Earth’s first stable continents did not form by subduction

Journal: Nature

Published: 2017-02-27

DOI: 10.1038/nature21383

Affiliations: 3

Authors: 5

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Research Highlight

Early Earth’s single solid shell

© Liyao Xie/Moment/Getty

© Liyao Xie/Moment/Getty

Earth’s first continents probably encased the planet in a single solid shell, an Australia-US research team finds.

Continents are massive slabs of granite floating on heavier basalt that spews forth from volcanic rifts. As basalt trundles along like a conveyor belt and meets a tectonic plate, it slides underneath, process known as subduction, and is forced down to the crushing pressures and heat of Earth’s mantle. There, it melts and forms granite, which blobs up towards the surface, building continents from below.

But could granite form at lower pressures beneath a stagnant shell with no subduction required?

To find out, Curtin University’s Tim Johnson and colleagues modelled the behaviour of 3.5-billion-year-old basalt from Western Australia’s Pilbara region under such conditions. The resulting granite’s composition was consistent with that of Pilbara granite samples from the same era, indicating Earth lacked tectonic plates at the time.

Supported content

  1. Nature 543, 239–242 (2017). doi: 10.1038/nature21383
Institutions FC
Centre for Exploration Targeting (CET), Australia 0.60
Department of Geology, UMCP, United States of America (USA) 0.20
Geological Survey of Western Australia (GSWA), DMP, Australia 0.20

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