the lithosphere. The question is whether these stresses can initiate subduction. We develop scaling laws for the criterion of lithospheric failure from single-cell steady-state convection, which has more controlled flow and thus easier to analyze. We show that these scaling laws are applicable to time-dependent convection. We also investigate the time-dependent behavior of convection to understand the factors controlling the timing of lithospheric failure. We find that the variation in timing not only systematically depends on the physical parameters of the convecting mantle; for convective systems with the same set of parameters, small variations in initial conditions result in different structures of the lithosphere. This changes the stresses in the lithosphere and gives rise to different times of lithospheric failure. This study suggests that it is important to address the question of when plate tectonics can initiate on a planet, in addition to finding favorable conditions for lithospheric failure. We extrapolate the scaling laws to planetary conditions to assess the feasibility of plate tectonics for terrestrial planets, and estimate whether plate tectonics can happen in reasonable planetary lifetimes.


English (en)

Chair and Committee

Viatcheslav S. Solomatov

Committee Members

Ramanath Cowsik, William B. McKinnon, Philip Skemer, Douglas A. Wiens,


Permanent URL: https://doi.org/10.7936/K7NC5ZGP