Category Archives: 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.

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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

Evolution of the River Nile

The longest river in the world, the Nile has all sorts of riveting connotations in terms of archaeology, Africa’s colonial history, the romance of early exploration and is currently the focus of disputes about rights to its waters. The last stems from its vast potential for irrigation and for hydropower. It is probably the most complex of all the major rivers of our planet because it stretches across so many climatic zones, topographic systems geological and tectonic provinces. Mohamed Abdelsalam of Oklahoma State University, who was born in the Sudan and began his career at the confluence of the White and Blue Nile in its capital Khartoum, is an ideal person to produce a modern scientific summary of how the Nile has evolved. That is because he has studied some of the key elements of the geology through which the river and its major tributaries travel, but most of all because he is a leading geological and geomorphological interpreter of remotely sensed data. Only space imagery can let us grasp the immense span and complexity of the Nile system. His recent review of its entirety (Abdelsalam, M.G. 2018. The Nile’s journey through space and time: A geological perspective. Earth Science Reviews, v. 177, p. 742-773; doi: 10.1016/j.earscirev.2018.01.010) is a tour de force, many years in the compilation, and it makes fittingly compulsive reading.

Abdelsalam lays out the geomorphology, underlying geology and regional tectonics of the Nile drainage basin, synthesized from publications over the last century, including his own work on the evolution of the Blue Nile in Ethiopia. On the regional scale elements of its complexity can be ascribed to the upwelling of mantle plumes beneath the Ethiopian Highlands and Red Sea, and under the Lake Plateau centred on Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi. These plumes are part of a much larger mantle mass rising from the core-mantle boundary beneath the African continent. Their influence on the lithosphere of north-east Africa began over 30 million years ago, producing vast outpourings of flood basalts followed by regional doming, the formation of large shield volcanoes and rifting to transform a once muted surface to one with a topographic range of up to 5 kilometres in the Nile’s two main source regions in Ethiopia and the Lakes Plateau.

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The geological underpinnings of the Nile system (Credit: Abdelsalam 2018; Fig. 5)

The basin can be divided into six distinct provinces, from south to north the Lakes, Sudd, Central Sudan, Ethiopia – East Sudan, Cataract and Egyptian Niles. Each of them has had a different history; in fact, the making of the Nile system as we know it has taken at least 6 million years and probably longer. For instance, the Lakes Nile basin, founded mostly on Precambrian crystalline basement, seems original to have drained westward through the Congo system to the Atlantic Ocean. Sometime between 20 and 12 Ma the western branch of the East African Rift System began to form along with slow, broad uplift, hindering westward flow to create the forerunners of the Great Lakes. The flow was reversed around 2.5 Ma ago by the rise of the Rwenzori and Virunga massifs on the western rift flank and eventually forced northwards into the low-lying Sudd, breaching a major divide in Northern Uganda. The vast swamps there have acted as a buffer for sediment supply, other than the finest silts and clays, into the northern stretches of the White Nile. The Blue Nile’s tortuous trajectory evolved as the Ethiopian flood basalt province rose after 30 Ma, rifted to form the Lake Tana Basin and drained to initiate erosion into the rising plateau with the interference of huge shield volcanoes that formed as uplift proceeded.

Other events are recorded along the Nile’ general trajectory by huge, abandoned alluvial fans, relics of now vanished lakes and evidence from satellite radar of palaeo-drainages with reversed flow beneath the surface of the eastern Sahara. The system evolved episodically, in five or more steps, at the whim of broad tectonic processes that affected flow direction and erosive capacity. The Cataract Nile that cuts through hard basement rocks perhaps records the increase in energy added by the Blue Nile which, which in turn may have encouraged the drainage of the huge Sudd swamps that established the White Nile’s course. Even the Mediterranean Sea played a role: the Egyptian Nile may have formed when the sea vanished to expose a deep saline basin during the Messinian Salinity Crisis 5.5 Ma ago. This reduction in the regional base level of erosion possibly directed drainage into the present course of the Nile. The various provinces only became a unified drainage system during the last half million years, and that emerged in its present form as recently as 15 thousand years ago.  But as Abdelsalam points out, there is a great deal to learn about the fabled river system. Hopefully his review will encourage others to take investigations forward and into previously unstudied regions.

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.

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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

A new kind of seismology

The detection and analysis of earthquake waves has played a major role in the study of how the Earth works for more than a century. Seismology has laid bare the deep structure of our planet. Using records from seismographs that showed the arrival times at different sites of body waves propagated by a 1909 earthquake near Zagreb Croatian scientist Andrija Mohorovičić deduced that the upper Earth was layered. His name is given to the boundary between the crust and underlying mantle; the Mohorovičić Discontinuity (Moho for short). Applying the principles of wave reflection and refraction to wave-arrival times from major seismic events at seismographic stations across the Earth’s surface resulted in the discovery of deeper discontinuities in the mantle and the structure of the core. As the number of stations increased, largely as a result of the need to detect and pin-point tests of nuclear weapons, reversing the principles enabled the 3-D positions of lesser events to be plotted. The resulting swathes of seismicity defined the boundaries of tectonic plates, and from the varying depths at which earthquakes occurred came ideas about their nature; especially important for the mapping of subduction zones. Expansion and standardisation of the global seismographic network and the millions of records that it has produced, together with advances in their digital analysis, has created the current method of charting deep-Earth properties using seismic tomography. A remarkable outcome of such studies is the strikingly named ‘The Atlas of the Underworld’.

Up to now there has been a limit to the scope of such studies, particularly their resolution of features in the Earth’s mantle. Almost all the recording stations are on land, leaving the 70% of the surface covered by oceans devoid of data. Yet that might be set to change. The building of the Internet’s World Wide Web has largely depended on a growing network of telecommunications optic-fibre cables that criss-cross the oceans as well as the continents, stretching about a million kilometres. Using lasers at each end of a cable and interferometric analysis of two light signal that takes up a tiny proportion of the cable’s bandwidth it is possible to detect noise due to disturbances of the cable that result from earthquakes. On land this is compromised by local effects, such as traffic noise, but the ocean floors are remarkable quiet. Giuseppe Marra of Britain’s National Physical Laboratory discovered the potential of using optic fibre while testing a 79 km length cable linking atomic clocks at NPL and Reading (Marra, G. And 11 others 2018. Ultrastable laser interferometry for earthquake detection with terrestrial and submarine cables. Science online publication; doi:10.1126/science.aat4458). Purely by chance he observed unusually high spikes in noise during 2016. By no stretch of the imagination could they have been caused by events along the course of the cable. Curious, he eventually tracked the signals down to a series of earthquakes beneath Norcia in central Italy that cause death and destruction between 24 August and 30 October 2016. With a magnitude of 6.5, the last was the largest seismic event in Italy for 36 years. Subsequently, he and colleagues picked up the signal of a far less energetic event beneath the Mediterranean Sea (magnitude 3.4) from a cable linking Malta and Sicily.

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Map of submarine optic-fibre cables (credit: TeleGeography’s Telecom Resources)

With records from three suitably equipped cables an earthquake focus could be located precisely using triangulation. Together with the recorded signals, it would also be possible to use high magnitude earthquakes detected by optic-fibre cables to add to conventional seismic tomography, thereby sharpening the 3-D images of the deep Earth, which at present are plagued by blurring of much useful detail. Since both submarine and terrestrial cables might be used, such a method may become a bonanza for geophysicists

See also: Hand, E, 2018. Seafloor fibre optic cables can listen for earthquakes. Science, v. 360, p. 1160.

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

Late Palaeozoic glacial features in Chad

The longest and most extreme glacial epoch during the Phanerozoic took place between 360 and 260 Ma ago, when it dominated the Carboniferous and Permian sedimentary sequences across the planet. On continents that lay athwart the Equator during these times, sedimentation was characterised by cycles between shallow marine and terrestrial conditions. These are epitomised by the recurring ‘Coal-Measure’ cyclothem of, from bottom to top: open-sea limestone; near-shore marine mudstone; riverine sandstone; coal formed in swamps. This sequence represents a rapid rise in sea level as ice sheets melted, sustained during an interglacial episode and then falling sea level as ice once again accumulated on land to culminate in a glacial maximum when coal formed in coastal mires. During the Late Palaeozoic Era a single supercontinent extended from pole to pole. The break-up of Pangaea was charted by Alfred Wegener in 1912, partly by his using glacial deposits and ice-gouged striations on the southern continents. With the present widely separated configuration of major landmasses glacial sediments and the directions of inferred ice movements could only be reconciled by reassembling Africa, India, South America, Antarctica and Australia in the form of a single, congruent southern continent that he called Gondwanaland. In Wegener’s reconstruction the glacial features massed together on Gondwanaland with the striations radiating outwards from what would then have been the centre of a huge ice cap.

There are many localities on the present southern continents where such striations can be seen on the surface of peneplains etched into older rocks that underlie Carboniferous to Permian tillites, but later erosion has removed the continuity of the original glacial landscape. There are, however, some parts of central Africa where it is preserved. By using the high-resolution satellite images (with pixels as small as 1 m square) that are mosaiced together in Google Earth, Daniel Paul Le Heron of Royal Holloway, University of London has revealed a series of 1 to 12 km wide sinuous belts in a 6000 km2 area of eastern Chad that are superimposed unconformably on pre-Carboniferous strata (Le Heron, D.P. 2018. An exhumed Paleozoic glacial landscape in Chad. Geology, v.46(1), p. 91-94; doi:10.1130/G39510.1). They comprise irregular tracts of sandstone to the south of a major Carboniferous sedimentary basin. Zooming in to them (try using 17.5° N 22.25°E as a search term in Google Earth) reveals surfaces dominated by wavy, roughly parallel lines. Le Heron interprets these as mega-scale glacial lineations, formed by ice flow across underlying soft Carboniferous glacial sediments as seen in modern glacial till landforms in Canada. In places they rest unconformably on older rocks, sometimes standing above the level of the sandstone plateaux as relics of what may have been nunataks. There are even signs of elliptical drumlins.

An oblique Google Earth view looking to the south-east shows mega-scale glacial lineations from a glacial flow way in eastern Chad. The lower-right quadrant shows the unconformity atop older bedded strata that are dipping to the west. Click on the image to see a full resolution view. (Credit: Google Earth)

Glacial tillites and glaciofluvial sediments of Late Palaeozoic age are common across the Sahara and in the Sahelian belt, but in areas as remote as those in eastern Chad. So a systematic survey using the resolving power of Google Earth may well yield yet more examples. It is tedious work in such vast areas, unless, of course, one bears in mind Alfred Wegener, the founder of the hypothesis of continental drift and ‘Big’ Earth Science as a whole, who would have been gleeful at the opportunity.

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

Lid tectonics on Earth

Geoscientists have become used to thinking of the Earth as being dominated by plate tectonics in which large, rigid plates of lithosphere move across the surface. They are driven mainly by the sinking of cold, densified lithosphere in slabs at subduction zones. The volume of recycled slabs is replaced by continual supply of mafic magma to form oceanic crust at constructive margins. Such a process has long been considered to have reached far back into the Precambrian past and there are lively debates concerning when this modus operandi first arose and what preceded it. Now that we know more about other rocky planets and moons it appears that Earth is the only one on which plate tectonics has occurred. The other, more common, behaviour is dominated by stagnancy, although some worlds evidence volcanism and resurfacing as a result of giant impacts. Their subdued activity has come to be known as ‘lid tectonics’, in which their highly viscous innards slowly convect beneath a rigid, stagnant lid through which thermal energy is lost by convection: they are ‘one-plate’ systems. Although Earth loses internal heat by conduction through plate interiors, a large amount dissipates by convection associated with constructive margins: the oceanic parts of its plates lose heat laterally, as they grow older. Six papers in an advance, online issue of the free-access journal Geoscience Frontiers are concerned with the issue of terrestrial lid-tectonics and whether or not it dominated the Earth repeatedly in its Precambrian history.

A model is emerging for a hot, early Earth that was dominated by a form of lid tectonics (Bédard, J.H. 2018 Stagnant lids and mantle overturns: implications for Archaean tectonics, magmagenesis, crustal growth, mantle evolution, and the start of plate tectonics. Geoscience Frontiers, v. 9, 19-49; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gsf.2017.01.005). Bedard’s model centres on lithosphere that was so weak because of its temperature that its subduction was impossible. Density of the lithosphere rarely increased above that of the mantle because the necessary mineralogical changes were not achieved – those involved in plate tectonics require low-temperature, high-pressure metamorphism as oceanic lithosphere is driven down at modern subduction zones. Even if such reactions did happen, the lithosphere would have been too weak to sustain slab-pull force and dense lithosphere would have simply ‘dripped’ back to the mantle. Mantle convection in a hotter Earth would have been in the form of large, long-lived upwelling zones rather than the relatively ephemeral and narrow plumes known today. Low density materials resulting from magma fractionation, the precursors of continental crust, would have been shifted willy-nilly across the face of the planet to collide. accrete and undergo repeated partial melting. In Bedard’s view, plate tectonics arose as Earth’s heat production waned below a threshold that permitted rigid lithosphere, probably in the late Archaean, to dominate after 2.5 Ga.

Bédard’s impression of an early Archaean lid-tectonic scenario. (credit: Jean H Bédard 2018, Figure 3B)

A radically different view is that stagnant-lid episodes alternated with periods of limited subduction and plate tectonics in the Archaean. Some Archaean cratons – the so-called ‘granite-greenstone terrains – seems to provide geological evidence for lid tectonics (Wyman, D. 2018. Do cratons preserve evidence of stagnant lid tectonics? Geoscience Frontiers, v. 9, 19-49; https://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.gsf.2017.02.001). Others, such as the famous Isua supracrustal belt in West Greenland hint at plate tectonics. John Piper, of Liverpool University in Britain, argues from a series of Archaean palaeomagnetic polar wander curves that in three periods – ~2650 to 2200 Ma, 1550 to 1250 Ma, and 800 to 600 Ma – the poles shifted comparatively slowly with respect to the cratons providing the magnetic data; a feature that Piper ascribes to dominant lid tectonics (Piper, J.D.A., 2018. Dominant Lid Tectonics behaviour of continental lithosphere in Precambrian Times: palaeomagnetism confirms prolonged quasi-integrity and absence of Supercontinent Cycles. Geoscience Frontiers, v. 9, p. 61-89; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gsf.2017.07.009). Similarly, there is some evidence based on the geochemical variation of basaltic rocks derived from the mantle. Through the Archaean, geochemical changes roughly follow cycles in the abundance of zircon radiometric ages and other geological changes that may reflect plate- and lid-tectonic episodes (Condie, K.C. 2018. A planet in transition: the onset of plate tectonics on Earth between 3 and 2 Ga? Geoscience Frontiers, v. 9, p. 51-60; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gsf.2016.09.001). Interestingly, the age-frequency plot of almost three thousand Archaean and Hadean zircons recovered from the famous 1.6 Ga old sandstones of the Jack Hills Formation in Western Australia reveals similar cycles that may reflect such tectonic fluctuations in the Hadean (Wang, Q. & Wilde, S.A. 2017. New constraints on the Hadean to Proterozoic history of the Jack Hills belt,Western Australia. Gondwana Research, v. 55, p. 74-91; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gr.2017.11.008). Since zircons are most likely to crystallize from intermediate and felsic magmas – i.e. precursors of continental material – their abundance in the Jack Hills rocks suggests that their source must have been in the 3.7 to 3.3 Ga gneisses on which the younger sediments rest. That is, part of those Archaean gneisses may well be made up of Hadean continental material that was repeatedly reworked and maybe remelted since such crust first appeared (in the form of surviving zircons) around 4.4 to 4.5 Ga, perhaps during vigorous lid-tectonic regimes.

Possible evolution of magmatic and tectonic styles for large silicate planets. (Credit: Stern et al. 2018, Figure 3)

Based on their reassessment of tectonic activity revealed by 8 rocky planets and moons Robert Stern of the University of Texas (Dallas) and colleagues from ETH-Zurich suggest a possible evolutionary sequence of tectonics and magmatism that Earth-like bodies might go through (Stern, R.J. et al. 2018. Stagnant lid tectonics: Perspectives from silicate planets, dwarf planets, large moons, and large asteroids. Geoscience Frontiers, v. 9, p. 103-119 ; https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gsf.2017.06.004). In their scheme plate tectonics requires certain conditions of lithospheric density and strength to evolve and suggest that, depending on planetary characteristics, slab-pull driven tectonics is likely to be preceded and followed by stagnant lid tectonics, to give perhaps a cyclical geotectonic history.

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

Mega-impacts and tectonics

Because they are fast as well as weighty, destination-Earth asteroids and comets pack quite a punch. That is because their kinetic energy is proportional to the square of their speed (at least 13 km s-1) as well as half their mass. So, even all one half a kilometre across carries an energy a hundred times the solar energy received by Earth in a year, and a great deal more when compared with geothermal heat production. Much of the focus on the effects of impact events has dwelled on the upper crust, the oceans and atmosphere. Yet they also have huge seismic effects, with a proportion of their shock effect being dissipated throughout the entire planet. One obvious consequence would be a thermal anomaly directly beneath the crater as well as some thinning of the lithosphere and body waves affecting the rest of the solid Earth.

Thermal and mechanical processes lie at the core of tectonics, so a big question has been ‘Could impacts create mantle plumes or set new tectonic processes in motion?’ There has been speculation of diverse kinds since impacts became popular following the link between the Chicxulub crater and the end-Cretaceous mass extinction, discovered in 1980. But ‘educated guesses’ have generated more hot air than clear conclusions. Much as most of us are modelling-averse, a mathematical approach is the only option in the welcome absence of any severe extraterrestrial battering to which scientists have borne witness. With refined algorithms that cover most of the nuances of projectiles and targets – conservation of mass, energy and momentum in the context of the solid Earth behaving as a viscous medium –  Craig O’Neill and colleagues at Macquairie University, Australia, and the Southwest Research Centre in Boulder, CO USA, have simulated possible tectonic outcomes during plausible bombardment scenarios during the Hadean (O’Neil, C. et al. 2017. Impact-driven subduction on the Hadean Earth. Nature Geoscience, v. 10, p. 793-797; DOI: 10.1038/NGEO3029).

It appears that truly gargantuan objects – radius >500 km – are required to stimulate sufficient thermal anomalies that would lead to mantle upwellings whose evolution might lead to subduction at their margins. One at the limit posed by lunar cratering history (~1700 km radius) could have resulted in wholesale subduction of the entire lithosphere present at the time about 4 Ma after the impact. In the Hadean, it is likely that the lithosphere would have had a roughly mantle composition, so that the density excess needed for slab descent would have been merely temperature dependent. Note: after the onset of a basalt-capped lithosphere heat flow would have needed to be below the limit at which basalt converts to eclogite at high pressures, and thus to a density greater than that of the mantle, for continuing subduction. The authors’ Hadean scenario is one of episodic subduction dependent on the projectile flux and magnitude; i.e. with an early Hadean with stop-start subduction waning to tectonic stagnation and then a restart during the Late Heavy Bombardment after 4.1 Ga. Evidence for this is clearly scanty, except for Hadean zircons, whose presence indicates differentiation of early magmas with a peak between 4.0 to 4.2 Ga, in which magnetic intensities are preserved that are roughly as predicted by the scenario.

No impacts preserved in Precambrian to Recent times suggest extraterrestrial objects with the power to induce significant changes to global tectonics.

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; doi.org/10.1016/j.tecto.2017.10.004). 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.