Archaean tectonics was different

Higher mantle heat production in the past suggests that at some stage in the evolution of plate tectonics oceanic lithosphere would arrive at destructive margins too hot for oceanic basalt to dehydrate and form eclogite.  Without excess density over that of the mantle, conferred by subducted eclogite (3300 kg m-3), the lithospheric slab would descend at a shallow angle, oceanic crust would probably undergo wet partial melting, and maybe slab pull force would be so low that subduction was a hit or miss affair.  The thermal state of the Archaean Earth might not have had plate tectonics as we know it today.  However, studies of the oldest probable ocean floor (the >3800Ma Akilia Association of West Greenland) looks for all the world as if it formed as an accretionary prism as a result of normal-seeming plate forces.  Previous speculation about Archaean tectonics assumed basaltic oceanic crust, much like today’s.  High heat production also implies that Archaean constructive margins generated a great deal more magma by partial melting of mantle with higher potential temperature; probably more magnesian, picritic primary magma (Foley, S.F et al. 2003.  Evolution of the Archaean crust by delamination and shallow subduction.  Nature, v. 421, p. 249-252).  Instead of the lower oceanic crust being made from gabbroic cumulates, it was then probably dominated by ultramafic products of fractional crystallization.  Foley, and colleagues Stephan Buhre and Dorrit Jacob of the Universities of Greifswald and Franfurt in Germany, show from high-pressure experiments that such lower crust would form dense pyroxenites.  At destructive margins these might delaminate from the upper oceanic crust to subduct steeply, thereby conferring slab-pull force to drive tectonics.  Their eventual partial melting would source basaltic magmas to add to older oceanic crust that failed to subduct during the earliest Hadean times.  That would explain the lack of continental materials older than 4000 Ma.  .  The partial melting of garnet-bearing mafic materials (probably garnet amphibolite) that sourced Archaean continental crust would have had to await the end of such delamination, when the whole oceanic crust could descend, albeit with hot wet basalt in the upper part of the slab.  Interesting though the ideas in the paper are, apart from the authors suggestion of a connection with element depletion of the upper mantle progressively affecting an ever deeper zone, they hark back to thoughts on Archaean processes as early as the late 1970s.

Eskola’s mantled gneiss domes revisited

The Finnish geologist Pentti Eskola famously recognised in the 1940s that many basement terrains throughout the world, particularly in Scandinavia, have large tracts of gneiss in the form of domal structures separated by synforms (mantles to the domes) of supracrustal rocks.  These mantled domes give a curious “egg-box” appearance to the geology of many shield areas, usually picked out by the conventional pink colours used to signify granitic rocks and greens for supracrustal belts.  Once it was recognised that interference between upright folds of different ages and with different axial trends could produce “egg-box” structures on the outcrop scale, many structural geologists turned to this as an explanation for the huge features recognised by Eskola, even suggesting that the “mantles” were above profound unconformities.  Eskola’s view was that these regional features were due to differential uplift of low-density gneisses and more dense supracrustal rocks, and this view lingers with many other geologists.  Christain Teyssier and Donna Whitney, of the University of Minnesota, have reviewed the current state of knowledge for the phenomenon (Teyssier, C. & Whitney, D.L. 2002.  Gneiss domes and orogeny.  Geology, v. 30, p. 1139-1142), and conclude something more involved than either hypothesis.  Many of the gneiss domes show evidence for the involvement of crustal melting in response to decompression as orogens evolve, almost certainly resulting from removal of the upper crust, either by rapid erosion or extensional tectonics.  As well as forming bodies of melt or near-molten migmatites, such a process weakens he crust, allowing masses of low-density crust, including the partially melted bodies, to rise rapidly.  This feeds further decompression, the whole process becoming an effective means of advective heat transfer in large orogens.

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