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Emergence of modern continental crust about 3 billion years ago


The continental crust is the principal record of conditions on the Earth during the past 4.4 billion years1,2. However, how the continental crust formed and evolved through time remains highly controversial3,4. In particular, the composition and thickness of juvenile continental crust are unknown. Here we show that Rb/Sr ratios can be used as a proxy for both the silica content and the thickness of the continental crust. We calculate Rb/Sr ratios of the juvenile crust for over 13,000 samples, with Nd model ages ranging from the Hadean to Phanerozoic. The ratios were calculated based on the evolution of Sr isotopes in the period between the TDM Nd model age and the crystallization of the samples analysed. We find that the juvenile crust had a low silica content and was largely mafic in composition during the first 1.5 billion years of Earth’s evolution, consistent with magmatism on a pre-plate tectonics planet. About 3 billion years ago, the Rb/Sr ratios of the juvenile continental crust increased, indicating that the newly formed crust became more silica-rich and probably thicker. This transition is in turn linked to the onset of plate tectonics5 and an increase of continental detritus into the oceans6.

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Figure 1: Correlation between Rb/Sr and SiO2 in crustal rocks, from a compilation of 96,465 magmatic rocks.
Figure 2: Variation of Rb/Sr ratios in juvenile crust (Stage 1 in Fig. 1) as a function its formation age.
Figure 3: Correlation between Rb/Sr (and SiO2, inset) and crustal thickness in central and south western America.
Figure 4: Variation in the thickness of juvenile continental crust through time, calculated from the relationships in Figs 2 and 3.

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This work was supported by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC grants NE/K008862/1 and NE/J021822/1). Thorough reviews from C-T. Lee and J. Vervoort contributed greatly to improve this manuscript. We thank P. Cawood, C. Chauvel, H. Delavault, T. Elliott and T. Prave for many discussions and their comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

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B.D. and C.J.H. designed the study. B.D. and A.W. processed the data and designed the figures and B.D. and C.J.H. wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Bruno Dhuime.

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Dhuime, B., Wuestefeld, A. & Hawkesworth, C. Emergence of modern continental crust about 3 billion years ago. Nature Geosci 8, 552–555 (2015).

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