How does plate tectonics work?

Well, surely we ought to know, 52 years after W. Jason Morgan proposed that the Earth’s surface consists of 12 rigid plates that move relative to each other. But that is not completely true, although most of its mechanisms expressed by external and internal Earth processes are known in great detail. It is still a ‘chicken and egg’ issue: do convective motions in the mantle drive the superficial plates around by dragging at the base of the lithosphere or is it the subduction of plates and slab-pull force that result in overturn of the mantle? Nicolas Coltice of the University of Paris and colleagues from those of Grenoble, Rome and Texas consider that posing plate tectonics in such a manner is an abstraction; rather like the plot for a novel that is yet to be written (Coltice, N. et al. 2019. What drives tectonic plates? Science Advances, v. 5, online eaax4295; DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aax4295). Instead, all the solid Earth’s vagaries and motions have to be considered as an indivisible whole rather than the traditional piecemeal approach of focussing on the forces that act on the interfaces between plates.

Their approach is to model a combination of mechanisms throughout the Earth as a single, evolving three-dimensional system without the constraint of perfectly rigid plates, which of course they are not. The physical parameters boil down to those involved in relative buoyancy, viscosity, and gradients of temperature, pressure and gravitational potential energy within a spherical planet. Designing the algorithms and running the model on a supercomputer took 9 months to reconstruct the evolution of the planet over 1.5 billion years.

4-whatmakesthe
Still from a movie of simulated breakup of a supercontinent, in bland blue-grey, showing what happens at the surface (left) and, at the same time, in the mantle (right): note the influence of rising plumes (credit: Nicolas Coltice)

The result is a remarkable series of unfolding scenarios. In them, 2/3 of the planet’s surface moves faster than does the underlying mantle, suggesting that the surface is dragging the interior. For the remainder, mantle motions exceed those of the surface. Continents are dragged by the underlying mantle to aggregate in supercontinents, which in turn are torn apart by the sinking of cold oceanic slabs. The model takes on a highly visual form, showing in 3-D, for instance: ocean closure and supercontinent assembly; and example of continental breakup; how subduction is initiated.

It will be fascinating to see the reaction of the authors’ peers to their venture, and the extent to which the technicalities of the paper are translated into a form that is suitable for teaching. My suspicion is that most Earth scientists will be happy to stay with the old conceptions until the latter is achieved, and laptops are able to run the model(!)

Metamorphic evidence of plate tectonic evolution

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.

Metc PvT
Pressure-temperature data from Jurassic and younger metamorphic rocks (a) pressure vs temperature plot; (b) Frequency distribution vs log thermal gradient. (Credit: Holder et al. 2019, Fig. 1)

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

The effect of surface processes on tectonics

Active sedimentation in the Indus and Upper Ganges plains (green vegetated) derived from rapid erosion of the Himalaya (credit: Google Earth)

The Proterozoic Eon of the Precambrian is subdivided into the Palaeo-, Meso- and Neoproterozoic Eras that are, respectively, 900, 600 and 450 Ma long. The degree to which geoscientists are sufficiently interested in rocks within such time spans is roughly proportional to the number of publications whose title includes their name. Searching the ISI Web of Knowledge using this parameter yields 2000, 840 and 2700 hits in the last two complete decades, that is 2.2, 1.4 and 6.0 hits per million years, respectively. Clearly there is less interest in the early part of the Proterozoic. Perhaps that is due to there being smaller areas over which they are exposed, or maybe simply because what those rocks show is inherently less interesting than those of the Neoproterozoic. The Neoproterozoic is stuffed with fascinating topics: the appearance of large-bodied life forms; three Snowball Earth episodes; and a great deal of tectonic activity, including the Pan-African orogeny. The time that precedes it isn’t so gripping: it is widely known as the ‘boring billion’ – coined by the late Martin Brazier – from about 1.75 to 0.75 Ga. The Palaeoproterozoic draws attention by encompassing the ‘Great Oxygenation Event’ around 2.4 Ga, the massive deposition of banded iron formations up to 1.8 Ga, its own Snowball Earth, emergence of the eukaryotes and several orogenies. The Mesoproterozoic witnesses one orogeny, the formation of a supercontinent (Rodinia) and even has its own petroleum potential (93 billion barrels in place in Australia’s Beetaloo Basin. So it does have its high points, but not a lot. Although data are more scanty than for the Phanerozoic Eon, during the Mesoproterozoic the Earth’s magnetic field was much steadier than in later times. That suggests that motions in the core were in a ‘steady state’, and possibly in the mantle as well. The latter is borne out by the lower pace of tectonics in the Mesoproterozoic. Continue reading “The effect of surface processes on tectonics”

How does subduction start?

Robert Stern of the University of Texas at Dallas, USA, and Taras Gerya of ETH, Zurich, have produced a masterly review of how subduction gets started from place to place, and from time to time in geological history (Stern, R.J. & Gerya, T. 2018. Subduction initiation in nature and models: A review. Tectonophysics, v. 744 (in press); (PDF). It is the foundering of oceanic lithosphere into the mantle and gravity that give modern plate tectonics the bulk of energy that drives it along by slab pull. Yet the mantle’s consumption of a lithospheric slab somehow has to be set in motion from the symmetrical spreading of ocean floor as occurs either side of a constructive margin. It could not happen were the lithosphere to retain its low bulk density relative to mantle peridotite for all time. Moreover, it wouldn’t last for long were the lithosphere not to retain its strength through hundreds of kilometres depth as it sinks into the mantle. Active subduction zones have consumed vast amounts of oceanic lithosphere, for more than 65 million years, especially in fast-spreading ocean basins such as the western and eastern Pacific. The record is held by the destructive margin on the west flank of South America where more than 150 million years-worth of eastern Pacific lithosphere has been swallowed. Yet in order for oceanic lithosphere, which is stronger than that beneath the continents, somehow to fail and begin to sink a linear weak zone must develop at the interface between two incipient new plates. On top of that, all subduction on Earth is one-sided. A simple mechanism involving just thermal convection predicts that both plates either side of a break would have similar density so both should sink, more or less symmetrically.

subduction types
Various ways in which subduction may start. (Credit: Stern and Gerya 2018 – in press – Figure 4)

Geophysical observations reveal that terrestrial subduction can be divided into that which is induced by plate motions and changes in force balance within spreading plates, or spontaneously due to unique conditions developing along the line of initiation. In the first class are cases where a microcontinent is driven into another continental margin and extinguishes the subduction responsible, while spreading continues behind the accreted microcontinent drive older lithosphere beneath the suture (this may have happened in the past but is not seen today). Another, similar, induced case occurs where an oceanic island arc accretes by subduction beneath it so that subduction flips in polarity to consume the driving sea-floor spreading. The loading of oceanic lithosphere by sediments piled onto it by erosion of a continental margin may spontaneously collapse to result in subduction beneath the sedimentary wedge and the continent (again, not happening today, but inferred from examples inferred by earlier geological history). Spontaneous failure may also occur where old, cold lithosphere is juxtaposed with younger by transform faulting, or where a mantle plume heats up lithosphere to create a thermally weakened zone.

Stern and Gerya do not leave the issue at simple mechanics but discuss how plates may develop weak zones or inherit them from earlier tectonic events. The role of water released by metamorphism of descending materials may encourage the observed one-sidedness of subduction by reducing frictional resistance and plate strength and make the process self-sustaining. The paper also discusses the various permutations and combinations that affect the style of induced destructive margins in compressional and extensional environments and a whole variety of nuanced cases of spontaneous initiation. Numerical modelling of the subduction process plays an important, though somewhat bewildering role in discussion, as do considerations of the forces likely to be at play. Applying theoretical considerations to actual examples from the geological record are sublimely enlivening, as are speculations about the future evolution of the passive margins of the Atlantic. Clearly, there is a healthy future for field and mathematical study on the processes at destructive plate margins, such as building in the aspects of magmagenesis. Since Stern has built his career on study of long dead collusions zones, products of arc accretion etcetera, development of their understanding is undoubtedly the main thrust of his and Gerya’s tour de force. Stern provides a full PDF at his University of Texas website for the benefit of anyone who wants to delve deeper than space at Earth-pages and my limited intellect permit!

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Snowball Earth: A result of global tectonic change?

The Snowball Earth hypothesis first arose when Antarctic explorer Douglas Mawson (1882-1958)speculated towards the end of his career on an episode of global glaciations, based on his recognition in South Australia of thick Neoproterozoic glacial sediments. Further discoveries on every continent, together with precise dating and palaeomagnetic indications of the latitude at which they were laid down, have steadily concretised Mawson’s musings. It is now generally accepted that frigid conditions enveloped the globe at least twice – the Sturtian (~715 to 660 Ma) and Marinoan (650 to 635 Ma) glacial episodes – and perhaps more often during the Neoproterozoic Era. Such an astonishing idea has spurred intensive studies of geochemistry associated with the events, which showed rapid variations in carbon isotopes in ancient seawater, linked to the terrestrial carbon cycle that involves both life- and Earth processes. Strontium isotopes suggest that the Neoproterozoic launched erratic variation of continental erosion and weathering and related carbon sequestration that underpinned major climate changes in the succeeding Phanerozoic Eon. Increased marine phosphorus deposition and a change in sulfur isotopes indicate substantial change in the role of oxygen in seawater. The preceding part of the Proterozoic Eon is relatively featureless in most respects and is known to some geoscientists as the ‘Boring Billion’.

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Artist’s impression of the glacial maximum of a Snowball Earth event (Source: NASA)

Noted tectonician Robert Stern and his colleague Nathan Miller, both of the University of Texas, USA, have produced a well- argued and -documented case (and probably cause for controversy) that suggests a fundamental change in the way the Precambrian Earth worked at the outset of the Neoproterozoic (Stern, R.J. & Miller, N.R. 2018. Did the transition to plate tectonics cause Neoproterozoic Snowball Earth. Terra Nova, v. 30, p. 87-94). To the geochemical and climatic changes they have added evidence from a host of upheavals in tectonics. Ophiolites and high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphic rocks, including those produced deep in the mantle, are direct indicators of plate tectonics and subduction. Both make their first, uncontested appearance in the Neoproterozoic. Stern and Miller ask the obvious question; Was this the start of plate tectonics? Most geologists would put this back to at least the end of the Archaean Eon (2,500 Ma) and some much earlier, hence the likelihood of some dispute with their views.

They consider the quiescent billion years (1,800 to 800 Ma) before all this upheaval to be evidence of a period of stagnant ‘lid tectonics’, despite the Rodinia supercontinent having been assembled in the latter part of the ‘Boring Billion’, although little convincing evidence has emerged to suggest it was an entity formed by plate tectonics driven by subduction. But how could the onset of subduction-driven tectonics have triggered Snowball Earth? An early explanation was that the Earth’s spin axis was much more tilted in the Neoproterozoic than it is at present (~23°). High obliquity could lead to extreme variability of seasons, particularly in the tropics. A major shift in axial tilt requires a redistribution of mass within a planetary body, leading to true polar wander, as opposed to the apparent polar wander that results from continental drift. There is evidence for such an episode around the time of Rodinia break-up at 800 Ma that others have suggested stemmed from the formation of a mantle superplume beneath the supercontinent.

Considering seventeen possible geodynamic, oceanographic and biotic causes that have been plausibly suggested for global glaciation Stern and Miller link all but one to a Neoproterozoic transition from lid- to plate tectonics. Readers may wish to examine the authors’ reasoning to make up their own minds –  their paper is available for free download as a PDF from the publishers.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Hot-spot track beneath the Greenland ice cap

Around 63 Ma ago, during the Palaeocene Epoch, major igneous activity broke out in what are now both sides of the North Atlantic Ocean. After initial sputtering it culminated massively between 57 and 53 Ma. Relics are to be seen in Baffin Island, West and East Greenland, the Faeroes and north-western parts of the British Islands, in the form of flood basalts, dyke swarms and scattered remnants of central volcanoes. Offshore drilling on the North Atlantic’s continental shelves suggests that the volcanism extended over 1.3 million km2 and blurted out around 6.6 million km3 of magma. Not for nothing have the products of this event been categorised as a Large Igneous Province. Its formation took place before the North Atlantic existed. It began to form as this precursor magmatic paroxysm waned.  Continued basaltic magma production created the ocean floor each side of the mid-Atlantic Ridge system to divide North America and Greenland from northern Europe. Sea floor spreading continues, rising above sea level in Iceland, which is underlain by a large mantle plume.

The plume beneath Iceland may have been present at a fixed position in the mantle for tens of million years. A hot spot over which plate movements have shifted lithosphere to be heated in a similar way to a sheet of paper dragged slowly over a candle flame. The Iceland plume may have left a hot-spot track similar to that involved in the Hawaiian island chain. The ocean floor to the east and west of Iceland is shallower and forms broad rides at right angles to the trend of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge system, judged to be such tracks that are still warm and buoyant after formation over the plume. But are there traces of earlier passage of drifting lithosphere over the plume. A way to detect older hot-spot tracks is through variations in geothermal heat flow through the continental surface, a linear pattern raising suspicions of such trace of passage. There is no sign to the east beneath Europe, so what about to the west. Greenland, being mainly blanketed in ice, is not a good place to conduct such a search as it would involve deep drilling through the ice at huge cost for each hole. But there is a roundabout way of obtaining geothermal information without even setting foot on Greenland’s icy wastes.

The geomagnetic field measured at the surface records anomalies in rock magnetisation in the solid Earth beneath. Near-surface variations due to large variations in rock types that comprise the continental crust appear as sharp, high frequency signals. Aeromagnetic surveys over Greenland are characterised by such noisy patterns because the subsurface geology is extremely complicated. However, the underlying upper mantle beneath all continents is geologically quite bland, but being uniformly rich in iron it contains a high proportion of magnetic minerals such as magnetite (Fe3O4). The upper mantle should therefore leave a signal in the surface geomagnetic field, albeit a commensurately bland one. Like radio signals that span a large range of wavelengths, Earth properties that vary spatially, such as the geomagnetic field, may be analysed using filters. Once the high-frequency geomagnetic features of the crust are filtered out what should remain is a signal that reflects the magnetic structure of the upper mantle. It should be more or less featureless, yet beneath Greenland it isn’t.

greenland hot spot
Estimated Curie depth variation below Greenland (left) converted to geothermal heat flow variation (right). (Credit: Martos et al. 2018; Figures 1b and 1c)

Magnetic anomalies are created by magnetisation induced in magnetic minerals in rocks by the Earth’s magnetic field. Yet minerals lose their ability to be magnetised at temperatures above a threshold known as the Curie point, which is 580 °C for magnetite, the most abundant magnetic mineral. Depending on the geothermal heat flow the Curie point is exceeded at some depth in the lithosphere. So magnetic anomalies can safely be assumed to be produced only by rocks above the so-called Curie depth. Yasmina Martos of the British Antarctic Survey (now at the University of Maryland) and scientists from Britain, the US and Spain used a complex procedure, including gravity data and a few direct measurements of heat flow below Greenland as well as filtered aeromagnetic data, to estimate the variation in Curie depth beneath the ice cap. (Martos, Y.M. et al. 2018. Geothermal heat flux reveals the Iceland hotspot track underneath Greenland. Geophysical Research Letters, v. 45, online publication; doi: 10.1029/2018GL078289). Using that as an inverse proxy for heat flow they were able to map the likely geothermal variation beneath the island. Rather than a random and narrow variation in depth, as would be expected for roughly uniform heat flow, the Curie depth varied in a non-random way by over 20 km, equivalent to roughly 20 mW m-2.

The shallowest Curie depth and highest estimated heat flow occurs in East Greenland around Scoresby Sund where the largest sequence of Palaeocene flood basalts occur. It is also on a line perpendicular to the mid-Atlantic Rift system that meets the active Iceland plume. Running north-west from Scoresby Sund is a zone of locally high estimated heat flow. Martos et al. suggest that this is the track of Greenland’s motion over the Iceland hot spot from about 80 Ma to the period of maximum on-shore volcanism and the start of sea-floor spreading at around 50 Ma.

A fully revised edition of Steve Drury’s book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World can now be downloaded as a free eBook

Recycling of continental crust through time

Because continental crust is so light – an average density of 2700 kg m-3 compared with the mantles’ value of 3300 – it has been widely believed that continents cannot be subducted en masse. Yet it is conceivable that sial can be ‘shaved’ from below during subduction and from above by erosion and added to subductable sediment on the ocean floor. Certainly, there is overwhelming evidence for the net growth of continents through time and plenty for periods of increased and dwindling growth in the past. In some ancient orogens there are substantial slabs of continental composition whose mineralogy bears witness to ultra-high pressure metamorphism at depths greater than that of the base of continents. These slabs had been caught-up in subduction but never reached sufficiently high density to be retained by the mantle; they eventually ‘bobbed up’ again. On the other hand, if early continents were less silica rich through incorporation of substantial proportions of rock with basaltic composition parts of them could founder if subjected to high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism. But not all crustal recycling to the mantle is through subduction. Some abnormally highly elevated parts of the continents that rose quickly in geological terms, such as the Tibetan Plateau, may have formed by lower crustal slabs becoming detached or delaminated from their base. Again modelling can help assess the past magnitude of continental recycling (Chowdhury, P. et al. 2017. Emergence of silicic continents as the lower crust peels off on a hot plate-tectonic Earth. Nature Geoscience, v. 10, p. 698-703; DOI: 10.1038/NGEO3010).

Various lines of evidence suggest that between 65 to 70% of the present continental volume existed by 3 billion years ago, yet that does not manifest itself in the rock record; perhaps a sign that some has returned to the mantle. It is also widely suggested that plate tectonics in the modern style began at about that time. Pryadarshi Chowdhury and colleagues simulate what may happen at depth in continent-continent collision zones – the classic site of orogenies –at different times in the past. Under the hotter conditions in the early Archaean mantle delamination would have been more likely than it has been during the Phanerozoic; i.e. the peeling off and sinking of the denser, more mafic lower crust and the attached upper mantle. The authors show that increased mantle temperature further back in time increases the likelihood and extent of such delamination. It also encourages partial melting of the descending continental material so creating rising bodies of more silicic magma that add to the remaining continent at the surface. Together with the lower crust’s attachment of to a mantle slab, this ensures that the peeled off material is able to descend under its own load. Once below a depth of 250 km felsic rocks are doomed to further descent. Waning of radiogenic mantle heat production encourages descending slabs to fail and break from the connection with lithosphere at higher levels so that a smaller proportion of the lower crust becomes detached and recycled. This evolution suggests that less and less continental crust is recycled with time. This broadly fits with current geochemical ideas based on the record of radiogenic Nd-, Sr- and Pb-isotopes in rocks ranging from early Archaean to Phanerozoic age.

Archaean continents derived from Hadean oceanic crust

As DNA is to tracing  human evolution and migration, so various isotope systems are to the evolution of the Earth. One of the most fruitful is the samarium-neodymium (Sm-Nd) system. The decay of 147Sm to 143Nd is used in dating rocks across the full range of Earth history, given coeval rocks with a suitable range of Sm/Nd ratios, because the decay has a long half life (1.06 x 1011 years). However, samarium has another radioactive isotope 147Sm with a half life that is a thousand times shorter (1.06 x 108 years). So it remains only as a minute proportion of the total Sm in rocks, most having decayed since it was formed in a pre-Solar System supernova. But its daughter isotope 142Nd is present in easily measurable quantities, having accumulated from 147Sm decay over the first few hundred million years of Earth’s history; i.e. during the Hadean and earliest Archaean Eons. It is this fact that allows geochemists to get an indirect ‘handle’ on events that took place in the Earth’s earliest, largely vanished history. The principle behind this approach is that when an ancient rock undergoes partial melting to produce a younger magma the rock that crystallizes from it inherits the relative proportions of Nd isotopes of its source and thereby carries a record of the earlier history.

English: An outcrop of metamorphosed volcanose...
Metamorphosed volcanosedimentary rocks from the Porpoise Cove locality, Nuvvuagittuq supracrustal belt, Canada. Possibly the oldest rocks on Earth. (credit: Wikipedia)

The eastern shore of Hudson Bay in Canada hosts the oldest tangible geology known, in form of some metamorphosed basaltic rocks dated at 4200 Ma old known as the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt – the only known Hadean rocks. They occur in a tiny (20 km2) patch associated with gneisses of tonalite-trondjhemits-granodiorite composition that are dated between 3760 and 3350 Ma. Engulfing both are younger (2800 to 2500 Ma) Archaean plutonic igneous rocks of felsic composition. Jonathan O’Neil and Richard Carlson of the University of Ottawa, Canada and the Carnegie Institution for Science, Washington DC, USA respectively, measured proportions of Nd isotopes in both sets of felsic igneous rocks (O’Neil, J. & Carlson, R.W. 2017. Building Archean cratons from Hadean mafic crust. Science, v. 355, p. 1199-1202; doi:10.1126/science.aah3823).

The oldest gneisses contained relative proportions of 142Nd commensurate with them having been formed by partial melting of the Hadean mafic rocks about a few hundred million years after they had been erupted to form the oldest known crust; no surprise there. However, the dominant components of the local continental crust that are about a billion years younger also contain about the same relative proportions of 142Nd. A reasonable conclusion is that the Archaean continental crust of NE Canada formed by repeated melting of mafic crust of Hadean age over a period of 1.5 billion years. The modern Earth continually replenishes its oceanic crust over about 200 Ma due to plate tectonics. During the Archaean mantle dynamics would have been driven faster by much higher internal heat production. Had this involved simply faster plate tectonics the outermost skin of mafic crust would have been resorbed into the mantle even faster. By the end of the Archaean (2500 Ma) barely any Hadean crust should have been available to produce felsic magmas. But clearly at least some did linger, adding more weight to the idea that plate tectonics did not operate during the Hadean and Archaean Eons. See Formation of continents without subduction below.

Here is the plate tectonic forecast

As computing power and speed have grown ever more sophisticated models of dynamic phenomena have emerged, particularly those that focus on meteorology and climatology. Weather and climate models apply to the thin spherical shell that constitutes Earth’s atmosphere. They consider incoming solar radiation and longer wavelength thermal radiation emitted by the surface sources and sinks of available power, linked to the convective circulation of energy and matter, most importantly water as gas, aerosols, liquid and ice in atmosphere and oceans. Such general circulation models depend on immensely complex equations that relate to the motions of viscous media on a rotating sphere, modulated by other aspects of the outermost Earth: the absorptive and reflective properties of the materials from which it is composed – air, rocks, soils, vegetation, water in liquid, solid and gaseous forms; different means whereby energy is shifted – speeds of currents and wind, adiabatic heating and cooling, latent heat, specific heat capacity of materials and more still. The models also have to take into account the complex forms taken by circulation on account of Coriolis’ Effect, density variations in air and oceans, and the topography of land and ocean floor. The phrase ‘and much more besides’ isn’t really adequate for such an enormous turmoil, for the whole caboodle has chaotic tendencies in time as well as 3-D space. The fact that such modelling does enable weather forecasting that we can believe together with meaningful forward and backward ‘snapshots’ of overall climate depends on increasing amounts of empirical data about what is happening, where and when. Models of this kind are also increasingly able to address issues of why such and such outcomes occur, an important example being the teleconnections between major weather events around the globe and phenomena such as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation – the periodic fluctuation of ocean movements, winds and sea-surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean.

The key principle of plate tectonics is that t...
The Earth’s 15 largest tectonic plates. (credit: Wikipedia)

The Earth’s lithosphere and deeper mantle in essence present much the same challenge to modellers. Silicate materials circulate convectively in a thick spherical shell so that radiogenic heat and some from core formation can escape to keep the planet in thermal balance.  There are differences, the obvious ones being sheer scale and a vastly more sluggish pace, but most important are the interactions between materials with very different viscosities; the ability of the deep mantle to move by plastic deformation while the lithosphere moves as rigid, brittle plates. For geophysicists interested in modelling there are other differences; information that bears on the system is orders of magnitude less, its precision is much poorer and all of it is based on measurement of proxies. For instance, information on temperature comes from variations in seismic wave speed given by analysis of arrival times at surface observatories of different kinds of wave emitted by individual earthquakes. That is, from seismic tomography, itself a product of immensely complex computation. Temptation by computing power and the basic equations of fluid dynamics, however, has proved hard to resist and the first results of a general circulation model for the solid Earth have emerged (Mallard, C. et al. 2016. Subduction controls the distribution and fragmentation of Earth’s tectonic plates. Nature, v. 535, p. 140-143).

As the title suggests, the authors’ main objective was understanding what controls the variety of lithospheric tectonic plates, particularly how strain becomes localised at plate boundaries. They used a circulation model for an idealised planet and examined several levels of a plastic limit at which the rigidity of the lithosphere drops to localise strain. At low levels the lithosphere develops many plate boundaries, and as the plastic limit increases so the lithosphere ends up with increasingly fewer plates and eventually a rigid ‘lid’. The modelling also identified divergent and convergent margins, i.e. mid-ocean ridges and subduction zones. The splitting in two of a single plate must form two triple junctions, whose type is defined by the kinds of plate boundary that meet: ridges; subduction zones; transform faults. Both the Earth and the models show significantly more triple junctions associated with subduction than with extension, despite the fact that ridges extend further than do subduction zones. And these trench-associated triple junctions are mainly those dividing smaller plates. This suggests that it is subduction that focuses fragmentation of the lithosphere, and the degree of fragmentation is controlled by the lithosphere’s strength. There is probably a feedback between mantle convection and lithosphere strength, suggesting that an earlier, hotter Earth had more plates but operated with fewer, larger plates as it cooled to the present. But that idea is not new at all, although the modelling gives support to what was once mere conjecture.

So, when did plate tectonics start up?

Tiny, 4.4 billion year old zircon grains extracted from much younger sandstones in Western Australia are the oldest known relics of the Earth system. But they don’t say much about early tectonic processes. For that, substantial exposures of rock are needed, of which the undisputedly oldest are the Acasta gneisses 300 km north of Yellowknife in Canada’s North West Territories, which have an age of slightly more than 4 Ga. The ‘world’s oldest rock’ has been something of a grail for geologists and isotope geochemists who have combed the ancient Archaean cratons for 5 decades. But since the discovery of metasediments with an age of 3.8 Ga in West Greenland during the 1970s they haven’t made much headway into the huge time gap between Earth’s accretion at 4.54 Ga and the oldest known rocks (the Hadean Eon).

The Deccan Traps shown as dark purple spot on ...
Continental cratons (orange) where very-old rocks are likely to lurk. (credit: Wikipedia)

There have been more vibrant research themes about the Archaean Earth system, specifically the issue of when our planet settled into its modern plate tectonic phase A sprinkling of work on reconstructing the deep structural framework of Archaean relics has convinced some that opposed motion of rigid, brittle plates was responsible for their geological architecture, whereas others have claimed signs of a more plastic and chaotic kind of deformation of the outer Earth. More effort has been devoted to using the geochemistry of all the dominant rocks found in the ancient cratons, seeking similarities with and differences from those of more recent vintage. There can be little doubt that the earliest processes did form crust whose density prevented or delayed it from being absorbed into the mantle. Even the 4.4 Ga zircons probably crystallized from magma that was felsic in composition. Once trapped by buoyancy at the surface and subsequently wrapped around by similarly low density materials continental crust formed as a more or less permanent rider on the Earth’s deeper dynamics. But did it all form by the same kinds of process that we know to be operating today?

Plate tectonics involves the perpetual creation of rigid slabs of basalt-capped oceanic lithosphere at oceanic rift systems and their motions and interactions, including those with continental crust. Ocean floor cools as it ages and becomes hydrated by seawater that enters it. The bulk of it is destined eventually to oppose, head-to-head, the motions of other such plates and to deform in some way. The main driving force for global tectonics begins when an old, cold plate does deform, breaks, bends and drives downwards. Increasing pressure on its cold, wet basaltic top transforms it into a denser form: from a wet basaltic mineralogy (feldspar+pyroxene+amphibole) to one consisting of anhydrous pyroxene and garnet (eclogite) from which watery fluid is expelled upwards. Eclogite’s density exceeds that of mantle peridotite and compels the whole slab of oceanic lithosphere to sink or subduct into the mantle, dragging the younger parts with it. This gravity-induced ‘slab pull’ sustains the sum total of all tectonic motion. The water rising from it induces the wedge of upper mantle above to melt partially, the resulting magma evolves to produce new felsic crust in island arcs whose destiny is to be plastered on to and enlarge older continental masses.

Relics of eclogites and other high-pressure, low-temperature versions of hydrated basalts incorporated into continents bear direct and unchallengeable witness to plate tectonics having operated back to about 800 Ma ago. Before that, evidence for plate tectonics is circumstantial and in need of special pleading. Adversarial to-ing and fro-ing seems to be perpetual, between geoscientists who see no reason to doubt that Earth has always behaved in this general fashion and others who see room for very different scenarios in the distant past. The non-Huttonian tendency suggests an early, more ductile phase when greater radioactive heat production in the mantle produced oceanic crust so fast that when it interacted with other slabs it was hot enough to resist metamorphic densification wherever it was forced down. Faster production of magma by the mantle without slab-pull could have produced a variety of ‘recycling’ turnover mechanisms that were not plate-tectonic.

One thing that geochemists have discovered is that the composition of Archaean continental crust is very different from that produced in later times. In 1985 Ross Taylor and Scott McLennan, then of the Australian National University, hit on the idea of using shales of different ages as proxies for the preceding continental crust from which they had been derived by long erosion. Archaean and younger shales differed in such a way that suggests that after 2.5 Ga (the end of the Archaean) vast amounts of feldspar were extracted from the continent-forming magmas. This left the later Precambrian and Phanerozoic upper crust depleted in the rare-earth element europium, which ended up in a mafic, feldspar-rich lower crust. On the other hand, no such mass fractionation had left such a signature before 2.5 Ga. Another ANU geochemist, now at the University of Maryland, Roberta Rudnick has subsequently carried this approach further, culminating in a recent paper (Tang, M., Chen, K and Rudnick, R.L. 2016. Archean upper crust transition from mafic to felsic marks the onset of plate tectonics. Science, v. 351, p. 372-375). This uses nickel, chromium and zinc concentrations in ancient igneous and sedimentary rocks to track the contribution of magnesium (the ‘ma’ in ‘mafic’) to the early continents. The authors found that between 3.0 to 2.5 Ga continental additions shifted from a dominant more mafic composition to one similar to that of later times by the end of the Archaean. Moreover, this accompanied a fivefold increase in the pace of continental growth. Such a spurt has long been suspected and widely suggested to mark to start of true plate tectonics: but an hypothesis bereft of evidence.

A better clue, in my opinion, came 30 years ago from a study of the geochemistry of actual crustal rocks that formed before and after 2.5 Ga (Martin, H. 1986. Effect of steeper Archean geothermal gradient on geochemistry of subduction-zone magmas. Geology, v. 14, p. 753-756). Martin showed that plutonic Archaean and post-Archaean felsic rocks of the continental crust lie in distinctly different fields on plots of their rare-earth element (REE) abundances. Archaean felsic plutonic rocks show a distinct trend of enrichment in light REE relative to heavy REE as measures of the degree of partial melting decreases, whereas the younger crustal rocks show almost constant, low values of heavy REE/light REE whatever the degree of melting. The conclusion he reached was that while in the post Archaean the source was consistent with modern subduction processes – i.e. partial melting of hydrated peridotite in the mantle wedge above subduction zones – but during the Archaean the source was hydrated, garnet-bearing amphibolite of basaltic composition, in the descending slab of subducted oceanic crust. Together with Taylor and McLennan’s lack of evidence for any fractional crystallization in Archaean continental growth, in contrast to that implicated in Post-Archaean times.

The geochemistry forces geologists to accept that a fundamental change took place in the generation and speed of continental growth at the end of the Archaean, marking a shift from a dominance of melting of oceanic, mafic crust to one where the upper mantle was the main source of felsic, low-density magmas. Yet, no matter how much we might speculate on indirect evidence, whether or not subduction, slab-pull and therefore plate tectonics dominated the Archaean remains an open question.

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