Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Zircons reveal magma fluxes in the Earth’s crust


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Time evolution of maximum, average and minimum temperature, along with the number of newly crystallized zircons for different magma fluxes and final volume of accumulated magma.
Figure 2: Map of selected models performed in the magma flux versus final injected volume space.
Figure 3: Contours of mode, median and standard deviation for zircon crystallization time spectra, calculated from the numerical modelling.
Figure 4: Results of the inversion of natural populations of zircon ages.


  1. 1

    Crisp, J. A. Rates of magma emplacement and volcanic output. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 20, 177–211 (1984)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    White, S. M., Crisp, J. A. & Spera, F. J. Long-term volumetric eruption rates and magma budgets. Geochem. Geophys. Geosyst. 7, Q03010 (2006)

    ADS  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Caricchi, L., Annen, C., Blundy, J., Simpson, G. & Pinel, V. Frequency and magnitude of volcanic eruptions controlled by magma injection and buoyancy. Nature Geosci. 7, 126–130 (2014)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

    Longo, A. A., Dilles, J. H., Grunder, A. L. & Duncan, R. Evolution of calc-alkaline volcanism and associated hydrothermal gold deposits at Yanacocha, Peru. Econ. Geol. 105, 1191–1241 (2010)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Lipman, P. W. Incremental assembly and prolonged consolidation of Cordilleran magma chambers: evidence from the Southern Rocky Mountain volcanic field. Geosphere 3, 42 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Watson, E. B. & Harrison, T. M. Zircon saturation revisited: temperature and composition effects in a variety of crustal magma types. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 64, 295–304 (1983)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Schaltegger, U. et al. Zircon and titanite recording 1.5 million years of magma accretion, crystallization and initial cooling in a composite pluton (southern Adamello batholith, northern Italy). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 286, 208–218 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Schoene, B. et al. Rates of magma differentiation and emplacement in a ballooning pluton recorded by U–Pb TIMS-TEA, Adamello batholith, Italy. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 355–356, 162–173 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 9

    Michel, J., Baumgartner, L., Putlitz, B., Schaltegger, U. & Ovtcharova, M. Incremental growth of the Patagonian Torres del Paine laccolith over 90 k.y. Geology 36, 459 (2008)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Leuthold, J. et al. Time resolved construction of a bimodal laccolith (Torres del Paine, Patagonia). Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 325–326, 85–92 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Lissenberg, C. J., Rioux, M., Shimizu, N., Bowring, S. A. & Mevel, C. Zircon dating of oceanic crustal accretion. Science 323, 1048–1050 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Annen, C. From plutons to magma chambers: thermal constraints on the accumulation of eruptible silicic magma in the upper crust. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 284, 409–416 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Michaut, C. & Jaupart, C. Ultra-rapid formation of large volumes of evolved magma. Earth Planet. Sci. Lett. 250, 38–52 (2006)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Glazner, A. F., Bartley, J. M., Coleman, D. S., Gray, W. & Taylor, R. Z. Are plutons assembled over millions of years by amalgamation from small magma chambers? GSA Today 14, 4–11 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    Caricchi, L., Annen, C., Rust, A. & Blundy, J. Insights into the mechanisms and timescales of pluton assembly from deformation patterns of mafic enclaves. J. Geophys. Res. 117, B11206 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Piwinskii, A. J. & Wyllie, P. J. Experimental studies of igneous rock series—a zoned pluton in Wallowa batholith Oregon. J. Geol. 76, 205–234 (1968)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Boehnke, P., Watson, E. B., Trail, D., Harrison, T. M. & Schmitt, A. K. Zircon saturation re-revisited. Chem. Geol. 351, 324–334 (2013)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Harrison, T. M., Watson, E. B. & Aikman, A. B. Temperature spectra of zircon crystallization in plutonic rocks. Geology 35, 635 (2007)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Jaeger, J. C. Thermal effects of intrusions. Rev. Geophys. Space Phys. 2, 443–466 (1964)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Marsh, B. D. On the crystallinity, probability of occurrence, and rheology of lava and magma. Contrib. Mineral. Petrol. 78, 85–98 (1981)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21

    von Quadt, A. et al. Zircon crystallization and the lifetimes of ore-forming magmatic-hydrothermal systems. Geology 39, 731–734 (2011)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  22. 22

    Steinberger, I., Hinks, D., Driesner, T. & Heinrich, C. A. Source plutons driving porphyry copper ore formation: combining geomagnetic data, thermal constraints, and chemical mass balance to quantify the magma chamber beneath the Bingham Canyon deposit. Econ. Geol. 108, 605–624 (2013)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    John, B. E. & Blundy, J. D. Emplacement-related deformation of granitoid magmas, southern Adamello massif, Italy. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 105, 1517–1541 (1993)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    de Saint Blanquat, M. et al. Multiscale magmatic cyclicity, duration of pluton construction, and the paradoxical relationship between tectonism and plutonism in continental arcs. Tectonophysics 500, 20–33 (2011)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Chelle-Michou, C., Chiaradia, M., Ovtcharova, M., Ulianov, A. & Wotzlaw, J.-F. Zircon petrochronology reveals the temporal link between porphyry systems and the magmatic evolution of their hidden plutonic roots (the Eocene Coroccohuayco deposit, Peru). Lithos 198–199, 129–140 (2014)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Wotzlaw, J. F. et al. Tracking the evolution of large-volume silicic magma reservoirs from assembly to supereruption. Geology 41, 867–870 (2013)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Lipman, P. W., Dungan, M. A., Brown, L. L. & Deino, A. Recurrent eruption and subsidence at the Platoro caldera complex, southeastern San Juan volcanic field, Colorado: new tales from old tuffs. Geol. Soc. Am. Bull. 108, 1039–1055 (1996)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Wilson, C. J. N. & Charlier, B. L. A. Rapid rates of magma generation at contemporaneous magma systems, Taupo volcano, New Zealand: insights from U-Th model-age spectra in zircons. J. Petrol. 50, 875–907 (2009)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. 29

    Jellinek, A. M. & DePaolo, D. J. A model for the origin of large silicic magma chambers: precursors of caldera-forming eruptions. Bull. Volcanol. 65, 363–381 (2003)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Gregg, P. M., de Silva, S. L., Grosfils, E. B. & Parmigiani, J. P. Catastrophic caldera-forming eruptions: thermomechanics and implications for eruption triggering and maximum caldera dimensions on Earth. J. Volcanol. Geotherm. Res. 241–242, 1–12 (2012)

    ADS  Article  Google Scholar 

  31. 31

    Hanchar, J. M. & Watson, E. B. Zircon saturation thermometry. Rev. Mineral. Geochem. 53, 89–112 (2003)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  32. 32

    Piwinskii, A. J. & Wyllie, P. J. Experimental studies of igneous rock series. felsic body suite from Needle Point pluton, Wallowa-Batholith, Oregon. J. Geol. 78, 52–76 (1970)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Luca Caricchi.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Figure 1 Distributions of zircon crystallization times.

a, The Lago della Vacca pluton7,8 (in Italy); b, Fish Canyon Tuff eruption26 (in USA); c, Oruanui eruptions28 (in New Zealand). The zircon crystallization times are calculated by subtracting each zircon age from the age of the oldest zircon of the population.

Extended Data Figure 2 Distribution of temperature after 100 kyr of magma injection in magma bodies emplaced with different modalities.

For all panels the rate of magma injection is 10−2 km3 yr−1, the final volume of injected magma is 500 km3 and the initial wall rock temperature at 10 km is 300 °C. a, Magma is injected at the core. b, Magma is injected in vertically elongated pulses and the magma body grows by lateral displacement of the surrounding crust. c, Sill-like magma batches are stacked vertically and the intrusion grows by displacement of the surrounding crust along the vertical direction.

Extended Data Figure 3 Results obtained by the inversion of zircon populations.

a, Torres del Paine granites; b, The Coroccohuayco porphyry; c, Oruanui eruption. The range of estimated volume and magma fluxes are highlighted by the shaded areas and plotted in Fig. 4 for comparison with similar magmatic and volcanic systems. The red lines provide independent estimates of magma flux and final volume of the magmatic bodies. Estimates for the average magma flux into the system do not exist for the Oruanui eruption and therefore the vertical lines of the red box were not traced. Data are from refs 9 and 10 for Torres del Paine, ref. 25 for Coroccohuayco and ref. 28 for Oruanui. The insets in the figure show the populations of zircon crystallization times on which the statistical analysis has been performed.

Extended Data Figure 4 Variation of crystal fraction as a function of temperature.

The curve is calculated using equation (1), which provides the best fit to the data of ref. 32 collected at a confining pressure of 200 MPa and water-saturated conditions. The temperatures at which different phases appear in the crystallizing assemblage are from ref. 16.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Table 1. (XLSX 60 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Caricchi, L., Simpson, G. & Schaltegger, U. Zircons reveal magma fluxes in the Earth’s crust. Nature 511, 457–461 (2014).

Download citation

Further reading


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.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing