Geology and Geochemistry
How and when continents grew and plate tectonics started on Earth remain poorly constrained. Most researchers apply the modern plate tectonic paradigm to problems of ancient crustal formation, but these are unsatisfactory because diagnostic criteria and actualistic plate configurations are lacking. Here, we show that 3.5–3.2 Ga continental nuclei in the Pilbara Craton, Australia, and the eastern Kaapvaal Craton, southern Africa, formed as thick volcanic plateaux built on a substrate of older continental lithosphere and did not accrete through horizontal tectonic processes. These nuclei survived because of the contemporaneous development of buoyant, non-subductable mantle roots. This plateau-type of Archean continental crust is distinct from, but complementary to, Archean gneiss terranes formed over shallowly dipping zones of intraoceanic underplating (proto-subduction) on a vigorously convecting early Earth with smaller plates and primitive plate tectonics.
Figures & Tables
The continental crust is our archive of Earth history, and the store of many natural resources; however, many key questions about its formation and evolution remain debated and unresolved:
What processes are involved in the formation, differentiation and evolution of continental crust, and how have these changed throughout Earth history?
How are plate tectonics, the supercontinent cycle and mantle cooling linked with crustal evolution?
What are the rates of generation and destruction of the continental crust through time?
How representative is the preserved geological record?
A range of approaches are used to address these questions, including field-based studies, petrology and geochemistry, geophysical methods, palaeomagnetism, whole-rock and accessory-phase isotope chemistry and geochronology. Case studies range from the Eoarchaean to Phanerozoic, and cover many different cratons and orogenic belts from across the continents.