Magma rushed into largest layered intrusion

Chances are that the platinum in the catalytic converter that helps prevent your car emitting toxic gases in its exhaust fumes came from a vast igneous intrusion in South Africa known as the Bushveldt complex. The world’s most important source of noble metals formed by repeated differentiation of huge volumes of mafic magma to form thin, dense layers rich in sulfides, platinum group metals and chromium ore set in very thick layers of barren gabbro and other mafic to ultramafic rock. The intrusion is exposed over an area the size of Ireland and formed about 2 billion years ago. Its 370 000 to 600 000 km3 volume suggests that it was the magma chamber that fed flood basalts that erosion has since eroded away. Successive pulses of basaltic magma built up a total thickness of about 8 kilometres of layered rock.

English: black Chromitite and grey anorthosite...
Layered igneous rocks in the Bushveld Complex (credit: Wikipedia)

The final product of the Bushveldt differentiation process was minute pockets of material of more felsic composition trapped within overwhelmingly larger amounts of gabbro. One of the elements that ended up in these roughly granitic inclusions was zirconium that mafic minerals are unable to accommodate while basaltic magma is crystallising. That formed minute crystals of the mineral zircon (ZrSiO4) in the residual pockets, which in turn locked up a variety of other elements, including uranium. Zircon can be dated using uranium’s radioactive decay to form lead isotopes, its refusal to enter chemical reactions after its crystallisation makes U/Pb dates of zircon among the most reliable available for geochronology and the precision of such dates has become increasingly exquisite as mass spectrometry has improved. So, the Bushveldt complex now has among the best records of magma chamber evolution (Zeh, A. et al. 2015. The Bushveld Complex was emplaced and cooled in less than one million years – results of zirconology, and geotectonic implications. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 418, p. 103-114).

Like a number of younger large igneous provinces, the Bushveldt complex took a very short time to form, about 950 thousand years at 2055 Ma ago. That is from magma emplacement to final crystallization when the zircon ages were set, so the accumulation of magma probably took only 100 thousand years. This suggests that magma blurted into the lower crust at an average rate of around 5 cubic kilometers per year, and quite probably even faster if the magmatism was episodic. It requires a major stretch of the imagination to suggest that this could have occurred by some passive process. Instead, the authors have suggested that while a plume of mantle material rose from well below the lithosphere a large slab of lower lithosphere, formed from dense eclogite, broke off and literally fell into the deeper mantle. The resulting changes in stress in the lower lithosphere would have acted as a pump to drive the plume upwards, causing it to melt as pressure dropped, and to squirt magma into the overlying continental crust. Although the authors do not mention it, this is reminiscent of the idea of large igneous provinces having sufficient power to eject large masses from the Earth’s surface: the Verneshot theory, recently exhumed in late 2014. The main difference is that the originators of the Verneshot theory appealed to explosive gas release.

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