Not-so-light, but essential reading

In its 125th year the Geological Society of America is publishing invited reviews of central geoscience topics in its Bulletin. They seem potentially useful for both undergraduate students and researchers as accounts of the ‘state-of-the-art’ and compendia of references. The latest focuses on major controls on past sea-level changes by processes that operate in the solid Earth (Conrad, C.P. 2013. The solid Earth’s influence on sea level. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1027-1052), a retrospective look at how geoscientists have understood large igneous provinces (Bryan, S. E. & Ferrari, L. 2013. Large igneous provinces and silicic large igneous provinces: Progress in our understanding over the last 25 years. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1053-1078) and the perennial topic of how granites form and end up in intrusions (Brown, M. 2013. Granite: From genesis to emplacement Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1079-1113).

Sea level change

Conrad covers sea-level changes on the short- (1 to 100 years), medium- (1 to 100 ka) and long term (1 to 100 Ma). The first two mainly result from local deformation of different kinds associated with glacial loading and unloading. These result in changes in the land surface, the sea surface nearby and on thousand year to 100 ka timescales to ups and downs of the sea-bed. Global sea-level changes due to melting of continental glaciers at the present day amount to about half the estimated 2 to 3 mm of rise each year. But increasingly sensitive measures show it is more complex as the rapid shifts of mass involved in melting ice also result in effects on the solid Earth. At present solid mass is being transferred polewards, but at rates that differ in Northern and Southern hemispheres and which are changing with anthropogenic influences on glacial melting. Viscous movement of the solid Earth is so slow that effects from previous glacial-interglacial episodes continue today. As a result rapid elastic movements are tending to produce relative sea-level falls in polar regions of up to 20 mm per year with rising sea level focusing on areas between 30°N and 30°S. The influence of the slower viscous mass transfer has an opposite sense: sea-level rise at high latitudes. Understanding the short- and medium-term controls is vital in predicting issues arising in the near future from natural and anthropogenic change.

Comparison of two sea level reconstructions du...

Comparison of two sea level reconstructions during the last 500 Ma. (credit: Wikipedia)

 Most geologists are concerned in practice with explanations for major sea-level changes in the distant past, which have a great deal to do with changes in the volumes of the ocean basins. If the global sea-floor rises on average water is displaced onto former land to produce transgressions, and subsidence of the sea floor draws water down from the land. Conrad gives a detailed account of what has been going on since the start of the Cretaceous Period, based on the rate of sea-floor spreading, marine volcanism and sedimentation, changes in the area of the ocean basins and the effects of thermally-induced uplift and subsidence of the continents, showing how each contribution acted cumulatively to give the vast transgressions and regressions that affected the late Phanerozoic. On the even longer timescale of opening and closing of oceans and the building and disintegration of supercontinents the entire mantle becomes involved in controls on sea level and a significant amount of water is chemically exchanged with the mantle.

Large igneous provinces

Cathedral Peak, 3004m above sea level in the K...

The Web of Science database marks the first appearance in print of “large igneous province” in 1993, so here is a topic that is indeed new, although the single-most important attribute of LIPs, ‘flood basalt’ pops up three decades earlier and the term ‘trap’ that describes their stepped topography is more than a century old. Bryan and Ferrari are therefore charting progress in an exciting new field, yet one that no human – or hominin for that matter – has ever witnessed in action. One develops, on average, every 20 Ma and since they are of geologically short duration long periods pass with little sign of one of the worst things that our planet can do to the biosphere. In the last quarter century it has emerged that they blurt out the products of energy and matter transported as rising plumes from the depths of the mantle; they, but not all, have played roles in mass extinctions; unsuspected reserves of precious metals occur in them; they play some role in the formation of sedimentary basins and maturation of petroleum and it seems other planets have them – a recipe for attention in the early 21st century. Whatever, Bryan and Ferrari provide a mine of geological entertainment.



In comparison, granites have always been part of the geologist’s canon, a perennial source of controversy and celebrated by major works every decade, or so it seems, with twenty thousand ‘hits’ on Web of Science since 1900 (WoS only goes back that far). Since the resolution of the plutonist-neptunist wrangling over granite’s origin one topic that has been returned to again and again is how and where did the melting to form granitic magma take place? If indeed granites did form by melting and not as a result of ‘granitisation. Lions of the science worried at these issues up to the mid  20th century: Bowen, Tuttle, Read, Buddington, Barth and many others are largely forgotten actors, except for the credit in such works as that of Michael Brown. Experimental melting under changing pressure and temperature, partial pressures of water, CO2 and oxygen still go on, using different parent rocks. One long-considered possibility has more or less disappeared: fractional crystallisation from more mafic magma might apply to other silicic plutonic rocks helpfully described as ‘granitic’ or called ‘granitoids’, but granite  (sensu stricto) has a specific geochemical and mineralogical niche to which Brown largely adheres. For a while in the last 40 years classification got somewhat out of hand, moving from a mineralogical base to one oriented geochemically: what Brown refers to as the period of ‘Alphabet Granites’ with I-, S- A- and other-type granites. Evidence for the dominance of partial melting of pre-existing continental crust has won-out, and branched into the style, conditions and heat-source of melting.

English: Kit-Mikayi, a rock formation near Kis...

Typical granite tor near Kisumu, Kenya (credit: Wikipedia)

All agree that magmas of granitic composition are extremely sticky. The chemical underpinnings for that and basalt magma’s relatively high fluidity were established by physical chemist Bernhardt Patrick John O’Mara Bockris (1923-2013) but barely referred to, even by Michael Brown. Yet that high viscosity has always posed a problem for the coalescence of small percentages of melt into the vast blobs of low density liquid able to rise from the deep crust to the upper crust. Here are four revealing pages and ten more on how substantial granite bodies are able to ascend, signs that the puzzle is steadily being resolved. Partial melting implies changes in the ability of the continental crust to deform when stressed, and this is one of the topics on which Brown closes his discussion, ending, of course, on a ‘work in progress’ note that has been there since the days of Hutton and Playfair.


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