Review Article | Published:

Evolution of the continental crust

Nature volume 443, pages 811817 (19 October 2006) | Download Citation

Subjects

Abstract

The continental crust covers nearly a third of the Earth’s surface. It is buoyant—being less dense than the crust under the surrounding oceans—and is compositionally evolved, dominating the Earth’s budget for those elements that preferentially partition into silicate liquid during mantle melting. Models for the differentiation of the continental crust can provide insights into how and when it was formed, and can be used to show that the composition of the basaltic protolith to the continental crust is similar to that of the average lower crust. From the late Archaean to late Proterozoic eras (some 3–1 billion years ago), much of the continental crust appears to have been generated in pulses of relatively rapid growth. Reconciling the sedimentary and igneous records for crustal evolution indicates that it may take up to one billion years for new crust to dominate the sedimentary record. Combining models for the differentiation of the crust and the residence time of elements in the upper crust indicates that the average rate of crust formation is some 2–3 times higher than most previous estimates.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from$8.99

All prices are NET prices.

References

  1. 1.

    & Geologic evidence for Archaean atmospheric and climatic evolution: fluctuating levels of CO2, CH4 and O2, with an overriding tectonic control. Geology 32, 493–496 (2004)

  2. 2.

    Global modelling of continent formation and destruction through geological time and implications for CO2 drawdown in the Archaean Eon. Spec. Publ. Geol. Soc. Lond. 199, 259–274 (2002)

  3. 3.

    & in The Crust (ed. Rudnick, R. L.) 1–64 (Treatise in Geochemistry, Vol. 3, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2003)

  4. 4.

    Radiogenic isotopes: the case for crustal recycling on a near steady state no-continental-growth model. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 301, 443–472 (1981)

  5. 5.

    The evolution of the Earth’s crust: modern plate tectonics to ancient hot spot tectonics?. Chem. Geol. 23, 89–114 (1978)

  6. 6.

    & Pre-drift continental nuclei. Science 164, 1229–1242 (1969)

  7. 7.

    & Chemical structure and history of the Earth: evidence from global non-linear inversion of isotopic data in a three-box model. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 96, 61–88 (1989)

  8. 8.

    Age and isotope evidence for the evolution of the continental crust. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 288, 401–413 (1978)

  9. 9.

    , & Geochemical modelling of mantle differentiation and crustal growth. J. Geophys. Res. 84, 6091–6101 (1979)

  10. 10.

    & The mean age of mantle and crustal reservoirs. J. Geophys. Res. 84, 7411–7427 (1979)

  11. 11.

    & Two major terrestrial Pb isotope paradoxes, forward transport modelling, core formation and the history of the continental crust. Chem. Geol. 139, 75–110 (1997)

  12. 12.

    & The Sm/Nd secular evolution of the continental crust and the depleted mantle. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 82, 25–35 (1987)

  13. 13.

    Making continental crust. Nature 378, 573–578 (1995)

  14. 14.

    & The Continental Crust: Its Composition and Evolution (Blackwell, Malden, MA, 1985)

  15. 15.

    The growth of continental crust. Tectonophysics 296, 1–14 (1998)

  16. 16.

    Origins of the continental crust. J. Proc. R. Soc. New South Wales 132, 83–110 (1999)

  17. 17.

    & in The Crust (ed. Rudnick, R. L.) 349–410 (Treatise in Geochemistry, Vol. 3, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2003)

  18. 18.

    Constraints from thorium/lanthanum on sediment recycling at subduction zones and the evolution of continents. J. Petrol. 46, 921–944 (2005)

  19. 19.

    & The differentiation and rates of generation of the continental crust. Chem. Geol. 226, 134–143 (2006)

  20. 20.

    et al. Time-scales of magma formation, ascent and storage beneath subduction-zone volcanoes. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. A 358, 1443–1464 (2000)

  21. 21.

    , & Tracking the budget of Nb and Ta in the continental crust. Chem. Geol. 165, 197–213 (2000)

  22. 22.

    Sun, S.-s. Chemical and isotopic systematics of oceanic basalts: implications for mantle composition and processes. Spec. Publ. Geol. Soc. Lond. 42, 313–345 (1989)

  23. 23.

    & The geochemical composition of subducting sediment and its consequences for the crust and mantle. Chem. Geol. 145, 325–394 (1998)

  24. 24.

    , , , & U-Th isotopes in arc magmas: implications for element transfer from the subducted crust. Science 276, 551–555 (1997)

  25. 25.

    & Nature and composition of the continental crust: a lower crustal perspective. Rev. Geophys. 33, 267–309 (1995)

  26. 26.

    in Archaean Crustal Evolution (ed. Condie, K. C.) 205–260 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1994)

  27. 27.

    & Dehydration melting of metabasalt at 8–32 kbar: implications for continental growth and crust-mantle recycling. J. Petrol. 36, 891–931 (1995)

  28. 28.

    in Archaean Crustal Evolution (ed. Condie, K. C.) 85–120 (Elsevier, Amsterdam, 1994)

  29. 29.

    & Behaviour of hafnium and neodymium isotopes in the crust: constraints from Precambrian crustally derived granites. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 60, 3717–3723 (1996)

  30. 30.

    et al. Hf-Nd isotopic evolution of the lower crust. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 181, 115–129 (2000)

  31. 31.

    & Creation and destruction of lower continental crust. Geol. Rundsch. 80, 259–278 (1991)

  32. 32.

    & Delamination and delamination magmatism. Tectonophysics 219, 177–189 (1993)

  33. 33.

    & On the conditions for lower crustal convective instability. J. Geophys. Res. 106, 6423–6446 (2001)

  34. 34.

    & Is average continental crust generated at subduction zones?. Geology 16, 314–317 (1988)

  35. 35.

    & An open boundary between lower continental crust and mantle: its role in crust formation and crustal cycling. Tectonophysics 161, 201–212 (1989)

  36. 36.

    Mantle geochemistry: the message from oceanic volcanism. Nature 385, 219–229 (1997)

  37. 37.

    & Na-rich partial melts from newly underplated basaltic crust: the Cordillera Blanca Batholith, Peru. J. Petrol. 37, 1491–1521 (1996)

  38. 38.

    et al. Isotopic evidence from the Ivrea Zone for a hybrid lower crust formed by magmatic underplating. Nature 347, 731–736 (1990)

  39. 39.

    & Effects of repetitive emplacement of basaltic intrusions on thermal evolution and melt generation in the crust. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 203, 937–955 (2002)

  40. 40.

    & in Magmatic Systems (ed. Ryan, M. P.) 291–317 (Academic, San Diego, CA, 1994)

  41. 41.

    et al. Active foundering of a continental arc root beneath the southern Sierra Nevada in California. Nature 431, 41–46 (2004)

  42. 42.

    & Syncollisional delamination and tectonic wedge development in convergent orogens. Tectonics 23 doi: 10.1029/2002TC001430 (2004)

  43. 43.

    Relationships between the trace element composition of sedimentary rocks and upper continental crust. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 2 doi: 10.1029/2000GC000109 (2001)

  44. 44.

    & The growth of continents through geological time studied by Nd isotope analysis of shales. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 67, 19–34 (1984)

  45. 45.

    , & A Nd isotope investigation of sediments related to crustal development in the British Isles. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 63, 229–240 (1983)

  46. 46.

    , & Upper crustal recycling in southern Britain: evidence from Nd and Sr isotopes. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 75, 1–12 (1985)

  47. 47.

    & Progressive growth of the Earth’s continental crust and depleted mantle: geochemical constraints. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 58, 4717–4738 (1994)

  48. 48.

    Episodic continental growth and supercontinents: a mantle avalanche connection?. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 163, 97–108 (1998)

  49. 49.

    , , , & Crustal growth in West Africa at 2.1 Ga. J. Geophys. Res. 97, 345–369 (1992)

  50. 50.

    & Mantle plumes and episodic crustal growth. Nature 372, 63–68 (1994)

  51. 51.

    et al. 4.4 billion years of crustal maturation: oxygen isotope ratios of magmatic zircon. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 150, 561–580 doi:10.1007/s00410-005-0025-8. (2005)

  52. 52.

    , , & Nature of the Earth’s earliest crust from hafnium isotopes in single detrital zircons. Nature 399, 252–255 (1999)

  53. 53.

    & Evolution of the SE-Asian continent from U-Pb and Hf isotopes in single grains of zircon and baddeleyite from large rivers. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 64, 2067–2091 (2000)

  54. 54.

    , , & Constraints on early Earth differentiation from hafnium and neodymium isotopes. Nature 379, 624–627 (1996)

  55. 55.

    , , & Evidence from detrital zircons for the existence of continental crust and oceans on the Earth 4.4 Gyr ago. Nature 409, 175–178 (2001)

  56. 56.

    et al. Heterogeneous Hadean hafnium: Evidence of continental crust at 4.4 to 4.5 Ga. Science 310, 1947–1950 (2005)

  57. 57.

    & in Zircon (eds Hanchar, J. M. & Hoskin, P. W. O.) 215–238 (Reviews in Mineralogy and Geochemistry Vol. 53, Mineralogical Society of America, Washington DC, 2003)

  58. 58.

    , & Oxygen isotope geochemistry of zircon. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 126, 187–206 (1994)

  59. 59.

    , , , & The Nd and Hf isotopic evolution of the mantle through the Archean. Results from the Isua supracrustals, West Greenland, and from the Birimian terranes of West Africa. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 3901–3914 (1999)

  60. 60.

    , & Extreme Nd-isotope heterogeneity in the early Archaean — fact or fiction?. Chem. Geol. 135, 213–231 (1997)

  61. 61.

    , , & Evolution of continental crust and mantle heterogeneity: evidence from Hf isotopes. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 78, 279–297 (1981)

  62. 62.

    , , , & In situ hafnium and lead isotope analysis of detrital zircons from the Devonian sedimentary basin of NE Greenland: a record of repeated crustal reworking. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 141, 83–94 (2001)

  63. 63.

    , , , & Archean crustal evolution in the northern Yilgarn Craton: U–Pb and Hf-isotope evidence from detrital zircons. Precambr. Res. 131, 231–282 (2004)

  64. 64.

    , , , & U-Pb isotopic ages and Hf isotopic composition of single zircons: the search for juvenile Precambrian continental crust. Precambr. Res. 139, 42–100 (2005)

  65. 65.

    & Using hafnium and oxygen isotopes in zircons to unravel the record of crustal evolution. Chem. Geol. 226, 144–162 (2006)

  66. 66.

    , , & Episodic growth of the Gondwana supercontinent from hafnium and oxygen isotope ratios. Nature 439, 580–583 (2006)

  67. 67.

    Growing from below. Nature 347, 711–712 (1990)

  68. 68.

    & Phanerozoic addition rates to the continental crust and crustal growth. Tectonics 3, 63–77 (1984)

  69. 69.

    & Controls on tectonic accretion versus erosion in subduction zones: Implications for the origin and recycling of the continental crust. Rev. Geophys. 42, 1–31 (2004)

  70. 70.

    & Observations at convergent margin concerning sediment subduction, subduction erosion and the growth of the continental crust. Rev. Geophys. 29, 279–316 (1991)

  71. 71.

    Punctuated tectonic evolution of the Earth. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 136, 363–379 (1995)

  72. 72.

    & The Earth’s early evolution. Science 269, 1535–1540 (1995)

  73. 73.

    & Evolution of the depleted mantle: Hf isotope evidence from juvenile rocks through time. Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta 63, 533–556 (1999)

  74. 74.

    , & Common lead-corrected laser ablation ICP-MS U-Pb systematics and geochronology of titanite. Chem. Geol. 227, 37–52 (2006)

  75. 75.

    , & The terrestrial Li isotope cycle: light weight constraints on mantle convection. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 220, 231–245 (2004)

  76. 76.

    & in The Crust (ed. Rudnick, R. L.) 65–84 (Treatise in Geochemistry, Vol. 3, Elsevier, Amsterdam, 2003)

  77. 77.

    & Evolution of the continents and the atmosphere. Science 283, 1519–1522 (1999)

  78. 78.

    & The geochemical evolution of the continental crust. Rev. Geophys. 33, 241–265 (1995)

Download references

Acknowledgements

We thank J. Blundy, T. Elliott, K. Gallagher, G. Helffrich, J. Kramers and S. Turner for many discussions on these and related topics, and for reading early versions of the manuscript. R. Arculus and J. Vervoort provided comments and suggestions that greatly improved the paper. The analytical work relied heavily on the enthusiasm and expertise of the Edinburgh Ion Microprobe Facility, and of C. Coath and G. Foster in Bristol. Author Contributions Both authors contributed equally to this paper.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Department of Earth Sciences, University of Bristol, Wills Memorial Building, Queens Road, Bristol BS8 1RJ, UK

    • C. J. Hawkesworth
    •  & A. I. S. Kemp
  2. School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, James Cook University, Townsville, Queensland 4811, Australia

    • A. I. S. Kemp

Authors

  1. Search for C. J. Hawkesworth in:

  2. Search for A. I. S. Kemp in:

Competing interests

Reprints and permissions information is available at www.nature.com/reprints. The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to C. J. Hawkesworth.

About this article

Publication history

Published

DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05191

Further reading

Comments

By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.