Considering the continual processes that stress continental lithosphere from the time of its formation, it is a puzzle to find large areas that preserve its earliest parts in an almost pristine state. Greater heat production in the past demands that the frequency and power involved in continental jostling were greater as we go back in geological time. Zones that show little sign of having been tectonically reworked for more than a billion years are termed cratons, and most of them have at their core continental material that formed in the Archaean, more than 2.5 Ga ago. Later orogens do show isotopic signs that deformed and partially melted Archaean crust was involved, but no so much as might be expected. Somehow, having a nucleus of Archaean lithosphere confers strength to cratonic areas. Geophysics reveals that the lithosphere beneath cratons uniquely extends to depths of 200 km, forming a “keel” or tectosphere.
Most geochemists consider that deep mantle beneath cratons is so rigid because it is unable to come close to the beginning of melting, due to it having once been the source of massive amounts of basaltic magma. Loss of the constituent elements of basalt and volatiles, including heat-producing isotopes of U, Th and K, renders it more inert than mantle that still has the potential to generate basalt under appropriate conditions. Basalt magmas also remove significant amounts of iron, thereby adding buoyancy to tectosphere materials.
Occasionally, much younger magmas that do form at the depths of the tectosphere bring samples of it to the surface, in the form of xenoliths. Their petrography and geochemistry reinforce the general idea of how cratonic “keels” form, but they have been difficult to date with confidence. The relatively new rhenium-187/osmium-187 method makes dating more assured. Cin-Ty Lee and colleagues from Harvard University (Lee, C et al. 2001. Preservation of ancient and fertile lithospheric mantle beneath the southwestern United States. Nature, v. 411, p. 69-73) used the method on xenoliths from two adjacent areas, the actively extending Basin and Range Province and the Colorado Plateau. Both contain ancient rocks, Archaean in the former and Mesoproterozoic in the second, which behaves as a stable craton. Xenoliths from mantle deep beneath them have similar ages to those in the oldest crustal rocks, helping confirm the geochemical connection between crust formation and lithospheric mantle. However, those from beneath the Basin and Range have potentially “fertile” compositions, whereas the Colorado samples show signs of the depletion thought to confer strength and buoyancy. Paradoxically, a younger craton sits next to Archaean lithosphere that is demonstrably weak.
Lee and colleagues suggest that if part of Archaean crust formation did not create a tectosphere, it is quite possible that younger orogens might contain considerably more ancient crust than currently suspected. On the other hand, the mismatch between the near certainty that continents formed more rapidly during the first third of recorded geological history and the disproportionately small volume of known Archaean crustal rock could signify that a lot of it became resorbed into the mantle. That doesn’t appear to have been a significant process in later times. However, the total lack of sialic rocks older than 4 Ga, yet the evidence from detrital zircons up to 4.4 Ga in much younger sediments that some did indeed form, suggests that crustal resorption was efficient during early tectonics. Perhaps the Archaean marked the waning of such processes, in which an increasing proportion remained locked at the surface.
See also: Nyblade, A. 2001. Hard-cored continents. Nature, v. 411, p. 39-39.
Partially melted zones beneath Tibet
Anomalously low seismic velocities, accompanied by a “muffling” of seismic energy, and high heat flow beneath the Tibetan Plateau have hinted at the possibility of active crustal melting, but such information cannot resolve whether that is the case or not. Parts of the Plateau have been volcanically active in the near past, and that has been attributed by some workers to the detachment and sinking into the mantle of a large chunk of sub-Tibetan lithosphere. Freed of a substantial mass, the thick lithosphere beneath Tibet would then bob up, the rapid drop in pressure at depth inducing partial melting. Being weak, a substantial partially melted zone would also help the Tibetan crust deform more easily.
One means of adding support to the idea is looking for deep-crustal anomalies in electrical conductivity. Because electric currents flow naturally in the Earth, the conventional means of resistivity survey can use them instead of an input current. Such magnetotelluric surveys potentially give information down to depths of 100 km or more. At these scales, zones of abnormally low conductivity are likely to be due either to pervasion of deep rock with watery fluids or with widespread partial melting. A group of Chinese, Canadian and US geophysicisists (Wei, W. and 14 others 2001. Detection of widespread fluids in the Tibetan crust by magnetotelluric studies. Science, v. 292, p. 716-718) have shown that the middle to lower crust deeper than 15 to 20 km beneath most of the Tibetan Plateau is anomalous in this way. The highest conductivity lies beneath the main Yarlung (Indus) – Tsangpo suture., and may be related to fluids released by subduction processes. It is the anomaly beneath the Plateau itself that is most significant, for it extends for 4 degrees of latitude along the survey line. Higher conductivity anomalies correlate closely with Plio-Pleistocene volcanically active areas, and much of the area is affected by hydrothermal fluids. While adding detail to structure and rheological properties beneath Tibet, magnetotelluric studies still leave open the possibility that much of the electrical signature may be due to pervasive watery fluids, as well as to zones of melting.
Brazilian input to the growth of Gondwana
One of the most dramatic tectonic events known from the geological record is the break up of a supercontinent, dubbed Rodinia (from the Russian for motherland), in the Neoproterozoic. From a unity of almost all earlier continental crust, this break up sent fragments scurrying across a plethora of new oceans. Some of the fragments reassembled around 650 Ma ago to create what eventually became the southern part of the Carboniferous supercontinent of Pangaea; Gondwana. The assembly of West Gondwana involved a vast network of orogenic belts in which juvenile arc materials were pinched between colliding continental fragments, as these oceans closed up. Often called the Pan African event, because of its widespread signature in that continent, this assembly also affected eastern South America at the same time.
Fernando Alkmim, Stephen Marshak and Marco Fonseca (Alkmin, F.F. 2001. Assembling West Gondwana in the Neoproterozoic: clues from the São Francisco craton region, Brazil. Geology, v. 29, p. 319-322) turn our attention from the much-described Pan African to its Braziliano counterpart in South America. Their summary of current understanding suggests six stages in the rifting to collision, that involved major changes in palaeogeography.