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Most of these island arcs are formed as one oceanic tectonic plate subducts another one and, in most cases, produces magma at depths below the over-riding plate. However, this is only true for those island arcs that are part of the group of mountain belts which are called volcanic arcs, a term which is used when all the elements of the arc-shaped mountain belt are composed of volcanoes. For example, large parts of the Andes-Central American-Canadian mountain chain may be known as a volcanic arc, but they are not islands (being situated upon and along a continental area) and are thus not classified as an island arc. On the other hand, the Aegean or Hellenic arc in the Mediterranean area, composed of numerous islands such as Crete, is an island arc, but is not volcanic. Parallel to it is the South Aegean Volcanic Arc, which is the volcanic island arc of the same tectonic system.
There is some debate about the usefulness of the distinction between island arcs and volcanic arcs. The term "volcanic island arc" is merely a sub-classification of "island arc." Island arcs are tectonically created arc-shaped mountain belts that are partly below sea level. Essentially, they represent a specific geographic-topographic situation in which a mountain belt is partly submerged in ocean. Many of these are composed of volcanoes, and can thus be further classified as volcanic island arcs.
In the subduction zone, the addition of volatiles such as water induces partial melting of the oceanic crust because the volatiles (such as water) boil faster than the surrounding rock, forcing the rock apart. This process, called flux melting, generates low-density calc-alkaline magma that buoyantly rises to intrude and be extruded through the lithosphere of the overriding plate. The resulting volcano chain has the shape of an arc parallel to the convergent plate boundary and convex toward the subducting plate. One of the theories to explain the arc shape views this as a consequence of the geometry of the spherical plate crumpling along a line on a spherical surface, but only the more broadly shaped arcs can be explained in this way.
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 repeatedly in the geological history of the Earth.