The timing of widespread continental emergence is generally considered to have had a dramatic effect on the hydrological cycle, atmospheric conditions, and climate. New secondary ion mass spectrometry (SIMS) oxygen and laser-ablation–multicollector–inductively coupled plasma–mass spectrometry (LA-MC-ICP-MS) Lu-Hf isotopic results from dated zircon grains in the granitic Neoarchean Rum Jungle Complex provide a minimum time constraint on the emergence of continental crust above sea level for the North Australian craton. A 2535 ± 7 Ma monzogranite is characterized by magmatic zircon with slightly elevated δ18O (6.0‰–7.5‰ relative to Vienna standard mean ocean water [VSMOW]), consistent with some contribution to the magma from reworked supracrustal material. A supracrustal contribution to magma genesis is supported by the presence of metasedimentary rock enclaves, a large population of inherited zircon grains, and subchondritic zircon Hf (εHf = −6.6 to −4.1). A separate, distinct crustal source to the same magma is indicated by inherited zircon grains that are dominated by low δ18O values (2.5‰–4.8‰, n = 9 of 15) across a range of ages (3536–2598 Ma; εHf = −18.2 to +0.4). The low δ18O grains may be the product of one of two processes: (1) grain-scale diffusion of oxygen in zircon by exchange with a low δ18O magma or (2) several episodes of magmatic reworking of a Mesoarchean or older low δ18O source. Both scenarios require shallow crustal magmatism in emergent crust, to allow interaction with rocks altered by hydrothermal meteoric water in order to generate the low δ18O zircon. In the first scenario, assimilation of these altered rocks during Neoarchean magmatism generated low δ18O magma with which residual detrital zircons were able to exchange oxygen, while preserving their U-Pb systematics. In the second scenario, wholesale melting of the altered rocks occurred in several distinct events through the Mesoarchean, generating low δ18O magma from which zircon crystallized. Ultimately, in either scenario, the low δ18O zircons were entrained as inherited grains in a Neoarchean granite. The data suggest operation of a modern hydrological cycle by the Neoarchean and add to evidence for the increased emergence of continents by this time.

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