Letter | Published:

Zircons reveal magma fluxes in the Earth’s crust

Nature volume 511, pages 457461 (24 July 2014) | Download Citation


Magma fluxes regulate the planetary thermal budget, the growth of continents and the frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions, and play a part in the genesis and size of magmatic ore deposits1,2,3,4. However, because a large fraction of the magma produced on the Earth does not erupt at the surface2,5, determinations of magma fluxes are rare and this compromises our ability to establish a link between global heat transfer and large-scale geological processes. Here we show that age distributions of zircons, a mineral often present in crustal magmatic rocks6, in combination with thermal modelling, provide an accurate means of retrieving magma fluxes. The characteristics of zircon age populations vary significantly and systematically as a function of the flux and total volume of magma accumulated in the Earth’s crust. Our approach produces results that are consistent with independent determinations of magma fluxes and volumes of magmatic systems. Analysis of existing age population data sets using our method suggests that porphyry-type deposits, plutons and large eruptions each require magma input over different timescales at different characteristic average fluxes. We anticipate that more extensive and complete magma flux data sets will serve to clarify the control that the global heat flux exerts on the frequency of geological events such as volcanic eruptions, and to determine the main factors controlling the distribution of resources on our planet.

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We thank C. Miller for the comments provided on the manuscript. The suggestions of J. Blundy on an early version of this manuscript are appreciated. Discussions with J. Wotzlaw, C. Chelle-Michou and M. Chiaradia helped to structure the study. All authors acknowledge the funding support of the University of Geneva and the Swiss National Science Foundation.

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  1. Section of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of Geneva, rue des Maraîchers 13, CH-1205 Geneva, Switzerland

    • Luca Caricchi
    • , Guy Simpson
    •  & Urs Schaltegger


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L.C. structured the study, took the lead on writing the manuscript, performed the statistical analysis of the data, and collected literature data. G.S. performed the numerical modelling and analysed the results. U.S. focused on the zircon geochronology. All authors jointly contributed to the final version of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luca Caricchi.

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