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Where plates converge, one-sided subduction generates two contrasting thermal environments in the subduction zone (low dT/dP) and in the arc and subduction zone backarc or orogenic hinterland (high dT/dP). This duality of thermal regimes is the hallmark of modern plate tectonics, which is imprinted in the ancient rock record as penecontemporaneous metamorphic belts of two contrasting types, one characterized by higher-pressure–lower-temperature metamorphism and the other characterized by higher-temperature–lower-pressure metamorphism.

Granulite facies ultrahigh-temperature metamorphism (G-UHTM) is documented in the rock record predominantly from the Neoarchean to the Cambrian, although it may be inferred at depth in some younger Phanerozoic orogenic systems. Medium-temperature eclogite–high-pressure granulite metamorphism (E-HPGM) also is first recognized in the Neoarchean, although well-characterized examples are rare in the Neoarchean-to-Paleoproterozoic transition, and occurs at intervals throughout the Proterozoic and Paleozoic rock record. The first appearance of E-HPGM belts in the rock record registers a change in geodynamics that generated sites of lower heat flow than previously seen, inferred to be associated with subduction-to-collision orogenesis. The appearance of coeval G-UHTM belts in the rock record registers contemporary sites of high heat flow, inferred to be similar to modern arcs, abd backarcs, or orogenic hinterlands, where more extreme temperatures were imposed on crustal rocks than previously recorded. Blueschists first became evident in the Neoproterozoic rock record, and lawsonite blueschists, low-temperature eclogites (high-pressure metamorphism, HPM), and ultrahigh-pressure metamorphism (UHPM) characterized by coesite or diamond are predominantly Phanerozoic phenomena. HPM-UHPM registers low to intermediate apparent thermal gradients typically associated with modern subduction zones and the eduction of deeply subducted lithosphere, including the eduction of continental crust subducted during the early stage of the collision process in subduction-to-collision orogenesis. During the Phanerozoic, most UHPM belts have developed by closure of relatively short-lived ocean basins that opened due to rearrangement of the continental lithosphere within a continent-dominated hemisphere as Eurasia was formed from Rodinian orphans and joined with Gondwana in Pangea, and then due to successive closure of the Paleo-Tethys and Neo-Tethys Oceans as the East Gondwanan sector of Pangea began to fragment and disperse.

The occurrence of both G-UHTM and E-HPGM belts since the Neoarchean manifests the onset of a “Proterozoic plate tectonics regime,” which evolved during a Neoproterozoic transition to the “modern plate tectonics regime” characterized by HPM-UHPM. The “Proterozoic plate tectonics regime” may have begun locally during the Mesoarchean to Neoarchean and may only have become global during the Neoarchean-to-Paleoproterozoic transition. The age distribution of metamorphic belts that record extreme conditions of metamorphism is not uniform. Extreme metamorphism occurs at times of amalgamation of continental lithosphere into supercratons (Mesoarchean to Neoarchean) and supercontinents (Paleoproterozoic to Phanerozoic), and along sutures due to the internal rearrangement of continental lithosphere within a continent-dominated hemisphere during the life of a supercontinent.

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