The Earth System in action: land plants affected composition of continental crust

The essence of the Earth System is that all processes upon, above and beneath the surface interact in a bewildering set of connections. Matter and energy in all their forms are continually being exchanged, deployed and moved through complex cycles: involving rocks and sediments; water in its various forms; gases in the atmosphere; magmas; moving tectonic plates and much else besides. The central and massively dominant role of plate tectonics connects surface processes with those of our planet’s interior: the lithosphere, mantle and, arguably, the core. Interactions between the Earth System’s components impose changes in the dynamics and chemical processes through which it operates. Living processes have been a part of this for at least 3.5 billion years ago, in part through their role in the carbon cycle and thus the Earth’s climatic evolution. During the Silurian Period life became a pervasive component of the continental surface, first in the form of plants, to be followed by animals during the Devonian Period. Those novel changes have remained in place since about 430 Ma ago, plants being the dominant base of continental ecosystems and food chains.

Schematic diagram showing changes in river systems and their alluvium before and after the development of land plants. (Credit: Based on Spencer et al. 2022, Fig 4)

Land plants exude a variety of chemicals from their roots that break down rock to yield nutrient elements. So they play a dominant role in the formation of soil and are an important means of rock weathering and the production of clay minerals from igneous and metamorphic minerals. Plant root systems bind near-surface sediments thus increasing their resistance to erosion by wind and water, and to mass movement under gravity. This binding and plant canopies efficiently reduce dust transport, slow water flow on slopes and decrease the sediment load of flowing water. Plants and their roots also stabilise channels systems. There is much evidence that before the Devonian most rivers comprised continually migrating braided channels in which mainly coarse sands and gravels were rapidly deposited while silts and muds in suspension were shifted to the sea. Thereafter flow became dominated by larger and fewer channels meandering across wide tracts on which fine sediment could accumulate as alluvium on flood plains when channels broke their banks. Land plants more efficiently extract CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis and the new regime of floodplains could store dead plant debris in the muds and also in thick peat deposits. As a result, greenhouse warming had dwindled by the Carboniferous, encouraging global cooling and glaciation. 

Judging the wider influence of the ‘greening of the land’ on other parts of the Earth system, particularly those that depend on internal  magmatic processes, relies on detecting geochemical changes in minerals formed as direct outcomes of plate tectonics. Christopher Spencer of Queen’s University in Kingston, Canada and co-workers at the Universities of Southampton, Cambridge and Aberdeen in the UK, and the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan set out to find and assess such a geochemical signal (Spencer, C., Davies, N., Gernon, T. et al. 2022. Composition of continental crust altered by the emergence of land plants. Nature Geoscience, v. 15 online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-022-00995-2). Achieving that required analyses of a common mineral formed when magmas crystallise: one that can be precisely dated, contains diverse trace elements and whose chemistry remains little changed by later geological events. Readers of Earth-logs might have guessed that would be zircon (ZrSiO). Being chemically unreactive and hard, small zircon grains resist weathering and the abrasion of transport to become common minor minerals in sediments. Thousands of detrital zircon grains teased out from sediments have been dated and analysed in the last few decades. They span almost the entirety of geological history. Spencer et al. compiled a database of over 5,000 zircon analyses from igneous rocks formed at subduction zones over the last 720 Ma, from 183 publications by a variety of laboratories.

The approach considered two measures: the varying percentages of mudrocks in continental sedimentary sequences since 600 Ma ago; aspects of the hafnium- (Hf) and oxygen-isotope proportions measured in the zircons using mass spectrometry and their changes over the same time. Before ~430 Ma the proportion of mudrocks in continental sedimentary sequences is consistently much lower than it is in post post-Silurian, suggesting a link with the rise of continental plant cover (see second paragraph). The deviation of the 176Hf/177Hf ratio in an igneous mineral from that of chondritic meteorites (the mineral’s εHf value) is a guide to the source of the magma, negative values indicating a crustal source, whereas positive values suggest a mantle origin. The relative proportions of two oxygen isotopes 18O and 16O  in zircons, expressed as δ18O, indicates the proportion of products of weathering, such as clay minerals, involved in magma production – 18O selectively moves from groundwater to clay minerals when they form, increasing their δ18O.

While the two geochemical parameters express very different geological processes, the authors noticed that before ~430 Ma the two showed low correlation between their values in zircons. Yet, surprisingly, the parameters showed a considerable and consistent increase in their correlation in younger zircons, directly paralleling the ‘step change’ in the proportions of mudstones after the Silurian. Complex as their arguments are, based on several statistical tests, Spencer et al. conclude that the geologically sudden change in zircon geochemistry ultimately stems from land plants’ stabilisation of river systems. As a result more clay minerals formed by protracted weathering, increasing the δ18O in soils when they were eroded and transported. When the resulting marine mudrocks were subducted they transferred their oxygen-isotope proportions to magmas when they were partially melted.

That bolsters the case for dramatic geological consequences of the ‘greening of the land’. But did its effect on arc magmatism fundamentally change the bulk composition of post-Silurian additions to the continental crust? To be convinced of that I would like to see if other geochemical parameters in subduction-related magmas changed after 430 Ma. Many other elements and isotopes in broadly granitic rocks have been monitored since the emergence of high-precision rock-analysing technologies around 50 years ago. There has been no mention, to my knowledge, that the late-Silurian involved a magmatic game-changer to match that which occurred in the Archaean, also revealed by hafnium and oxygen isotopes in much more ancient zircons.   

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