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
- Deep Diamonds Shed Light on Ancient Continental Movements (news.sciencemag.org)
- van Kranendonk, M.J. 2011. Onset of plate tectonics. Science, v. 333, p. 413-414.