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Lithospheric layering in the North American craton


How cratons—extremely stable continental areas of the Earth’s crust—formed and remained largely unchanged for more than 2,500 million years is much debated. Recent studies of seismic-wave receiver function data have detected a structural boundary under continental cratons at depths too shallow to be consistent with the lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary, as inferred from seismic tomography and other geophysical studies. Here we show that changes in the direction of azimuthal anisotropy with depth reveal the presence of two distinct lithospheric layers throughout the stable part of the North American continent. The top layer is thick (150 km) under the Archaean core and tapers out on the surrounding Palaeozoic borders. Its thickness variations follow those of a highly depleted layer inferred from thermo-barometric analysis of xenoliths. The lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary is relatively flat (ranging from 180 to 240 km in depth), in agreement with the presence of a thermal conductive root that subsequently formed around the depleted chemical layer. Our findings tie together seismological, geochemical and geodynamical studies of the cratonic lithosphere in North America. They also suggest that the horizon detected in receiver function studies probably corresponds to the sharp mid-lithospheric boundary rather than to the more gradual lithosphere–asthenosphere boundary.

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Figure 1: Precambrian basement age in the North American continent and seismic depth profiles at selected locations.
Figure 2: Upper-mantle layering defined by changes in the direction of the fast axis of azimuthal anisotropy.
Figure 3: Thickness and anisotropy of layer 1 and LAB thickness across the North American continent.
Figure 4: Relative thickness of layers 1 and 2 along the depth cross-section AA' shown in Figs 1a and 2a .
Figure 5: Cartoon illustrating the inferred stratification of the lithosphere.

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We thank the IRIS Data Management Center, the Geological Survey of Canada and the Northern California Earthquake Data Center for providing the waveform data used in this study. Discussion with K. Fischer helped improve the manuscript. We thank K. Liu, R. Allen, M. Fouch, A. Frederiksen and A. Courtier for providing their SKS compilations, and W. Griffin and S. O’Reilly for their North American olivine composition measurements. This study was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation/EarthScope programme. This is the Berkeley Seismological Laboratory contribution number 10-08.

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B.R. developed the concept and methodology of the study. H.Y. assembled the data set, and performed the inversions and the supporting resolution tests. Both authors extensively discussed the results and jointly developed implications. Both authors contributed to writing the paper.

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Correspondence to Barbara Romanowicz.

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Yuan, H., Romanowicz, B. Lithospheric layering in the North American craton. Nature 466, 1063–1068 (2010).

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