Continental comfort blanket

Way back in the mists of time, say around 1970-71, an idea was doing the rounds that because the thermal conductivity of continental crust is lower than that of the ocean floor it should allow thermal energy to build up in the mantle beneath. In turn that might somehow encourage the formation of hot spots and a shallower depth to the asthenosphere: the outcome might be to encourage rifting of weakened lithosphere and ultimately a new round of sea-floor spreading. The case often cited was the Atlantic – North and South – since there are eight hotspots currently on the mid-Atlantic ridge. Africa was another popularised case with a great many broad domes associated with Cenozoic volcanism, and the link between formation of the East African Rift System, hot spots and doming had already been suggested. Africa has barely drifted for around 100 Ma and the domes were supposed to have formed by the build up of heat in the mantle beneath. Geoscience moved on to clearly demonstrate the coincidence of large igneous provinces and flood basalt volcanism with the initiation of Atlantic spreading in the form of the Central Atlantic and Brito-Arctic LIPs during initial opening of the South and North Atlantic at the end of the Triassic and during the Palaeocene respectively. But the role of continental insulation became a bit of backwater compared with notions of mantle plumes emanating at the core-mantle boundary. Well, it’s back.

Divergent plate boundary: Mid-Atlantic Ridge
The Mid-Atlantic Ridge (credit: Wikipedia)

There is now a vast repository of ocean-floor lavas that formed at mid-ocean ridges in the past, thanks to the international Deep Sea and Ocean Drilling Programmes begun in 1968 about when the heyday of plate tectonics really got underway. In the last 45 years there have also been great advances in igneous geochemistry and its interpretation, including relations with mantle melting temperatures. Geochemists at the Friedrich-Alexander-Universiteit in Erlangen, Germany have re-examined the major-element geochemistry of 184 glassy ocean-floor basalts from drill sites of different ages on the floor of the Atlantic Ocean and compared them with 157 from the Pacific. To avoid the possible influence of plume-related heating, the sites were chosen well away from the tracks of existing hot spots. Mantle temperature can be assessed from the sodium and iron content of basalts, Na decreasing with higher temperatures and Fe doing the reverse (Brandl, P.A. et al. 2013. High mantle temperatures following rifting cause by continental insulation. Nature Geoscience, v. 6, p. 391-394). Atlantic samples show increasing Na and decreasing Fe contents in progressively younger basalts, i.e. a trend with time of decreasing mantle temperature such that the oldest (~166 Ma) record 150°C higher mantle temperature than the youngest, with a similar result for the Indian Ocean floor. No such trend is present in samples from the same age range of the Pacific Ocean floor. At around 170 Ma the mid-Atlantic Ridge was close to the continental lithosphere of the Americas and Africa, whereas the East Pacific Rise was at least 2000 km from any continental margin. Younger Atlantic samples formed progressively further from its shores record cooling of the mantle source.
A prediction of the model is that the converse, continental accretion to form supercontinents such as Pangaea, should rapidly have caused considerable warming in the mantle beneath them. This suggests that the formation of supercontinents, or even less substantial continents, should carry the seeds of their re-fragmentation, as Africa is currently demonstrating by the separation of Arabia since the Red Sea began to open some 15 Ma ago, which Somalia and much of eastern Kenya and Tanzania seem destined to follow once the East African Rift System ‘gets steam up’.

  • Langmuir, C. 2013. Older and hotter. Nature Geoscience, v. 6, p. 332-333

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