The essence of plate tectonics that dominates the Earth system today is the existence of subduction zones that carry old, cold oceanic lithosphere to great depths where they become denser by the conversion of the mineralogy of hydrated basalt to near-anhydrous eclogite. Such gravitational sinking imparts slab-pull force that is the largest contributor to surface plate motions. Unequivocally demonstrating the action of past plate tectonics is achieved from the striped magnetic patterns above yet-to-be-subducted oceanic lithosphere, the oldest being above the Jurassic remnant of the West Pacific. Beyond that geoscientists depend on a wide range of secondary evidence that suggest the drifting and collision of continents and island arcs, backed up by palaeomagnetic pole positions for various terranes that give some idea of the directions and magnitudes of horizontal motions.
Occasionally – the more so further back in time – metamorphic rocks (eclogites and blueschists) are found in linear belts at the surface, which show clear signs of low-temperature, high pressure metamorphism that created the density contrast necessary for subduction. Where such low T/P belts are paired with those in which the effects of high T/P metamorphism occurred they suggest distinctly different geothermal conditions: low T/P associated with the site of subduction of cold rock; high T/P with a zone of magmagenesis – at island- or continental arcs – induced by crustal thickening and flux of volatiles above deeper subduction. Such evidence of geothermal polarity suggests a destructive plate margin and also the direction of relative plate motions. The oldest known eclogites (~2.1 Ga) occur in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but do they indicate the start of modern-style plate tectonics?
Interestingly, ‘data mining’ and the use of statistic may provide another approach to this question. Determination of the temperatures and pressures at which metamorphic rocks formed using the mineral assemblages in them and the partitioning of elements between various mineral pairs has built up a large database that spans the last 4 billion years of Earth history. Plotting each sample’s recorded pressure against temperature shows the T/P conditions relative to the thermal gradients under which their metamorphism took place. Robert Holder of Johns Hopkins University and colleagues from the USA, Australia and China used 564 such points to investigate the duration of paired metamorphism (Holder, R.M. et al. 2019. Metamorphism and the evolution of plate tectonics. Nature, v. 572, p. 378–381; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1462-2).
The 109 samples from Jurassic and younger metamorphosed terranes that demonstrably formed in arc- and subduction settings form a benchmark against which samples from times devoid of primary evidence for tectonic style can be judged. The post-200 Ma data show a clear bimodal distribution in a histogram plot of frequency against thermal gradient, with peaks either side of a thermal gradient of 500°C GPa-1 (~17°C km-1); what one would expect for paired metamorphic belts. A simple bell-shaped or Gaussian distribution of temperatures would be expected from metamorphism under a similar geothermal gradient irrespective of tectonic setting.
Applying this approach to metamorphic rocks dated between 200 to 850 Ma; 850 to 1400 Ma; 1400 to 2200 Ma, and those older than 2200 Ma, Holder and colleagues found that the degree of bimodality decreased with age. Before 2200 Ma barely any samples fell outside a Gaussian distribution. Also, the average T/P of metamorphism decreased from the Palaeoproterozoic to the present. They interpret the trend towards increased bimodality and decreasing average T/P as an indicator that the Earth’s modern plate-tectonic regime has developed gradually since the end of the Archaean Eon (2500 Ma). Their findings also tally with the 2.1 Ga age of the oldest eclogites in the DRC.
Plate tectonics is primarily defined as the interaction between slabs of lithosphere that are rigid and brittle and move laterally above the ductile asthenosphere. Their motion rests metaphorically on the principle that ‘what comes up’ – mantle-derived magma – ‘must go down’ in the form of displaced older material that the mantle resorbs. That is more likely to be oceanic lithosphere whose bulk density is greater than that supporting the thick, low-density continental crust. Without the steeper subduction and slab pull conferred by the transformation of hydrated basalt to much denser eclogite, subduction would not result in low T/P metamorphism paired with that resulting from high T/P conditions in magmatic arcs. But, while ever lithosphere was rigid and brittle, plate tectonics would operate, albeit in forms different from that which formned terranes younger than the Jurassic