Continental crust generated in oceanic arcs


Thin oceanic crust is formed by decompression melting of the upper mantle at mid-ocean ridges, but the origin of the thick and buoyant continental crust is enigmatic. Juvenile continental crust may form from magmas erupted above intra-oceanic subduction zones, where oceanic lithosphere subducts beneath other oceanic lithosphere. However, it is unclear why the subduction of dominantly basaltic oceanic crust would result in the formation of andesitic continental crust at the surface. Here we use geochemical and geophysical data to reconstruct the evolution of the Central American land bridge, which formed above an intra-oceanic subduction system over the past 70 Myr. We find that the geochemical signature of erupted lavas evolved from basaltic to andesitic about 10 Myr ago—coincident with the onset of subduction of more oceanic crust that originally formed above the Galápagos mantle plume. We also find that seismic P-waves travel through the crust at velocities intermediate between those typically observed for oceanic and continental crust. We develop a continentality index to quantitatively correlate geochemical composition with the average P-wave velocity of arc crust globally. We conclude that although the formation and evolution of continents may involve many processes, melting enriched oceanic crust within a subduction zone—a process probably more common in the Archaean—can produce juvenile continental crust.

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Figure 1: Geochemical evolution in the CALB over the past 70 Myr.
Figure 2: Evolution from basaltic to andesitic compositions in the CALB in the past 10 Myr.
Figure 3: Seismic signature of Costa Rica from active source experiments.
Figure 4: Average compositions of intra-oceanic arcs.
Figure 5: Integrated continental index results.


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This project was supported by NSF awards EAR-1221414 and EAR-1201903 to E.G., NSF award OCE-0405654 to W.S.H. and NSF EAR-0742368 to P.K. and by German Science Foundation (DFG) awards HO1833/6 and SFB574, C2 (Contribution Nr. 275) to K.H., P.v.d.B. and F.H. This paper benefited from intellectual discussions with T. Plank, J. Gill and K. Condie. Reviews and comments by N. Sou, J. Trela, R. Rudnick and B. Jicha improved the original manuscript.

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E.G. planned the project, compiled and modelled the geochemical data and derived the continental index. E.G., J.L.H., W.S.H., K.H., E.A.V. and P.K. contributed to writing the paper and developing the ideas. J.L.H, E.E. and W.S.H. conducted the active seismic experiment in Costa Rica and modelled the geophysical data. K.H., E.G., F.H. and P.v.d.B. carried out field studies and generated geochemical data from the CALB. E.G., E.A.V. and S.C. developed the statistical codes and conducted data analysis. P.K., M.J.C., A.J.C. and G.M.Y. collaborated in the project with data and data analysis.

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Correspondence to Esteban Gazel.

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Gazel, E., Hayes, J., Hoernle, K. et al. Continental crust generated in oceanic arcs. Nature Geosci 8, 321–327 (2015).

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