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.   

See also:

Evidence for an early Archaean transition to subduction

Modern plate tectonics is largely driven by slab-pull: a consequence of high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphism of the oceanic crust far from its origin at an oceanic ridge. As it ages, basaltic crust cools, become increasingly hydrated by hydrothermal circulation of seawater through it and its density increases. That is why the abyssal plains of the ocean floor are so deep relative to the shallower oceanic ridges where it formed. Due to the decrease in the Earth’s internal heat production by decay of radioactive isotopes, once oceanic lithosphere breaks and begins to descend high-P low-T metamorphism transforms the basaltic crust to a denser form: eclogite, in which the dense, anhydrous minerals garnet and sodium-rich pyroxene (omphacite) form. Depending on local heat flow, the entire oceanic slab may then exceed the density of the upper mantle to drag the plate downwards under gravity. Metamorphic reactions of any P-T regime creates minerals less capable of holding water and drive H2O-rich fluids upwards into the overriding lithosphere, thus inducing it to partially melt. Magmas produced by this create volcanism at the surface, either at oceanic island arcs or near to continental margins, depending on the initial position of the plate subduction.

A direct proof of active subduction in the geological record is the presence of eclogite and related blueschists. Such rocks are unknown before 2100 Ma ago (mid-Palaeoproterozoic of the Democratic Republic of Congo) but there are geochemical means of ‘sensing’ plate tectonic control over arc magmatism (See: So, when did plate tectonics start up? February 2016).  The relative proportions of rare-earth elements in ancient magmatic rocks that make up the bulk of continental crust once seemed to suggest that plate tectonics started at the end of the Archaean Eon (~2500 Ma). That method, however, was quite crude and has been superseded by looking in great detail at the geochemistry of the Earth’s most durable mineral: zircon (ZrSiO4), which began more than two decades ago. Minute grains of that mineral most famously have pushed back the geological record into what was long believed to be half a billion years with no suggestion of a history: the Hadean. Zircon grains extracted from a variety of ancient sediments have yielded U-Pb ages of their crystallisation from igneous magma that extend back 4.4 billion years (Ga) (see: Pushing back the “vestige of a beginning”;January 2001).  

Though simple in their basic chemical formula, zircons sponge-up a large range of other trace elements from their parent magma. So, in a sense, each tiny grain is a capsule of their geochemical environment at the time they crystallised. In 2020 Australian geochemists presented the trace-element geochemistry of 32 zircons extracted from a 3.3 Ga old sedimentary conglomerate in the Jack Hills of Western Australia, which lie within an ancient continental nucleus or craton. They concluded that those zircons mainly reveal that they formed in andesitic magmas, little different from the volcanic rocks that are erupted today above subduction zones. From those data it might seem that some form of plate tectonics has been present since shortly after the Earth’s formation. Oxygen-isotope data from zircons are useful in checking whether zircons had formed in magmas derived directly from partial melting of mantle rocks or by recycling of crustal magmatic rocks through subduction. Such a study in 2012 (see: Charting the growth of continental crust; March 2012) that used a very much larger number of detrital zircon grains from Australia, Eurasia, North America, and South America seemed, in retrospect, to contradict a subduction-since-the-start view of Earth dynamics and crust formation. Instead it suggested that recycling of crust, and thus plate-tectonic subduction, first showed itself in zircon geochemistry at about 3 Ga ago.

Detailed chemical and isotopic analysis of zircons using a variety of instruments has steadily become faster and cheaper. Actually finding the grains is much easier than doing interesting things with them. It is a matter of crushing the host rock to ‘liberate’ the grains. Sedimentary hosts that have not been strongly metamorphosed are much more tractable than igneous rocks. Being denser than quartz, the dominant sedimentary mineral, zircon can be separated from it along with other dense, trace minerals, and from them in turn by various methods based on magnetic and electrical properties. Zircons can then be picked out manually because of their distinctive colours and shapes. A tedious process, but there are now several thousand fully analysed zircons aged between 3.0 to 4.4 Ga, from eleven cratons that underpin Australia, North America, India, Greenland and southern Africa. The latest come from a sandstone bed laid down about 3.31 Ga ago in the Barberton area of South Africa (Drabon, N. et al. 2022. Destabilization of Long‐Lived Hadean Protocrust and the Onset of Pervasive Hydrous Melting at 3.8 GaAGU Advances, v. 3, article e2021AV000520; DOI: 10.1029/2021AV000520). The authors measured lutetium (Lu), hafnium (Hf) and oxygen isotopes, and concentrations of a suite of trace element in 329 zircons from Barberton dated between 3.3 to 4.15 Ga.

A schematic model of transition from Hadean-Eoarchaean lid tectonics to a type of plate tectonics that subsequently evolved to its current form, based on hafnium isotope data in ancient zircons (credit: Bauer et al. 2020; Fig 3)

The Hf isotopes show two main groups relative to the values for chondritic meteorites (assumed to reflect the composition of the bulk Earth). Zircons dated between 3.8 and 4.15 Ga all show values below that expected for the whole Earth. Those between 3.3 and 3.8 Ga show a broader range of values that extend above chondritic levels. The transition in data at around 3.8 Ga is also present in age plots of uranium relative to niobium and scandium relative to ytterbium, and to a lesser extent in the oxygen isotope data. On the basis of these data, something fundamentally changed in the way the Earth worked at around 3.8 Ga. Nadja Drabon and colleagues ascribe the chemical features of Hadean and Eoarchaean zircons to an early protocrust formed by melting of chemically undepleted mantle. This gradually built up and remained more or less stable for more than 600 Ma, without being substantially remelted through recycling back to mantle depths. After 3.8 billion years ago, geochemical signatures of the zircons start showing similarities to those of zircons derived from modern subduction zones. Hf isotopes and trace-element geochemistry in 3.6 to 3.8 Ga-old  detrital zircons from other cratons are consistent with a 200 Ma transition from ‘lid’ tectonics (see: Lid tectonics on Earth; December 2017) to the familiar tectonics of rigid plates whose basalt-capped lithosphere ultimately returns to the mantle to be involved in formation of new magmas from which continental crust stems. Parts of plates bolstered by this new, low density crust largely remain at the surface.

While Drabon et al. do provide new data from South Africa’s Kaapvaal craton, their conclusions are similar to earlier work by other geochemists based on data from other area (e.g. Bauer, A.M. et al. 2020. Hafnium isotopes in zircons document the gradual onset of mobile-lid tectonicsGeochemical Perspectives Letters, v. 14; DOI: 10.7185/geochemlet.2015), which the accompanying figure illustrates.

See also: Earliest geochemical evidence of plate tectonics found in 3.8-billion-year-old crystal. Science Daily, 21 April 2022. 3.8-Billion-Year-Old Zircons Offer Clues to When Earth’s Plate Tectonics Began. SciNews, 26 April 2022

New ideas on how subduction works

Nowadays, plate tectonics is thought mainly to be driven by the sinking of old, relatively cold and dense oceanic lithosphere at subduction zones: slab-pull force dominates the current behaviour of the outermost Earth. At the eastern edge of Eurasia subduction beneath Japan has yet to consume Pacific Ocean lithosphere younger than 180 Ma (Middle Jurassic). The Pacific Plate extends eastwards from there for over 7000 km to its source at the East Pacific Rise. That spreading axis has disappeared quite recently beneath the North American Plate between Baha California and northern California. It has been subducted. Since, to a first approximation, sea-floor spreading is at the same pace either side of mid-ocean constructive plate margins, subduction at the western edge of the North America has consumed at least 7000 km of old ocean lithosphere. Slab-pull force there has been sustained for probably more than 250 Ma. As a result several former island arcs have been plastered onto the leading edge of the North American Plate to create the geological complexity of its western states. If at any time the weight of the subducting slab had caused it leading edge literally to snap and fall independently wouldn’t that have decreased slab-pull force or shut it off, and spreading at the East Pacific Rise, altogether? No, says the vast expanse of the West Pacific plate

That dichotomy once encouraged scientists of the plate-tectonic era to assume that a subducted slab remains as strong as rigid plates at the surface. They believed that subduction merely bends a plate so that it can slide into the mantle. The use of seismic waves (seismic tomography) to peer into the mantle has revealed a far more complex situation. Beneath North America traces of subducted slabs are highly deformed and must have lost their rigidity, yet they still maintain slab-pull force. Three geoscientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland, and the University of Texas at Austin, USA (Gerya T. V., Becovici, D. & Becker, T.W. 2021. Dynamic slab segmentation due to brittle–ductile damage in the outer rise. Nature, v. 599, p 245-250; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03937-x) used computer-generated models of how various forces and temperature conditions at small and large scales bear on the behaviour of slabs being subducted. Where a plate bends into a subduction zone its rigidity results in cracking and faulting of its no convex upper surface, while the base is compressed. Seismic anomalies in the descending slab reflect the formation of pulled-apart segments, similar to those in a bar of chocolate (for a possible example from an exhumed subduction zone see: A drop off the old block? May 2008). Thermo-mechanical modelling suggests that the slab becomes distinctly weakened through brittle damage and by reduction in grain size because of ductile deformation, yet each segment maintains a high viscosity relative to the surrounding mantle rocks. Under present conditions and those extrapolated back into the Proterozoic, where the slab is thinned between segments it remains sufficiently viscous to avoid segments detaching to sink independently of one another. Such delamination would reduce slab-pull force. Another process operates in the surrounding mantle. The occurrence of earthquakes in a subducted slab down to a depth of about 660 km – the level of a major discontinuity in the mantle where pressure induces a change in its mineralogy and density – confirms that a modern slab maintains some rigidity and deforms in a brittle fashion. But at this depth it cannot continue to descend steeply and travels horizontally along the discontinuity, pushed by the more shallow subduction. It can now become buckled as the mantle resists its lateral motion.

Left: the subduction zone beneath Japan defined by seismic tomography (yellow to red = lower seismic wave speeds – more ductile; yellow to blue = higher speeds – more rigid). Right: modelled evolution of viscosity in a similar subduction zone under modern conditions showing slab segmentation (blue to brown = increasing viscosity). (Credit: Gerya et al., Figs 4c & 1a-e)

Rather than trying to mimic the chaos beneath North America the authors compared their results with seismic tomography of the younger system of westward subduction beneath Japan. This allowed them to ‘calibrate’ their modelling against actual deep structure well-defined by seismic tomography. The tectonic jumble beneath North America probably resulted from a much longer history of eastwards subduction. The complexity there may be explained by successive foundering of deformed slabs into the deeper mantle looking a bit like a sheet of still viscous pie pastry dropped on its edge. This happened, perhaps, as island arcs that had formed in the eastern Pacific sporadically accreted to the continent as the intervening oceanic lithosphere was subducted.   

There is ample evidence that modern-style subduction was widespread back as far as the Palaeoproterozoic. But in the Archaean the evidence is fitful: some hints of subduction, but plenty of contrary evidence.  Gerya and co-workers suggest that higher heat production from radioactive decay mantle earlier in Earth’s history would have reduced plate strength and mantle resistance to slab penetration. Subduction may have occurred but was interrupted repeatedly by foundering/delamination of individual detached segments at much shallower depths. That implies weaker as well as intermittent slab pull, or even further back its complete absence, so that planetary recycling would then have required other mechanisms, such as ‘drip tectonics’.

See also: Crushed resistance: Tectonic plate sinking into a subduction zone and Fate of sinking tectonic plates is revealed, Science Daily, 11 November 2021

Nappe tectonics at the end of the Archaean

The beginning of modern-style plate tectonics is still debated in the absence of definite evidence. Because Earth’s mantle generates heat through radioactive decay and still contains heat left over from planetary accretion and core formation it must always have maintained some kind of heat transfer through some kind of circulatory motion involving the mantle and lithosphere. That must always too have involved partial melting and chemical differentiation that created materials whose density was lower than that of the mantle; e.g. continental crust. Since continental materials date back to more than 4 billion years ago and some may have been generated earlier in the Hadean, only to be lrgely resorbed, a generalised circulation and chemical differentiation have been Earth’s main characteristics from the start. One view is that early circulation was a form of vertical tectonics without subduction via a sort of ‘dripping’ or delamination of particularly dense crustal materials back into the mantle. A sophisticated model of how the hotter early Earth worked in this way has been called ‘lid tectonics’, from which plate tectonics evolved as the Earth cooled and developed a thicker, more rigid lithosphere. Such an outer layer would be capable of self-generating the slab pull that largely drives lateral motions of lithospheric plates. That process occurs once a slab of oceanic lithosphere becomes cool and dense enough to be subducted (see: How does subduction start?; August 2018).

The most convincing evidence for early plate tectonics would therefore be tangible signs of both subduction and large horizontal movements of lithospheric plates: common enough in the Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic records, but not glaringly obvious in the earlier Archaean Eon. These unequivocal hallmarks have now emerged from studies of Archaean rocks in the Precambrian basement that underpins northern China and North Korea. The North China Craton has two main Archaean components: an Eastern Block of gneisses dated between 3.8 and 3.0 Ga and a Western Block of younger (2.6 to 2.5 Ga) gneisses, metavolcanics and metasediments. They are separated by a zone of high deformation. A key area for understanding the nature of the deformed Central Orogenic Belt is the Zanhuan Complex near the city of Kingtai (Zhong, YL. et al. 2021. Alpine-style nappes thrust over ancient North China continental margin demonstrate large Archean horizontal plate motions. Nature  Communications, v. 12, article6172, DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-26474-7).

Schematic cross sections through the Zanhuan Complex of northern China, showing early and final development of the Central Orogenic Belt in the North China Block . (Credit: Zhong, YL. et al.;Figs 10b and c)

This small, complex area reveals that the older Eastern Block is unconformably overlain by Neoarchaean sediments, above which has been thrust a stacked series of nappes similar in size and form to those of the much younger Alpine orogenic belt of southern Europe. Though highly complex, the rocks involved having been folded and stretched by ductile processes, they are still recognisable as having originally been at the surface. Metavolcanics in the nappes can be assigned from their geochemistry to a late-Archaean fore-arc, through comparison with that of modern igneous rocks formed at such a setting in the Western Pacific. Thrust over the nappe complex is a jumble or mélange of highly deformed metasediments containing blocks of metabasalts and occasional ultramafic igneous rocks that geochemically resemble oceanic crust formed at a mid-ocean ridge. Some of them contain high-pressure minerals formed at depth in the mantle, indicating that they had once been subducted. The whole complex is cut by undeformed dykes of granitic composition dated at 2.5 Ga, confirming that the older rocks and the structures within them are Archaean in age. Thrust over the melange and tectonically underlying nappe complex are less-deformed volcanic rocks and granitic intrusions that closely resemble what is generally found in modern island arcs.

Orogenic belts bear witness to enormous crustal shortening caused by horizontal compressive forces. Assuming the average rate of modern subduction (2 cm yr-1) the 178 Ma history of the Zanhuan Complex implies more than 3,500 km of lateral transport. 2.5 billion years ago, higher radioactive heat production in the mantle would have made tectonic overturning considerably faster  The unconformity at the base of the complex suggests that it was driven over the equivalent of a modern passive, continental margin. So the complex provides direct evidence of horizontal plate tectonics and associated subduction during the latter stages of the Archaean that ranks in scale with that of many Phanerozoic orogenic belts, such as that of the European Alps. The Zanhuan Complex is a result of arc accretion that played a major role in many later orogens. The North China craton itself is reminiscent of continent-continent collision, as required in the formation of supercontinents.

Subduction and continental collision in the Himalaya

The Indian subcontinent after it separated from Madagascar in the Late Cretaceous to move northwards to its destined collision with Eurasia and the formation of the Himalaya. (Credit: Frame from an animation ©Christopher Scotese)

During the Early Cretaceous (~140 Ma ago) India, Madagascar, Antarctica and Australia parted company with Africa after 400 Ma of unity as components of the Gondwana supercontinent. By 120 Ma Antarctica and Australia split from India and Madagascar, and the Indian Ocean began to form. India moved northwards , leaving Madagascar in its wake after about 70 Ma ago. By 50 Ma the subcontinent began to collide with Eurasia, its northward motion driving before it crustal materials that eventually formed the Himalaya. This highly complex process is wonderfully documented in an animation made in 2015 by Christopher Scotese, Emeritus Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Northwestern University, USA. At the start of its journey India moved northwards at a slow rate of about 5 cm per year. After 80 Ma it speeded up dramatically to 15 cm per year, about twice as fast as any modern continental drift and a pace that lasted for over 30 Ma until collision began. How could that, in a geological sense, sudden and sustained acceleration have been induced? It would have required a change in the slab-pull force that is the primary driver of plate tectonics, suggesting an increase in the amount of subduction in the Tethys Ocean that formerly lay between India and Eurasia, probably at two, now hidden destructive plate margins.

A group of geoscientists from Canada, the US and Pakistan has documented that collision in terms of the record of metamorphism experienced beneath the Himalaya as slab after slab of once near-surface rocks were driven beneath the rising orogen (Soret, M. et al. 2021. How Himalayan collision stems from subduction. Geology, v. 49, p. 894-898; DOI: 10.1130/G48803.1). The Western Himalaya has trapped a deformed and tilted magmatic rock sequence of an island arc – the Kohistan Arc – between  the Eurasian plate and a zone of crustal thickening and shortening that was thrust southward over the ancient metamorphic basement of India itself. That crust was mantled by a variety of younger sediments deposited on the Tethyan continental shelf of the northern Indian plate which became involved in the process of crustal thickening. The Kohistan Arc probably formed above one of the destructive margins that consumed the oceanic lithosphere of the now vanished Tethys Ocean. Two distinct types of rock make up the slabs stacked-up by thrusting.

The uppermost, which also forms the highest part of the Western Himalaya in the form of Nanga Parbat (at 8,126 metres the world’s ninth highest mountain) comprises rocks thought to represent Tethyan oceanic lithosphere subducted perhaps at the second destructive margin. Their mineral assemblages, especially those of eclogites, indicate that they have been metamorphosed under pressures corresponding to depths of up to 100 km, but at low temperatures along a geothermal gradient of about 7°C km-1, i.e. in a low heat-flow environment. These ultra-high pressure (UHP) metamorphic rocks formed at the start of the India-Eurasia collision. The sequence of sedimentary slabs now overridden by the UHP slab were metamorphosed at around the same time, but under very different conditions. Their burial reached only about 35 km – the normal thickness of the continental crust – and a temperature of about 600°C on a 30°C km-1 geothermal gradient. Detailed mineralogy of the UHP slab reveals that as it was driven over the metasediments it evolved to the same geothermal conditions.

Matthew Soret and his colleagues explain how this marked metamorphic duality may have arisen in rocks that are now part of the same huge thrust complex. Their results are consistent with slicing together of oceanic lithosphere in a subduction zone to form a tectonic wedge of UHP mineral assemblages at the same time as continental shelf sediments were metamorphosed under more normal geothermal conditions. This was happening just as India came into contact with Eurasia. When crustal thickening began in earnest through the inter-slicing of the two assemblages, pressure on the UHP rocks fell rapidly as a result of their being thrust over the dominantly metasedimentary shelf sequence. It also moved into a zone of normal heat flow, first heating up equally quickly and then following a path of decreasing pressure and temperature as erosion pared away the newly thickened crust. Both assemblages now became part of the same metamorphic regime. In this way a subduction system evolved to become incorporated in an orogenic zone as two continents collided; a complex process that finds parallels in other orogens such as the Alps.

The subduction pulley: a new feature of plate tectonics

Geological map of part of the Italian Alps. The Sesia-Lanzo Zone is 6 in the Key: a – highly deformed gneisses; b – metasedimentary schists with granite intrusions; c – mafic rocks; d – mixed mantle and crystalline basement rocks. (Credit: M. Assanelli, Universita degli Studi di Milano)

To a first approximation, as they say, the basis of plate tectonics is that the lithosphere is divided up into discrete, rigid plates that are bounded by lines of divergent, convergent and sideways relative motions: constructive, destructive and conservative plate margins. These are characterised by zones of earthquakes whose senses of motion roughly correspond to the nature of each boundary: normal, reverse and strike-slip, respectively. The seismicity is mainly confined to the lithosphere in the cases of constructive and conservative boundaries (i.e. shallow) but extends as deep as 700 km into the mantle at destructive margins, thereby defining the subduction of lithosphere that remains cool enough to retain its rigidity. Although the definition assumes that there is no deformation within plates, in practice that does occur for a wide variety of reasons in the form of intra-plate seismicity, mainly within continental lithosphere. Oceanic plate interiors are much stronger and largely ‘follow the rules’; they are generally seismically quiet.

One important feature of plate tectonics is the creation of new subduction zones when an earlier one eventually ceases to function. Where these form in an oceanic setting volcanism in the overriding plate creates island arcs. They create precursors of new continental crust because the density of magmas forming the new lithosphere confers sufficient buoyancy for them to be more difficult to subduct. Eventually island arcs become accreted onto continental margins through subduction of the intervening oceanic lithosphere. Joining them in such ‘docking’ are microcontinents, small fragments spalled from much older continents because of the formation of new constructive plate margins within them. It might seem that arcs and microcontinents behave like passive rafts to form the complex assemblages of terranes that characterise continental mountain belts, such as those of western North America, the Himalaya and the Alps. Yet evidence has emerged that such docking is much more complicated (Gün, E. et al. 2021. Pre-collisional extension of microcontinental terranes by a subduction pulleyNature Geoscience, v. 14, online publication; DOI: 10.1038/s41561-021-00746-9).

Erkan Gün and colleagues from the University of Toronto and Istanbul Technical University examined one of the terranes in the Italian Alps – the Sesia-Lanzo Zone (SLZ) – thought to have been a late-Carboniferous microcontinental fragment in the ocean that once separated Africa from Europe. When it accreted the SLZ was forced downwards to depths of up to 70 km and then popped up in the latter stages of the Alpine orogeny. It is now a high-pressure, low-temperature metamorphic complex, having reached eclogite facies during its evolution. Yet its original components, including granites that contain the high-pressure mineral jadeite instead of feldspar, are still recognisable. Decades of geological mapping have revealed that the SLZ sequence shows signs of large-scale extensional tectonics. Clearly that cannot have occurred after its incorporation into southern Europe, and must therefore have taken place prior to its docking. Similar features are present within the accreted microcontinental and island-arc terranes of Eastern Anatolia in Turkey. In fact, most large orogenic belts comprise hosts of accreted terranes that have been amalgamated into older continents.

An ‘engineering’ simplification of the subduction pulley. Different elements represent slab weight (slab pull force) transmitted through a pulley at the trench to a weak microcontinent and a strong oceanic lithosphere. (Credit: Gün et al., Fig. 4)

Lithospheric extension associated with convergent plate margins has been deduced widely in the form of back-arc basins. But these form in the plate being underidden by a subduction zone. Extension of the SLZ, however, must have taken place in the plate destined to be subducted. Gün et al. modelled the forces, lithospheric structure, deformation and tectonic consequences that may have operated to form the SLZ, for a variety of microcontinent sizes. The pull exerted by the subduction of oceanic lithosphere (slab pull) would exert extensional forces on the lithosphere as it approached the destructive plate boundary. Oceanic lithosphere is very strong and would remain intact, simply transmitting slab-pull force to the weaker continental lithosphere, which ultimately would be extended. This is what the authors call a subduction ‘pulley’ system. At some stage the microcontinent fails mechanically, part of it being detached to continue with the now broken slab down the subduction zone. The rest would become a terrane accreted to the overriding plate. Subduction at this site would stop because the linkage to the plate has broken. It may continue by being transferred to a new destructive margin ‘behind’ the accreted microcontinent. This would allow other weak continental and island-arc ‘passengers’ further out on the oceanic plate eventually to undergo much the same process.

The observed complexity of tectonic terranes in other vast assemblies of them, such as the northern Pacific coast of North America and in many more ancient orogenic belts, is probably as much a result of extension before accretion as the compressional deformation suffered afterwards. The theoretical work by Erkan Gün and colleagues will surely spur tectonicians to re-evaluate earlier models of orogenesis.

Note: Figure 2 in the paper by Gün et al. shows how the width (perpendicular to the subduction zone) affects the outcomes of the subduction pulley. View an animation of a subduction pulley

Diamonds and the deep carbon cycle

When considering the fate of the element carbon and CO2, together with all their climatic connotations, it is easy to forget that they may end up back in the Earth’s mantle from which they once escaped to the surface. In fact all geochemical cycles involve rock, so that elements may find their way into the deep Earth through subduction, and they could eventually come out again: the ‘logic’ of plate tectonics. Teasing out the various routes by which carbon might get to mantle is not so easily achieved. Yet one of the ways it escapes is through the strange magma that once produced kimberlite intrusions, in the form of pure-carbon crystals of diamond that kimberlites contain. A variety of petrological and geochemical techniques, some hinging on other minerals that occur as inclusions, has allowed mineralogists to figure out that diamonds may form at depths greater than about 150 km. Most diamonds of gem quality formed in unusually thick lithosphere beneath the stable, and relatively cool blocks of ancient continental crust known as cratons, which extends to about 250 km. But there are a few that reflect formation depths as great as 800 km that span two major discontinuities in the mantle (at 410 and 660 km depth). These transition zones are marked by sudden changes in seismic speed due to pressure-induced transformations in the structure and density of the main mantle mineral, olivine.

Diamond crystal containing a garnet and other inclusions (Credit: Stephen Richardson, University of Cape Town, South Africa)

Carbon-rich rocks that may be subducted are not restricted to limestones and carbon-rich mudstones. Far greater in mass are the basalts of oceanic crust. Not especially rich in carbon when they crystallised as igneous rocks, their progress away from oceanic spreading centres exposes them to infiltration by ocean water. Once heated, aqueous fluids cause basalts to be hydrothermally altered. Anhydrous feldspars, pyroxenes and olivines react with the fluids to break down to hydrated-silicate clays and dissolved metals. Dissolved carbon dioxide combines with released calcium and magnesium to form pervasive carbonate minerals, often occupying networks of veins. So there has been considerable dispute as to whether subducted sediments or igneous rocks of the oceanic crust are the main source of diamonds. Diamonds with gem potential form only a small proportion of recovered diamonds. Most are only saleable for industrial uses as the ultimate natural abrasive and so are cheaply available for research. This now centres on the isotopic chemistry of carbon and nitrogen in the diamonds themselves and the various depth-indicating silicate minerals that occur in them as minute inclusions, most useful being various types of garnet.

The depletion of diamonds in ‘heavy’ 13C once seemed to match that of carbonaceous shales and the carbonates in fossil shells, but recent data from carbonates in oceanic basalts reveals similar carbon, giving three possibilities. Yet, when their nitrogen-isotope characteristics are taken into account, even diamonds that formed at lithospheric depths do not support a sedimentary source (Regier, M.E. et al. 2020. The lithospheric-to-lower-mantle carbon cycle recorded in superdeep diamonds. Nature, v. 585, p. 234–238; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2676-z). That leaves secondary carbonates in subducted oceanic basalts as the most likely option, the nitrogen isotopes more reminiscent of clays formed from igneous minerals by hydrothermal processes than those created by weathering and sedimentary deposition. However, diamonds with the deepest origins – below the 660 km mantle transition zone – suggest yet another possibility, from the oxygen isotopes of their inclusions combined with those of C and N in the diamonds. All three have tightly constrained values that most resemble those from pristine mantle that has had no interaction with crustal rocks. At such depths, unaltered mantle probably contains carbon in the form of metal alloys and carbides. Regier and colleagues suggest that subducted slabs reaching this environment – the lower mantle – may release watery fluids that mobilise carbon from such alloys to form diamonds. So, I suppose, such ultra-deep diamonds may be formed from the original stellar stuff that accreted to form the Earth and never since saw the ‘light of day’.

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.

Plate tectonic graveyard

Where do old plates go to die? For the most part, down subduction zones to mix with their original source, the mantle. Earth-Pages has covered evidence for quite a few of the dead plates, which emerges from a geophysical technique known as seismic tomography – analogous to X-ray or magnetic resonance scans of the whole human body. For 20 years geophysicists have been analysing seismograms from many stations across the globe for every digitally recorded earthquake, i.e. virtually all of those since the 1970s. This form of depth sounding goes far beyond early deep-Earth seismometry that discovered the inner and outer core, various transition zones in the mantle and measured the average variation with depth of mantle properties. Tomography relies on complex models of the paths taken by seismic body waves and very powerful computing to assess variations in the speed of P- and S-waves as they travelled through the Earth: the more rigid/cool the mantle is the faster waves travel through it and vice versa. The result is images of deep structure in 2-D slices, but the quality of such sections depends, ironically, on plate tectonics. Most earthquakes occur at plate boundaries. Such linearly distributed, one-dimensional sources inevitably leave the bulk of the mantle as a blur. Around 20 different methodologies have been developed by the many teams working on seismic tomography. So sometimes conflicting images of the deep Earth have been produced.

Results of seismic tomography across Central America showing anomalously fast (in blue) P- (top) and S-wave (bottom) speeds in map view at a fixed mantle depth (1290 km, left) and as vertical sections (right). The blue zones at right are interpreted to show a steeply dipping slab that represents subduction of the eastern Pacific Cocos plate since about 175 Ma ago (credit: van der Meer, D.G et al. ‘Atlas of the Underworld)

The technique has come of age now that superfast computing and use of multiple models have begun to resolve some of tomography’s early problems. The latest outcome is astonishing: ‘The Atlas of the Underworld’ catalogues 94 2-D sections from surface to the core-mantle boundary each of which spans 40° or arc – about a ninth of the Earth’s circumference (see: van der Meer, D.G., van Hinsbergen, D.J.J., and Spakman, W., 2017, Atlas of the Underworld: slab remnants in the mantle, their sinking history, and a new outlook on lower mantle viscosity, Tectonophysics online; Specifically, the Atlas locates remnants of relatively cold slabs in the mantle that are suspected to be remnants of former subduction zones, or those that connect to active subduction. The upper parts of active slabs are revealed by the earthquakes generate along them. At deeper levels they are too ductile to have seismicity, so what form they take has long been a mystery. Once subduction stops, so do the telltale earthquakes and the slabs ‘disappear’.

The slabs covered by the ‘Atlas’ only go back as far as the end of the Permian, when the current round of plate tectonics began as Pangaea started to break-up. It takes 250 Ma for slabs to reach the base of the mantle and beyond that time they will have heated up and begun to be mixed into the lower mantle and invisible. Nevertheless, the rich resource allows models of vanished Mesozoic to Recent plates and the tectonics in which they participated, based on geological information, to be evaluated and enriched. Just as important, the project opens up the possibility of finding out how the mantle ‘worked’ since Pangaea broke up, in 3-D; a key to more than plate tectonics, including the mantle’s chemical heterogeneity. Already it has been used to estimate changes in the total length of subduction zones since 250 Ma ago, and thus arc volcanism and CO2 emissions, which correlates with estimates of past atmospheric CO2 levels, climate and even sea levels.

See also:  Voosen, P. 2016. ‘Atlas of the Underworld’ reveals oceans and mountains lost to Earth’s history. Science; doi:10.1126/science.aal0411.

Lee, H. 2017. The Earth’s interior is teeming with dead plates. Ars Technica UK, 18 October 2017.

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.

More on continental growth and plate tectonics