The long-term strength of Europe and its implications for plate-forming processes

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Field-based geological studies show that continental deformation preferentially occurs in young tectonic provinces rather than in old cratons1. This partitioning of deformation suggests that the cratons are stronger than surrounding younger Phanerozoic provinces. However, although Archaean and Phanerozoic lithosphere differ in their thickness2,3,4 and composition4,5, their relative strength is a matter of much debate. One proxy of strength is the effective elastic thickness of the lithosphere, Te. Unfortunately, spatial variations in Te are not well understood, as different methods yield different results. The differences are most apparent in cratons, where the ‘Bouguer coherence’ method yields large Te values (> 60 km)6,7,8,9 whereas the ‘free-air admittance’ method yields low values (< 25 km)10. Here we present estimates of the variability of Te in Europe using both methods. We show that when they are consistently formulated11, both methods yield comparable Te values that correlate with geology, and that the strength of old lithosphere (≥ 1.5 Gyr old) is much larger (mean Te > 60 km) than that of younger lithosphere (mean Te < 30 km). We propose that this strength difference reflects changes in lithospheric plate structure (thickness, geothermal gradient and composition) that result from mantle temperature and volatile content decrease through Earth's history.

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Figure 1: T e structure of Europe obtained using two different methods, and comparison with other geophysical data.
Figure 2: Mean T e determined from Bouguer coherence within each of the major tectonic provinces of Europe versus their age.


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We thank D. Fairhead (GETECH, UK) for the provision of the gravity anomaly and topography data used in this Letter, J.-C. Mareschal and T. Lowry for constructive comments, and B. Holtzman, C. Mac Niocaill, S. Lamb, C. R. Ranero, J. Phipps Morgan, T. Jordan, T. Cunha, J. Hillier and G. Kozyreff for comments and discussions about the Letter. This work was supported by NERC. The figures presented here were constructed using GMT33.

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Correspondence to M. Pérez-Gussinyé.

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Supplementary Figure S3

Dependence of Te on window size (PDF 91 kb)

Supplementary Figure Legend

Caption to accompany the above Supplementary Figure. (DOC 19 kb)

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Pérez-Gussinyé, M., Watts, A. The long-term strength of Europe and its implications for plate-forming processes. Nature 436, 381–384 (2005) doi:10.1038/nature03854

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