Pacific plate about to split?

The world’s largest lithospheric plate lies to the west of the East Pacific Rise spreading axis, and extends from 60˚N to 60˚S. A string of volcanic islands connects Easter Island close to the East Pacific Rise to Samoa on the northern end of the Tonga Trench. Each lies above a small hot spot, which collectively define the most densely packed area of active within-plate volcanism on the Pacific Plate. Associated with it is an area of anomalously shallow ocean floor: the South Pacific Superswell. North of this zone the plate velocity has been faster than that of the southern part of the Plate for the last 7 Ma. One explanation for the hot-spot cluster is that it lies above a ‘tear’ that is starting to develop in the Pacific lithosphere (Clouard, V. & Gerbault, M. 2008. Break-up spots: Could the Pacific open as a consequence of plate kinematics? Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 265, p. 195-208). Others dispute this conjecture, but Clouard and Gerbault have modelled strain patterns across the Plate, using plate speeds derived from magnetic stripes and GPS measurements, to predict where volcanism might arise in relation to a focussed shear zone in the lithosphere. The model points directly at the linear cluster of hot spots. Maybe this is the site of a future division of the Pacific Plate into two, the current magmatism perhaps to generate a new, E-W spreading axis. That would be 5 to 20 Ma off, so there is plenty of time to discuss the processes going on.

See also: Reilly, M. 2008. I the Pacific splitting in two. New Scientist, v. 197 (26 January 2008 issue), p. 10.

Is plate tectonics a turn-on or a turn-off?

The dominant force that helps to drive plate motions is the pull exerted by dense cold lithosphere descending subduction zones. If the total length of subduction zones were to increase or decrease, or some other factor affecting the global rate of subduction changed then plate movements overall would be affected. Yet it is plate tectonics that actually removes the bulk of heat continuously generated in the deep Earth by radioactive decay, the amount of which changes very slowly over periods of tens to hundreds of million years. Should plate movements slow or stop that heat would either build up at depth or would emerge in a way unrelated to the motion of plates, perhaps as within-plate magmatism.

Should the Pacific Ocean close, then a large proportion of modern subduction would stop, and some kind of thermal and mechanical compensation would cut-in. There were times in the past when vast oceans did close as supercontinents formed: the formation of Rodinia in the late Mesoproterozoic; the Pan African orogeny of the late Neoproterozoic; the mid-Phanerozoic assembly of Pangaea. Each would have resulted in an order-of-magnitude fall in the rate of subduction. Paul Silver and Mark Behn of the Carnegie Institution of Washington and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution have attempted to judge what kind of thermal and mechanical compensation may have taken place (Silver, P.G & Behn. M.D. 2008. Intermittent plate tectonics. Science, v. 319, p. 85-88). They look at geochemical parameters that ought to act as proxies for subduction processes – the way certain element and isotope proportions in the mantle (Nb/Th and 4He/3He) are affected by the productivity of arc magmatism. Another proxy for subduction intensity is the rate of production of continental crust, assuming reasonably that most is produced from magmas generated at volcanic arcs.

It has become increasingly clear, as the number of absolute ages from the crust has steadily increased, that the continents have formed in a stop-start fashion. Convincingly, Silver and Behn’s synthesis of Nb/Th and 4He/3He ratios in basalts also shows a marked fluctuation in the rate of the mantle’s chemical depletion. It peaked at the end of the Archaean, declined to a minimum around 1 Ga and rose again with the formation of Pangaea at about 300 Ma. The link with supercontinent formation is not simple, although a pattern emerges. Pangaea and the suspected Nuna supercontinent of the Palaeoproterozoic link to peaks in mantle depletion rate, whereas the supercontinents Rodinia and Pannotia (arising from the Pan African) formed while depletion rates were low. Silver and Behn ascribe the differences to two kinds of closure of Pacific-sized oceans following their origination by rifting and drifting of supercontinents. One scenario involves closure of the ocean that once surrounded the supercontinent, as seems to be on the cards for the modern Pacific; P-type closure. The other when the ocean formed passively by break-up is ‘outgunned’ by sea-floor spreading in the once surrounding ocean. That would be the case had the spreading on the East Pacific Rise not involved double subduction around the Pacific margins – the Atlantic would have opened only for both its margins to become subduction zones; A-type closure. Pangaea and possibly Nuna resulted from A-type closure. On the other hand Rodinia and Pannotia seem to have involved circumnavigation of drifting continents to collide at roughly the antipode of the split in a preceding supercontinent by P-type closure.

The conclusion is that plate tectonics was active in the early Earth, becoming intermittent in its middle life and resurrected since a billion years ago. From an examination of the deep thermal consequences of changes in plate motions in the outer Earth, it appears that mantle temperature has fluctuated markedly through time, albeit with a net decrease due to decayed radioactivity. This may have partially ‘switched off’ the conditions for mantle convection that favours plate formation and motion to a more sluggish form. By way of confirmation of their theoretical work, Silver and Behn point to the vast emplacement on most modern continents of granitic and anorthositic plutons under tectonically quiescent conditions that characterised the Grenvillian events preceding the formation of Rodinia between 1.6 to 1.3 Ga.

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