Tag Archives: Continental crust

Formation of continents without subduction

The formulation of the theory of plate tectonics provided plausible explanations for the growth of continental crust over time, among many other fundamental Earth processes. Briefly expressed, once basalt capped oceanic lithosphere is forced downwards at plate boundaries where plates move towards one another, beyond a certain penetration cool, moist basalt undergoes a pressure-controlled change of state. Its chemical constituents reassemble into minerals more stable under elevated pressure. In doing so, one outcome involves dehydration reactions the other being that the bulk composition is recast mainly in the form of high-pressure pyroxene and the mineral garnet: the rock eclogite. The density of the basaltic cap increases above that of the mantle. Gravity acts to pull the subducting slab downwards, this slab-pull force being the main driver of plate motions globally. Water vapour and other fluids shed by dehydration reactions rise from the subducted slab into the wedge of overlying mantle to change its conditions of partial melting and the composition of the magma so produced. This is the source of arc magmatism that persists at the destructive plate margin to increase the volcanic pile’s thickness over time. When magma is able to pond at the base of the new crust its fractional crystallisation produces dense cumulates of high-temperature mafic silicates and residual melt that is both lighter and more enriched in silica. Residual magma rises to add to the middle and upper crust while the cumulate-rich lower crust becomes less gravitationally stable, eventually to spall downwards by delamination. Such a process helps to explain the bulk low density of continental crust built up over time together with the freeboard of continents relative to the ocean floor: a unique feature of the Earth compared with all other bodies in the Solar System. It also accounts for the vast bulk of continental crust having remained at the surface since it formed: it rarely gets subducted, if at all.

One suggested model for pre-plate tectonic continent formation (credit, Robert J Stern https://speakingofgeoscience.org/2013/04/28/when-did-plate-tectonics-begin-on-earth-and-what-came-before/)

Tangible signs that such subduction was taking place in the past – eclogites and other high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphosed basalts or blueschists – are only found after 800 Ma ago. Before that time evidence for plate tectonics is circumstantial. Some geologists have argued for a different style of subduction in earlier times, plates under riding others at low angles. Others have argued for a totally different style of tectonics in Earth early history, marked by changes in bulk chemical composition of the continental crust at the Archaean-Proterozoic boundary. A new twist comes from evidence in the Archaean Pilbara Craton of Western Australia (Johnson, T.E. et al. 2017. Earth’s first stable continents did not form by subduction. Nature, v. 543, p. 239-242; doi:10.1038/nature21383). The authors found that basalts dated at about 3.5 Ga have trace-element geochemistry with affinities to the primitive basalts of island arcs. That makes them a plausible source for slightly younger felsic plutonic rocks with a tonalite-trondhjemite-granodiorite (TTG) compositional range (characteristic of Archaean continental crust). If the basalts were partially melted to yield 30% of their mass as new magma the melt composition would match that of the TTG crust. This would be feasible at only 30 km depth given a temperature increase with depth of at least 25° C per kilometre; more than the average continent geothermal gradient today but quite plausible with the then higher heat production by less decayed radioactive isotopes of uranium, thorium and potassium 3.5 Ga ago. This would have required the basalts to have formed a 30 km thick crust. However, the basalts’ geochemistry requires their generation by partial melting of earlier more mafic basalts rather than directly from the mantle. That early Archaean mantle melting probably did generate vast amounts such primary magma is generally acknowledged and confirmed by the common occurrence of komatiitic lavas with much higher magnesium content than common basalts of modern constructive margins. In essence, Johnson et al. favour thermal reworking of primitive Archaean crust, rather than reworking in a plate tectonic cycle.

More on continental growth and plate tectonics

See also

When did Plate Tectonics begin on Earth, and what came before?

How far has geochemistry led geology?


Granite pmg ss 2006

Thin section of a typical granite: clear white and grey grains are quarts (silica); striped black and white is feldspar; coloured minerals are micas (credit: Wikipedia)

In the Solar System the Earth is unique in having a surface split into two distinct categories according to their relative elevation; one covered by water, the other not. More than 60% of its surface – the ocean basins – falls between 2 to 11 km below sea level with a mean around 4 to 5 km deep. A bit less than 40% – land and the continental shelves – stands higher than 1 km below sea level up to almost 9 km above, with a mean around 1 km high. Between 1 and 2 km below sea level is represented by only around 3 % of the surface area. This combined hypsography and wetness is reckoned to have had a massive bearing on the course of climate and biological evolution, as far as allowing our own emergence. The Earth’s bimodal elevation stems from the near-surface rock beneath each division having different densities: continental crust is less dense than its oceanic counterpart, and there is very little crustal rock with an intermediate density. Gravitational equilibrium ensures that continents rise higher than oceans. That continents were underpinned mainly by rocks of granitic composition and density, roughly speaking, was well known by geologists at the close of the 19th century. What lay beneath the oceans didn’t fully emerge until after the advent of plate tectonics and the notion of simple basaltic magmas pouring out as plates became detached.

In 1915 Canadian geologist Norman Levi Bowen resolved previously acquired knowledge of the field relations, mineralogy and, to a much lesser extent, the chemistry of igneous rocks, predominantly those on the continents in a theory to account for the origin of continents. This involved a process of distillation or fractionation in which the high-temperature crystallisation of mafic (magnesium- and iron-rich) minerals from basaltic magma left a residual melt with lower Mg and Fe, higher amounts of alkalis and alkaline earth elements and especially enriched in SiO2 (silica). A basalt with ~50% silica could give rise to rocks of roughly granitic composition (~60% SiO2) – the ‘light’ rocks that buoy-up the continental surface – through Bowen’s hypothetical fractional crystallisation. Later authors in the 1930s, including Bowen’s teacher Reginald Aldworth Daly, came up with the idea that granites may form by basalt magma digesting older SiO2-rich rocks or by partially melting older crustal rocks as suggested by British geologist Herbert Harold Read. But, of course, this merely shifted the formation of silica-rich crust further back in time

A great deal of field, microscope and, more recently, geochemical lab time has been spent since on to-ing and fro-ing between these hypotheses, as well as on the petrology of basaltic magmas since the arrival of plate theory and the discovery of the predominance of basalt beneath ocean floors. By the 1990s one of the main flaws seen in Bowen’s hypothesis was removed, seemingly at a stroke. Surely, if a basalt magma split into a dense Fe- Mg-rich cumulate in the lower crust and a less dense, SiO2-rich residual magma in the upper continental crust the bulk density of that crust ought to remain the same as the original basalt. But if the dense part somehow fell back into the mantle what remained would be more able to float proud. Although a neat idea, outside of proxy indications that such delamination had taken place, it could not be proved.

Since the 1960s geochemical analysis has became steadily easier, quicker and cheaper, using predominantly X-ray fluorescence and mass-spectrometric techniques. So geochemical data steadily caught up with traditional analysis of thin sections of rock using petrological microscopes. Beginning in the late 1960s igneous geochemistry became almost a cottage industry and millions of rocks have been analysed. Recently, about 850 thousand multi-element analyses of igneous rocks have been archived with US NSF funding in the EarthChem library. A group from the US universities of Princeton, California – Los Angeles and Wisconsin – Madison extracted 123 thousand plutonic and 172 thousand volcanic igneous rocks of continental affinities from EarthChem to ‘sledgehammer’ the issue of continent formation into a unified theory (Keller, C.B. et al. 2015. Volcanic-plutonic parity and the differentiation of the continental crust. Nature, v. 523, p. 301-307).

In a nutshell, the authors compared the two divisions in this vast data bank; the superficial volcanic with the deep-crustal plutonic kinds of continental igneous rock. The gist of their approach is a means of comparative igneous geochemistry with an even longer pedigree, which was devised in 1909 by British geologist Alfred Harker. The Harker Diagram plots all other elements against the proportionally most variable major component of igneous rocks, SiO2. If the dominant process involved mixing of basalt magma with or partial melting of older silica-rich rocks such simple plots should approximate straight lines. It turns out – and this is not news to most igneous geochemists with far smaller data sets – that the plots deviate considerably from straight lines. So it seems that old Bowen was right all along, the differing deviations from linearity stemming from subtleties in the process of initial melting of mantle to form basalt and then its fractionation at crustal depths. Keller and colleagues found an unexpected similarity between the plutonic rocks of subduction-related volcanic arcs and those in zones of continental rifting. Both record the influence of water in the process, which lowers the crystallisation temperature of granitic magma so that it freezes before the bulk can migrate to the surface and extrude as lava. Previously. rift-related magmas had been thought to be drier than those formed in arcs so that silica-rich magma should tend to be extruded.

But there is a snag, the EarthChem archive hosts only data from igneous rocks formed in the Phanerozoic, most being less than 100 Ma old. It has long been known that continental crust had formed as far back as 4 billion years ago, and many geologists believe that most of the continental crust was in place by the end of the Precambrian about half a billion years ago. Some even reckon that igneous process may have been fundamentally different before 3 billion years ago(see: Dhuime, B., Wuestefeld, A. & Hawkesworth, C. J. 2015. Emergence of modern continental crust about 3 billion years ago.  Nature Geoscience, v. 8, p.552–555). So big-science data mining may flatter to deceive and leave some novel questions unanswered .


Plate tectonics monitored by diamonds


Norwegian Eclogite. Image by kevinzim via Flickr

For more than 30 years a debate has raged about the antiquity of plate tectonics: some claim it has always operated since the Earth first acquired a rigid carapace not long after a molten state following formation of the Moon; others look to the earliest occurrences of island-arc volcanism, oceanic crust thrust onto continents as ophiolite complexes, and to high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphic rocks. The earliest evidence of this kind has been cited from as far apart in time as the oldest Archaean rocks of Greenland (3.9 Ga) and the Neoproterozoic (1 Ga to 542 Ma). A key feature produced by plate interactions that can be preserved are high-P, low-T rocks formed where old, cool oceanic lithosphere is pulled by its own increasing density into the mantle at subduction zones to form eclogites and blueschists. In the accessible crust, both rock types are unstable as well as rare and can be retrogressed to different metamorphic mineral assemblages by high-temperature events at lower pressures than those at which they formed. Relics dating back to the earliest subduction may be in the mantle, but that seems inaccessible. Yet, from time to time explosive magmatism from very deep sources brings mantle-depth materials to the surface in kimberlite pipes that are most commonly found in stabilised blocks of ancient continental crust or cratons. Again there is the problem of mineral stability when solids enter different physical conditions, but there is one mineral that preserves characteristics of its deep origins – diamond. Steven Shirer and Stephen Richardson of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and the University of Cape Town have shed light on early subduction by exploiting the relative ease of dating diamonds and their capacity for preserving other minerals captured within them (Shirey, S.B. & Richardson, S.H. 2011. Start of the Wilson cycle at 3 Ga shown by diamonds from the subcontinental mantle. Science, v. 333, p. 434-436). Their study used data from over four thousand silicate inclusions in previously dated large diamonds, made almost worthless as gemstones by their contaminants. It is these inclusions that are amenable to dating, principally by the Sm-Nd method. Adrift in the mantle high temperature would result in daughter isotopes diffusing from the minerals. Once locked within diamond that isotopic loss would be stopped by the strength of the diamond structure, so building up with time to yield an age of entrapment when sampled.  The collection spans five cratons in Australia, Africa, Asia and North America, and has an age spectrum from 1.0 to 3.5 Ga. Note that diamonds are not formed by subduction but grow as a result of reduction of carbonates or oxidation of methane in the mantle at depths between 125 to 175 km. In growing they may envelop fragments of their surroundings that formed by other processes.

A notable feature of the inclusions is that before 3.2 Ga only mantle peridotites (olivine and pyroxene) are trapped, whereas in diamonds younger than 3.0 Ga the inclusions are dominated by eclogite minerals (garnet and Na-, Al-rich omphacite pyroxenes). This dichotomy is paralleled by the rhenium and osmium isotope composition of sulfide mineral inclusions. To the authors these consistent features point to an absence of steep-angled subduction, characteristic of modern plate tectonics, from the Earth system before 3 Ga. But does that rule out plate tectonics in earlier times and cast doubt on structural and other evidence for it? Not entirely, because consumption of spreading oceanic lithosphere by the mantle can take place if basaltic rock is not converted to eclogite by high-P, low-T metamorphism when the consumed lithosphere is warmer than it generally is nowadays – this happens beneath a large stretch of the Central Andes where subduction is at a shallow angle. What Shirey and Richardson have conveyed is a sense that the dominant force of modern plate tectonics – slab-pull that is driven by increased density of eclogitised basalt – did not operate in the first 1.5 Ga of Earth history. Eclogite can also form, under the right physical conditions, when chunks of basaltic material (perhaps underplated magmatically to the base of continents) founder and fall into the mantle. The absence of eclogite inclusions seems also to rule out such delamination from the early Earth system. So whatever tectonic activity and mantle convection did take place upon and within the pre-3 Ga Earth it was probably simpler than modern geodynamics. The other matter is that the shift to dominant eclogite inclusions appears quite abrupt from the data, perhaps suggesting major upheavals around 3 Ga. The Archaean cratons do provide some evidence for a major transformation in the rate of growth of continental crust around 3 Ga; about 30-40 percent of modern continental material was generated in the following 500 Ma to reach a total of 60% of the current amount, the remaining 40% taking 2.5 Ga to form through modern plate tectonics