Getting to the matter of the root

As well as by its own low density, continental crust may be prevented from subduction because of the strength and buoyancy of cold, thick mantle that forms a root beneath the oldest cratonic crust. Geophysics shows that such roots are there, and in the case of African cratons they merge with the deeper mantle without the intermediate, more ductile asthenosphere: in a sense Africa is ‘nailed’ in place and barely moves. Except for xenoliths in some continental volcanic rocks and in kimberlite pipes, samples of the deep continental lithosphere are uncommon. One place where they are abundant at the surface is in the zone of ~400 Ma continent-continent collision in western Norway (Spengler, D. et al. 2006. Deep origin and hot melting of an Archaean orogenic peridotite massif in Norway. Nature, v. 440, p.913-917).

These rocks are Archaean (~3.3 Ga) in age, and contain tiny diamonds. Their more common metamorphic minerals indicate that the peridotites stabilised at depths of about 180 to 250 km. Yet they carry trace element and mineralogical evidence that they formed as residues of partial melting from a body of mantle that rose from almost 400 km down. Compositionally, they seem to represent an outcome of high degrees of partial melting, probably to release high-magnesium or komatiitic magmas that are only common in early Archaean greenstone belts. Most likely, this peridotitic root material continued to rise, eventually to underplate Archaean continental crust. Unable to melt any further, being depleted in incompatible elements, the root became a permanent and very rigid fixture once it had formed. Regarding the unending, but probably fruitless quest for crustal materials that predate 4.0 Ga, other than a snuff-pinch of tiny zircons, this well-supported model for cratonisation perhaps offers an explanation. No doubt in the higher heat-producing mantle of Hadean times komatiite magma was the norm for oceanic crust formation, and such depleted, high-pressure peridotite residues formed continually. Unless they rose to adhere to substantial low-density sialic crustal masses, they would be recycled back to deeper levels. Equally, without the support of such rigid underplates, any sialic material at the surface would have been unable to withstand deformation and would become subductible by tectonic mixing with more common, dense, mafic-ultramafic oceanic lithosphere. A great deal of Archaean tectonics suggests that continents then were not fully cratonised – Archaean crustal rocks seem to have been pervasively and repeated deformed, cratons of undeformed old rocks not appearing until the Proterozoic, when modern plate tectonics became established.

Acasta gneiss and another old zircon

Readers may by now be satiated with comment on geriatric zircons. Most of them – and they can be counted – are detrital grains that survived around a billion years of sedimentary processes to end up in an otherwise common-or-garden quartz-rich sandstone in Western Australia. Their number has been added to by one more grain, which might be cause for jollification in some quarters, because its host was a piece of deep continental crust of good provenance (Iizuka, T. et al. 2006. 4.2 Ga zurcon xenocryst in an Acasta gneiss from northwestern Canada: evidence for early continental crust. Geology, v. 34, p. 245-248).

The Acasta gneisses form the western flank of the Slave craton in northern Canada, and are the world’s oldest rocks, having formed at 3.94-4.03 Ga as a series of plutonic rocks of tonalitic to dioritic composition. Archaean geochemists from various Japanese universities, and a lone Briton from Leicester University, understandable wished to confirm and refine the age of the Acasta gneisses as the earliest ‘golden spike’ in the continental crust , and subjected many zircons extracted from gneiss samples to the latest mass spectrometric dating that uses the U-Pb scheme. Indeed they achieved excellent precision to the nearest few tens of Ma. Using an ion microprobe, they were able to date the zoned interiors of the zircons, revealing progressive crystallisation of the grains, mainly as the igneous precursors of the Acasta complex evolved. In a single grain, however, they came upon zircon in its core that was 200 Ma older. That tiny, trapped granule itself had engulfed even smaller particles of apatite, unlike the bulk of the whole grain.

Ion microprobes are wonderful pieces of kit, as they can give extremely precise and revealing trace element abundances in the mineral into which they burn a hole. In the case of the aged zircon core, such analyses revealed clearly that these few micrograms of zirconium silicate had formed from a magma with broadly granitic composition. Their conclusion: pre-4 Ga granitic crust was more widespread than previously thought. No, not the Acasta gneiss, but whatever material its igneous precursors had picked up while they were magma. In the previous comment in this section, I put forward the view that sial may well have formed before tangible continental material had stabilised as a permanent resident at the Earth’s surface. Yet, for reasons that seem to be emerging, such crust would not have resisted subduction and ended up mixed back into the mantle. Since the Acasta gneisses were most certainly not formed before 4.0 Ga, then it is from their mantle source region that their igneous precursors must have picked up this tiny, alien xenocryst. Unless, that is, someone can show me a 2-5 kg lump of gneiss heaving with these blessed grains (preferably with signs of almost as old crustal deformation). There is an obvious prediction to make. Geochemists are fighting in a heap to acquire ion microprobes and inductively-coupled, laser-ablation, plasma-source mass spectrometers, and why ever not? Now they have something to aim for instead of trawling quartz sandstones for relics of Earth’s Hadean past. My prediction is that every single mantle-sourced rock of granitic composition, whatever its age, will contain at least one pre-4.0 Ga zircon granule. Zirconium silicate is sturdy stuff.


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