Letter | Published:

Hafnium isotope evidence for a transition in the dynamics of continental growth 3.2 Gyr ago

Nature volume 485, pages 627630 (31 May 2012) | Download Citation


Earth’s lithosphere probably experienced an evolution towards the modern plate tectonic regime, owing to secular changes in mantle temperature1,2. Radiogenic isotope variations are interpreted as evidence for the declining rates of continental crustal growth over time3,4,5, with some estimates suggesting that over 70% of the present continental crustal reservoir was extracted by the end of the Archaean eon3,5. Patterns of crustal growth and reworking in rocks younger than three billion years (Gyr) are thought to reflect the assembly and break-up of supercontinents by Wilson cycle processes and mark an important change in lithosphere dynamics6. In southern West Greenland numerous studies have, however, argued for subduction settings and crust growth by arc accretion back to 3.8 Gyr ago7,8,9, suggesting that modern-day tectonic regimes operated during the formation of the earliest crustal rock record. Here we report in situ uranium–lead, hafnium and oxygen isotope data from zircons of basement rocks in southern West Greenland across the critical time period during which modern-like tectonic regimes could have initiated. Our data show pronounced differences in the hafnium isotope–time patterns across this interval, requiring changes in the characteristics of the magmatic protolith. The observations suggest that 3.9–3.5-Gyr-old rocks differentiated from a >3.9-Gyr-old source reservoir with a chondritic to slightly depleted hafnium isotope composition. In contrast, rocks formed after 3.2 Gyr ago register the first additions of juvenile depleted material (that is, new mantle-derived crust) since 3.9 Gyr ago, and are characterized by striking shifts in hafnium isotope ratios similar to those shown by Phanerozoic subduction-related orogens10,11,12. These data suggest a transitional period 3.5–3.2 Gyr ago from an ancient (3.9–3.5 Gyr old) crustal evolutionary regime unlike that of modern plate tectonics to a geodynamic setting after 3.2 Gyr ago that involved juvenile crust generation by plate tectonic processes.

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This work was financed through grants from the Geocenter Denmark (Geocenterbevilling 7-2006 to T.N. and A.S.), the Swedish research council (research grant number 2008-3447 to A.S.) and the Danish National Research Foundation to NordCEE. J.E.H. was financed by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) under grant numbers Mu 1406/8 and HO 4794/1-1. A.I.S.K. acknowledges support from the Australian Research Council fellowships DP0773029 and FT100100059. Y. Hu provided technical assistance during Hf isotope measurement in the Advanced Analytical Centre, James Cook University. The NordSIM laboratory is operated under an agreement between the research funding agencies of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the Geological Survey of Finland and the Swedish Museum of Natural History; this is NordSIM contribution number 309. We are grateful for logistical and financial support given by the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. This paper is published with permission from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland.

Author information


  1. Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS), Øster Voldgade 10, 1350 Copenhagen K, Denmark

    • T. Næraa
    •  & T. F. Kokfelt
  2. Nordic Center for Earth Evolution (NordCEE), Natural History Museum of Denmark, University of Copenhagen, Øster Voldgade 5-7, 1350 Copenhagen K, Denmark

    • T. Næraa
    •  & M. T. Rosing
  3. Department of Geology, Lund University, Sölvegatan 12, 223 62 Lund, Sweden

    • A. Scherstén
  4. Centre for Exploration Targeting, School of Earth and Environment, University of Western Australia, Crawley, WA 6009 Australia

    • A. I. S. Kemp
  5. School of Earth and Environmental Science, James Cook University, Townsville, QLD 4811, Australia

    • A. I. S. Kemp
  6. Institut für Geologie und Mineralogie, Universität zu Köln, Zülpicher Strasse 49a, 50674 Köln, Germany

    • J. E. Hoffmann
  7. Steinmann Institut für Geologie, Mineralogie & Paläontologie, Rheinische Wilhelms-Universität, Poppelsdorfer Schloss, 53115 Bonn, Germany

    • J. E. Hoffmann
  8. Swedish Museum of Natural History, Box 50007, SE-104 05 Stockholm, Sweden

    • M. J. Whitehouse


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T.N., A.S., J.E.H. and M.T.R. did the fieldwork and sampling and T.N. carried out all analyses. T.N., together with A.S., A.I.S.K. and M.T.R. developed and wrote the manuscript. T.N. prepared the Supplementary Information. A.I.S.K. assisted with Hf isotope analyses and M.J.W. with oxygen isotope analyses. M.J.W., T.F.K. and J.E.H. assisted with data interpretation and with refining the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to T. Næraa.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Text and Data and additional references.

Excel files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Table 1

    This file contains whole rock major and trace element chemistry.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Table 2

    This file contains Zircon U-Pb age data.

  3. 3.

    Supplementary Table 3

    This file contains Zircon Hf isotope data.

  4. 4.

    Supplementary Table 4

    This file contains Zircon O isotope data.

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