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Tectonics and crustal evolution

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4-11
Number of pages8
JournalGSA Today
Issue number9
DateAccepted/In press - 1 Apr 2016
DatePublished (current) - 1 Sep 2016


The continental crust is the archive of Earth's history. Its rock units record events that are heterogeneous in time with distinctive peaks and troughs of ages for igneous crystallization, metamorphism, continental margins, and mineralization. This temporal distribution is argued largely to reflect the different preservation potential of rocks generated in different tectonic settings, rather than fundamental pulses of activity, and the peaks of ages are linked to the timing of supercontinent assembly. Isotopic and elemental data from zircons and whole rock crustal compositions suggest that the overall growth of continental crust (crustal addition from the mantle minus recycling of material to the mantle) has been continuous throughout Earth's history. A decrease in the rate of crustal growth ca. 3.0 Ga is related to increased recycling associated with the onset of plate tectonics. We recognize five stages of Earth's evolution: (1) initial accretion and differentiation of the core/mantle system within the first few tens of millions of years; (2) generation of crust in a pre-plate tectonic regime in the period prior to 3.0 Ga; (3) early plate tectonics involving hot subduction with shallow slab breakoff over the period from 3.0 to 1.7 Ga; (4) Earth's middle age from 1.7 to 0.75 Ga, characterized by environmental, evolutionary, and lithospheric stability; (5) modern cold subduction, which has existed for the past 0.75 b.y. Cycles of supercontinent formation and breakup have operated during the last three stages. This evolving tectonic character has likely been controlled by secular changes in mantle temperature and how that impacts on lithospheric behavior. Crustal volumes, reflecting the interplay of crust generation and recycling, increased until Earth's middle age, and they may have decreased in the past ∼1 b.y.

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