Coesite- and diamond-bearing ultrahigh-pressure (UHP) metamorphic rocks represent continental materials that were once subducted to depths of >90 km. Identifying how these rocks were subsequently returned to Earth's surface has been a major challenge. Opinions on this matter vary widely, ranging from vertical extrusion of a coherent continental slab to channel flow of tectonically mixed mélange. To address this problem, we conducted integrated research across the North Qaidam UHP metamorphic belt using structural mapping, petrologic studies, and geochronologic and thermochronologic analyses. Our regional synthesis indicates that the early Paleozoic Qilian orogen, within which the North Qaidam UHP metamorphic belt was developed, was created by protracted southward oceanic subduction. The process produced a wide mélange belt and the Qilian magmatic arc. Arc magmatism was active between 520 and 400 Ma, coeval with North Qaidam UHP metamorphism. The North Qaidam UHP metamorphic belt also spatially overlaps the early Paleozoic Qilian magmatic arc. Petrologic, geochronologic, and geochemical studies indicate that the protolith of the UHP metamorphic rocks was a mixture of continental and mafic/ultramafic materials, derived either from oceanic mélanges or pieces of a rifted continental margin tectonically incorporated into an oceanic subduction channel. These observations require that the North Qaidam UHP metamorphic rocks originated at least in part from continental crust that was subducted to mantle depths and then transported across a mantle wedge into a coeval arc during oceanic subduction. Upward transport of the UHP rocks may have been accommodated by rising diapirs launched from a mélange channel on top of an oceanic subducting slab. To test this hypothesis, we developed a quantitative model that incorporates existing knowledge on thermal structures of subduction zones into the mechanics of diapir transport. Using this model, we are able to track P-T and T-t paths of individual diapirs and compare them with the observed P-T and T-t paths from North Qaidam. The main physical insight gained from our modeling is that the large variation of the observed North Qaidam P-T paths can be explained by a combination of temporal and spatial variation of thermal structure and mechanical strength of the mantle wedge above the early Paleozoic Qilian subduction slab. Hotter P-T trajectories can be explained by a high initial temperature (∼800°C) of a diapir that travels across a relatively strong mantle wedge (i.e., activation energy E = 350 kJ/mol for dry olivine), while cooler P-T paths may be explained by a diapir with initially low temperature (∼700°C) that traveled through a weaker mantle wedge, with its strength at least two orders of magnitude lower than that of dry olivine. This latter condition could have been achieved by hydraulic weakening of olivine aggregates in the mantle wedge via fluid percolation through the mantle wedge during oceanic subduction.
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