Crustal sagging during major volcanism

Ice sheets during the last glaciation reached more than 2 km in thickness over vast high-latitude areas of the Northern Hemisphere. Even though ice has less than half the density of continental crust, their sheer mass forced the lithosphere down into the asthenosphere by up to several hundred metres. The displaced asthenosphere resulted in a corresponding bulge around the glacial fringe. Continental flood basalts are about three times as dense as ice and reach thicknesses up to 2-3 km, so they would have produced even more subsidence, although set against that is the uplifting effect of reduced density of the crust as a result of magmatic heating. The loading effects of individual volcanoes are well known. Yet surprisingly, there have been few accounts of subsidence caused by CFB loading, and the prevailing view is that plume-related large igneous provinces are preceded by doming and even erosion. Geophysicists at the University of Colorado modelled the effects of plumes and CFB eruption and reverse the general view decisively (Leng, W. & Zhong, S 2010. Surface subsidence caused by mantle plumes and volcanic loading in large igneous provinces. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 291, p. 207-214). They found that phase changes in the rising mantle plume at the 660 km deep discontinuity cause subsidence themselves, so that even before volcanism begins the surface subsides. This is borne out by preservation of basinal sediments beneath some CFB provinces, such as the Siberian and Deccan Traps. Effectively, flood basalts may fill shallow basins that they recreate and maintain due to their loading effect on the crust during successive eruptions. The high elevations of many ancient CFB provinces are a product of later tectonic processes rather than being ‘built’ by volcanism.

‘Microdating’ sedimentary sequences

There are few minerals amenable to radiometric dating that are found in all sedimentary rock types. To give ages that are stratigraphically useful they would have had to form authigenically while the sediment itself was accumulating – glauconite in ‘greensands’ is an example. Calibrated stratigraphy largely depends on dateable igneous minerals found in volcanic rocks interlayered with sediments, the most common being zircon that can be dated precisely using U-Pb methods. The vast bulk of high quality ages of this kind depend on being able to collect sufficient volcanic ash or lava to yield zircon grains. So only volcanic layers thicker than a few centimetres have been used, and they are haphazard in their occurrence in sedimentary sequences. Much thinner ash layers do occur more commonly and uniformly in sequences from arc-related sedimentary basins, and being able to date those would permit much better control over rates of sedimentation and correlation between different sequences. The key is being able to date zircons in thin section (Rasmussen, B. & Fletcher, I.R. 2010. Dating sedimentary rocks using in situ U-Pb geochronology of syneruptive zircon in ash-fall tiffs <1 mm thick. Geology, v. 38, p. 299-302). Rasmussen and Fletcher (Curtin University, Western Australia) applied ion-microprobe methods to polished this sections of diamond drill core through Archaean sediments of the Pilbara craton in Western Australia, specifically to date a thin sediment layer that contains spherules formed by a major asteroid impact. They were able to narrow its age down to that of a thin ash only 15 mm above the spherules, about 2632+7 Ma. Though with a specialised objective, they demonstrate that semi-continuous stable isotope data in sediments can be calibrated sufficiently precisely to allow global correlations

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