Kerguelen Plateau: a long-lived large igneous province

It’s easy to think of the Earth’s largest outpourings of lava as being restricted to the continents; continental flood basalts with their spectacular stepped topography made up of hundreds of individual massive flows and intervening soil horizons. The Deccan Traps of western India are the epitome, having been so named by natural scientists of the late 18th century from the Swedish word for ‘stairs’ (trappa). Examples go back to the Proterozoic Era, younger ones still retaining much of their original form as huge plateaus. All began life within individual tectonic plates, although some presaged continental break-up and the formation of new oceanic spreading centres. They must have been spectacular events, up to millions of cubic kilometres of magma belched out in a few million years. They have been explained as manifestations of plumes of hot mantle rock rising from as deep as the core-mantle boundary. Unsurprisingly, the biggest continental flood-basalt outpourings coincided with mass extinction events. Otherwise known as large igneous provinces (LIPs), they are not the only signs of truly huge production of magma by partial melting in the mantle. The biggest LIP, with an estimated volume of 80 million km3, lies deep beneath the Western Pacific Ocean. To the northeast of New Guinea, the Ontong Java Plateau formed over a period of about 3 Ma in the mid-Cretaceous (~120 Ma) and blanketed one percent of the Earth’s solid surface with lavas erupted at a rate of 22 km3 per year. Possibly because this happened on the Pacific’s abyssal plains beneath around 4 km of sea water, there is little sign of any major perturbation of mid-Cretaceous life, but it is associated with evidence for global oceanic anoxia. Ontong Java isn’t the only oceanic LIP. Bearing in mind that oceanic lithosphere only goes back to the start of the Jurassic Period (200 Ma) – earlier material has largely been subducted – they are not as abundant as continental flood-basalt provinces. One of them is the Kerguelen Plateau 3000 km to the SE of Australia, which is about three times the area of Japan and the second largest LIP of the Phanerozoic Eon. The Plateau was split into two large fragments while sea-floor spreading progressed along the Southeast Indian Ridge.

Bathymetry of the Indian Ocean south-west of Australia, showing the Kerguelen Plateau and South-east Indian Ridge. The red arrows show the amount of sea-floor spreading on either side of the Ridge since it began to open. The pale blue area at the NE end of the arrow was formerly part of the Plateau (credit: Google Earth)

Long regarded as a microcontinental  fragment left when India parted company with Antarctica – based on isolated occurrences of gneisses – there is evidence that during the formation of the Kerguelen LIP the basalts rose above sea level. Because earlier radiometric dating of basalts from ocean-floor drill cores were of low quality, an Australian-Swedish group of geoscientists have re-evaluated those data and supplemented them with 25 new Ar-Ar dates from 12 sites (Jiang, Q. et al. 2020. Longest continuously erupting large igneous province driven by plume-ridge interaction. Geology, v. 48, online; DOI: 10.1130/G47850.1). Rather than a cluster of ages around a short time range as expected from the short life of most other LIPs, those from Kerguelen span 32 Ma during the Cretaceous (from 122 to 90 Ma). The magmatic pulse began at roughly the same time as that of Ontong Java, but continued for much longer. Smaller oceanic LIPs do seem to have lingered for unusually lengthy periods, but all seem to have constructed in several separate pulses. Large-volume eruption at Kerguelen was continuous for at least 32 Ma; the drilling did not penetrate the oldest of the plateau basalts. It seems that the Kerguelen LIP is unique in that respect and requires an explanation other than simply a mantle plume, however large.

Jiang et al. suggest a model of continuous interaction between a long-lived plume and the development of the Southeast Indian Ridge oceanic spreading centre. Their model involves the line of continental splitting between India and Antarctic taking place close to a major deep-mantle plume at around 128 Ma. There is nothing unique about that; incipient ocean rifting in the Horn of Africa and formation of the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden ridges is currently associated with the active Afar plume. This was followed by a kind of tectonic shuffling of the Ridge back and forth across the head of the Kerguelen plume: not far different from the Palaeogene North Atlantic LIP, where the mid-Atlantic Ridge and the still-active Iceland plume, except the ridge and plume seem more intimately involved there. However, there are probably many subtle relationships between plumes and various kind of oceanic plate margins that are still worth exploring. Since the first discovery of mantle plumes as an explanation for volcanic island chains (e.g. the Hawaiian chain) where volcanism becomes progressively older in the direction of plate movement, there is still much to discover.

See also: Magma .conveyor belt’ fuelled world’s longest erupting supervolcanoes (Science Daily, 4 November 2020)

Not-so-light, but essential reading

In its 125th year the Geological Society of America is publishing invited reviews of central geoscience topics in its Bulletin. They seem potentially useful for both undergraduate students and researchers as accounts of the ‘state-of-the-art’ and compendia of references. The latest focuses on major controls on past sea-level changes by processes that operate in the solid Earth (Conrad, C.P. 2013. The solid Earth’s influence on sea level. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1027-1052), a retrospective look at how geoscientists have understood large igneous provinces (Bryan, S. E. & Ferrari, L. 2013. Large igneous provinces and silicic large igneous provinces: Progress in our understanding over the last 25 years. Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1053-1078) and the perennial topic of how granites form and end up in intrusions (Brown, M. 2013. Granite: From genesis to emplacement Geological Society of America Bulletin, v. 125, p. 1079-1113).

Sea level change

Conrad covers sea-level changes on the short- (1 to 100 years), medium- (1 to 100 ka) and long term (1 to 100 Ma). The first two mainly result from local deformation of different kinds associated with glacial loading and unloading. These result in changes in the land surface, the sea surface nearby and on thousand year to 100 ka timescales to ups and downs of the sea-bed. Global sea-level changes due to melting of continental glaciers at the present day amount to about half the estimated 2 to 3 mm of rise each year. But increasingly sensitive measures show it is more complex as the rapid shifts of mass involved in melting ice also result in effects on the solid Earth. At present solid mass is being transferred polewards, but at rates that differ in Northern and Southern hemispheres and which are changing with anthropogenic influences on glacial melting. Viscous movement of the solid Earth is so slow that effects from previous glacial-interglacial episodes continue today. As a result rapid elastic movements are tending to produce relative sea-level falls in polar regions of up to 20 mm per year with rising sea level focusing on areas between 30°N and 30°S. The influence of the slower viscous mass transfer has an opposite sense: sea-level rise at high latitudes. Understanding the short- and medium-term controls is vital in predicting issues arising in the near future from natural and anthropogenic change.

Comparison of two sea level reconstructions du...
Comparison of two sea level reconstructions during the last 500 Ma. (credit: Wikipedia)

 Most geologists are concerned in practice with explanations for major sea-level changes in the distant past, which have a great deal to do with changes in the volumes of the ocean basins. If the global sea-floor rises on average water is displaced onto former land to produce transgressions, and subsidence of the sea floor draws water down from the land. Conrad gives a detailed account of what has been going on since the start of the Cretaceous Period, based on the rate of sea-floor spreading, marine volcanism and sedimentation, changes in the area of the ocean basins and the effects of thermally-induced uplift and subsidence of the continents, showing how each contribution acted cumulatively to give the vast transgressions and regressions that affected the late Phanerozoic. On the even longer timescale of opening and closing of oceans and the building and disintegration of supercontinents the entire mantle becomes involved in controls on sea level and a significant amount of water is chemically exchanged with the mantle.

Large igneous provinces

Cathedral Peak, 3004m above sea level in the K...

The Web of Science database marks the first appearance in print of “large igneous province” in 1993, so here is a topic that is indeed new, although the single-most important attribute of LIPs, ‘flood basalt’ pops up three decades earlier and the term ‘trap’ that describes their stepped topography is more than a century old. Bryan and Ferrari are therefore charting progress in an exciting new field, yet one that no human – or hominin for that matter – has ever witnessed in action. One develops, on average, every 20 Ma and since they are of geologically short duration long periods pass with little sign of one of the worst things that our planet can do to the biosphere. In the last quarter century it has emerged that they blurt out the products of energy and matter transported as rising plumes from the depths of the mantle; they, but not all, have played roles in mass extinctions; unsuspected reserves of precious metals occur in them; they play some role in the formation of sedimentary basins and maturation of petroleum and it seems other planets have them – a recipe for attention in the early 21st century. Whatever, Bryan and Ferrari provide a mine of geological entertainment.

 

Granites

In comparison, granites have always been part of the geologist’s canon, a perennial source of controversy and celebrated by major works every decade, or so it seems, with twenty thousand ‘hits’ on Web of Science since 1900 (WoS only goes back that far). Since the resolution of the plutonist-neptunist wrangling over granite’s origin one topic that has been returned to again and again is how and where did the melting to form granitic magma take place? If indeed granites did form by melting and not as a result of ‘granitisation. Lions of the science worried at these issues up to the mid  20th century: Bowen, Tuttle, Read, Buddington, Barth and many others are largely forgotten actors, except for the credit in such works as that of Michael Brown. Experimental melting under changing pressure and temperature, partial pressures of water, CO2 and oxygen still go on, using different parent rocks. One long-considered possibility has more or less disappeared: fractional crystallisation from more mafic magma might apply to other silicic plutonic rocks helpfully described as ‘granitic’ or called ‘granitoids’, but granite  (sensu stricto) has a specific geochemical and mineralogical niche to which Brown largely adheres. For a while in the last 40 years classification got somewhat out of hand, moving from a mineralogical base to one oriented geochemically: what Brown refers to as the period of ‘Alphabet Granites’ with I-, S- A- and other-type granites. Evidence for the dominance of partial melting of pre-existing continental crust has won-out, and branched into the style, conditions and heat-source of melting.

English: Kit-Mikayi, a rock formation near Kis...
Typical granite tor near Kisumu, Kenya (credit: Wikipedia)

All agree that magmas of granitic composition are extremely sticky. The chemical underpinnings for that and basalt magma’s relatively high fluidity were established by physical chemist Bernhardt Patrick John O’Mara Bockris (1923-2013) but barely referred to, even by Michael Brown. Yet that high viscosity has always posed a problem for the coalescence of small percentages of melt into the vast blobs of low density liquid able to rise from the deep crust to the upper crust. Here are four revealing pages and ten more on how substantial granite bodies are able to ascend, signs that the puzzle is steadily being resolved. Partial melting implies changes in the ability of the continental crust to deform when stressed, and this is one of the topics on which Brown closes his discussion, ending, of course, on a ‘work in progress’ note that has been there since the days of Hutton and Playfair.