Dating subduction

The most distinctive products of the high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism along subduction zones are stunningly coloured blueschists formed from ocean-floor basalts, their colour deriving from the sodium-rich amphibole glaucophane. Yet the defining mineral for subduction-zone metamorphism is lawsonite, which takes up the calcium from plagioclase feldspar that becomes unstable. Having formed at depths of up to 100 km, blueschists found at the surface had to rise slowly from mantle depths after metamorphism. Consequently, it is nearly impossible to unravel the date of their formation from those of later events. Being basaltic, blueschists also lack the usual elements whose unstable isotopes are commonly used for radiometric dating: potassium, rubidium, uranium and thorium. However, they do contain rare-earth elements, an isotope of one (176Lu) being unstable. Applying the Lu-Hf dating method to lawsonite ties down precisely when basalts achieved the narrow P-T range at which lawsonite forms (Mulcahy, S.R. et al. 2009. Lawsonite Lu-Hf geochronology: A new geochronometer for subduction zone processes. Geology, v. 37, p. 987-990). Sean Mulcahy of the Unigversity of Nevada and colleagues from Washington State chose a sample from the type locality for lawsonite discovered in the late 19th century by Andrew Lawson: the Franciscan blueschists of the Tiburon Peninsula in California. The Franciscan Complex formed during subduction at 145.5 Ma.

Phew, there is a mantle plume under Hawaii after all

Along with constructive and destructive plate boundaries volcanic hotspots within plates and sometimes at plate boundaries epitomise modern Earth science. Assuming that they are fixed points of reference allows the absolute motions of tectonic plates to be worked out, although it seems that some do move around. The evidence for hotspots being fixed or at least moving much more slowly than do plates are the chains of extinct volcanic islands or seamounts that extend away from active volcanic centres in the direction of plate motion. The most debated aspect of hotspots is whether they stem from processes in the upper mantle just beneath the asthenosphere or are the heads of cylindrical plumes of hot mantle that rise from the region next to the outer core. Seismic tomography has been claimed capable of resolving between the two possibilities, but its spatial resolution depends very much on the spacing of seismometers that provide the data that tomography subjects to highly complex processing. Some have claimed that the resolution of early tomography lends itself to producing artefacts that look like sought-after mantle structures (see Geoscience consensus challenged in EPN of December 2003).

One hotspot that has all the characteristics of a plume head, but which seismic tomography has been unable to detect is the volcanically active Big Island of the Hawaiian chain. The response to that somewhat embarrassing failure has been to deploy 30-odd seismometers on the seabed immediately around Hawaii and then to shift them to a wider spacing further from the island between 2005 to 2007. Together with 10 stations on the islands themselves, the array recorded 2146 S-wave arrivals from 97 earthquakes (Wolfe, C.J. et al. 2009. Mantle shear-wave velocity structure beneath the Hawaiian hot spot. Science, v. 326, p. 1388-1390). The results are reassuring, for the show in detail that indeed there is a vertical zone of low S-wave speeds indicating hotter, less rigid mantle that extends down to at least 1200 km. It is several hundred kilometres across, and is indeed a plume surrounded by a ‘tube’ of colder more rigid mantle.

See also: Kerr, R.A. 2009. Sea-floor study gives plumes from the deep mantle a boost. Science, v. 326, p. 1330.

Hot tectonics in the Archaean

The first thing that strikes you when looking at a small-scale geological maps of many deformed Archaean terrains – most of them are deformed – is how different they seem compared with those of later aeons. Bulbous granitic plutons separate slim and irregular, sometimes cusp-adorned areas of volcanic and sedimentary rocks. This is classic granite-greenstone terrain. Many geologists who have worked on Archaean rocks find it hard to pin down signs of ‘modern’ plate tectonics and the typical orogens of continent-continent collision zones, yet non-uniformitarian ideas on Archaean tectonics have become passé in the last 25-30 years. That seems odd, considering that the Earth’s internal heat production by radioactive decay must have been higher as less radioactive U, Th and K isotopes would have decayed in the very distant past. Convective mantle flow would have been faster, lithosphere would not have been so thick as now, and plates would have moved more rapidly in order that radioactive heat and that left over from early accretion and the Moon-forming event could escape. Whichever way one looks at such a scenario – plates as big as modern ones or more small plates – there is no escaping that younger, warmer lithosphere would have re-entered the mantle. Geochemistry of Archaean granitic rocks is so different from those of later aeons that their formative processes must have differed too. Quite probably descending basaltic crust would not have dehydrated to produce eclogite under low-T, high-P conditions, and that would prevent steep subduction, so that slab-pull may not have been the driving force for Archaean tectonics.

Two recent papers refresh the idea that the present is not entirely a key to the Earth’s Archaean past. One suggests an entirely alien kind of orogenic activity: that of very hot deformation of weak lithosphere (Chardon, D. et al. 2009. Flow of ultra-hot orogens: A view from the Precambrian, clues for the Phanerozoic. Tectonophysics, v. 477, p. 105-108). Dominique Chardon of the Université de Toulouse and colleagues from the Université de Rennes, highlight the dominance in orogens of the Archaean and early Proterozoic of ductile deformation imposed on massive accretion of magma produced by mantle processes, compared with the dominantly brittle style that dominates modern, cold orogens. Accumulated radiometric dating of the main building material of the continents – diorites and grandiorites – indicates that the 1.5 Ga of the Archaean witnessed the formation of not only the earliest continental crust but most (65%) of the rest of it. A summary of an emerging explanation for explosive continent production appeared in the first 2010 issue of Scientific American (Simpson, S. 2009. Violent origins of continents. Scientific American v. 302(1), p. 46-53). This rests on rapidly growing evidence, much unearthed by Andrew Glikson of the Australian National University, for the influence of major impacts that flung debris far and wide and perturbed the mantle’s thermal structure on a massive scale (Glikson, A. 2008. Field evidence for Eros-scale asteroids and impact forcing of Precambrian geodynamic episodes, Kaapvaal (south Africa) and Pilbara (Western Australia) cratons. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 267, p. 558-570). Beds of impact-related spherules are turning up throughout Archaean greenstone-belt sequences. There are also megabreccias that could be debris lifted by tsunamis vcaused by impacts in the Archaean oceans. Glikson has demonstrated that the timing of such evidence closely matches that of magmatic outbursts that created continental crust. He has proposed that the thermal effects of the large impacts set in motion or deflected a large number of convective mantle plumes that drove the necessary magmatism.

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