New evidence from seismic tomography reveals a unique mineral fabric restricted to the thick mantle lithosphere beneath ancient continental cratons, providing an important clue to the formation of these prominent and influential features in Earth’s geological history. Olivine, the dominant mineral of Earth’s upper mantle, has elastic properties that differ along its three crystallographic axes, and preferential alignment of individual olivine grains during plastic deformation can affect the bulk nature of seismic-wave propagation. Surface-wave tomography has shown that over most of Earth, deformation of the mantle lithosphere has oriented olivine crystals with the fast axis in the horizontal plane, but at depths centered at ~150 km within cratonic continental-lithosphere roots, the fast crystallographic axis is preferentially aligned vertically. Because of the high viscosity of the cratonic roots, this fabric is likely to be a vestige from craton formation. Geochemical and petrological studies of upper-mantle garnet-peridotite nodules demonstrate that the cratonic mantle roots are stabilized by their reduced density, which was caused by melt removal at much shallower depths than those from which the nodules were subsequently extracted. The mineral fabric inferred from surface-wave tomography suggests that horizontal shortening carried the depleted zone downward after the melt-depletion event to form the thick continental roots, stretching the depleted material in the vertical dimension by pure shear and causing the fast crystallographic axis to be aligned vertically. This seismological fabric at ~150 km is evidence of the shortening event that created the cratonic roots.

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