Seismic anisotropy is a powerful tool for detecting the geometry and style of deformation in the Earth’s interior, as it primarily reflects the deformation-induced preferred orientation of anisotropic crystals. Although seismic anisotropy in the upper mantle is generally attributed to the crystal-preferred orientation of olivine, the strong trench-parallel anisotropy (delay time of one to two seconds) observed in several subduction systems is difficult to explain in terms of olivine anisotropy, even if the entire mantle wedge were to act as an anisotropic source. Here we show that the crystal-preferred orientation of serpentine, the main hydrous mineral in the upper mantle, can produce the strong trench-parallel seismic anisotropy observed in subduction systems. High-pressure deformation experiments reveal that the serpentine c-axis tends to rotate to an orientation normal to the shear plane during deformation; consequently, seismic velocity propagating normal to the shear plane (plate interface) is much slower than that in other directions. The seismic anisotropy estimated for deformed serpentine aggregates is an order of magnitude greater than that for olivine, and therefore the alignment of serpentine in the hydrated mantle wedge results in a strong trench-parallel seismic anisotropy in the case of a steeply subducting slab. This hypothesis is also consistent with the presence of a hydrous phase in the mantle wedge, as inferred from anomalously low seismic-wave velocities.
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