The dominant tectonic mode operating on early Earth (before ca. 2.5 Ga) remains elusive, with an increasing body of evidence suggesting that non-plate tectonic modes were likely more prevalent at that time. Thus, how plate tectonics evolved after that remains contentious. We performed two-dimensional numerical modeling of mantle convection at temperatures appropriate for the Hadean−Archean eons and show that subduction and rift systems may have spontaneously emerged on Earth from an earlier drip-and-rift−dominated tectonic mode in response to the secular cooling of the mantle. This cooling of the mantle was mediated by repeated events of rifting and dripping that likely occurred over a few hundred million years. As the mantle cooled, its effective viscosity and the thickness and strength of the lithosphere increased, which helped establish rigid plates and initiate plate tectonics on Earth.

This content is PDF only. Please click on the PDF icon to access.