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Evolution of the continental crust

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.

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Figure 1: Trace-element ratios and abundances.
Figure 2: Generation of continental crust through time as estimated from different approaches.
Figure 3: Histogram of detrital and inherited zircon crystallization ages from southeast Australia overlain with crust formation ages inferred from the Hf-O isotope compositions of the same grains.
Figure 4: Hf and U-Pb model ages.
Figure 5: The relationship between the residence time of elements in the upper crust and the annual rates of crust generation.

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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.

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Hawkesworth, C., Kemp, A. Evolution of the continental crust. Nature 443, 811–817 (2006). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature05191

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