Secular change in Archaean crust formation recorded in Western Australia


The formation mechanisms for early Archaean continental crust are controversial. Continental crust may have accumulated via horizontal accretion in modern-style subduction zones or via vertical accretion above upper mantle upwelling zones. However, the characteristics of the continental crust changes at the transition between the Archaean and Proterozoic eons, suggesting that continental crust did not form in subduction zones until at least the late Archaean. Here I use seismic receiver function data to analyse the bulk properties of continental crust in Western Australia, which formed and stabilized over a billion years in the Archaean. I find that the bulk seismic properties of the crust cluster spatially, with similar clusters confined within the boundaries of tectonic terranes. I use local Archaean crustal growth models to show that both plume and subduction processes may have had a role in creating crust throughout the Archaean. A correlation between crustal age and the bulk seismic properties of the crust reveals a trend: from about 3.5 Gyr ago (Ga) to the end of the Archaean, the crust gradually thickened and simultaneously became more evolved in composition. I propose that this trend reflects the transition between crust dominantly formed above mantle plumes, to crust formed in subduction zones—a transition that may reflect secular cooling of Earth’s mantle.

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Figure 1: Spatial distribution of the crustal observations in the Western Australian craton.
Figure 2: Clustering and temporal variations in the WA crust.
Figure 3: Comparison between the WA and global crust.

Change history

  • 10 September 2015

    In the version of this Letter originally published, the colour bar for Fig. 1d should have been labelled 'Bulk crustal Vp (km s-1)'. This has been corrected in all versions.


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I thank the Research School of Earth Sciences at the Australian National University and the IRIS DMC for providing the seismic data; B. Kennett and M. Salmon (ANU) for sharing and discussion on the AuSREM model; and A. Aitken (UWA) for sharing the gravity inversion results. Discussions with the following colleagues are acknowledged: A. Hickman, H. Smithies, S. Johnson and K. Gessner of the GSWA for the WA Archaean tectonics; K. Czarnota (Geoscience Australia) for WA isotopic ages and pointing to the Champion 2013 age data set; and R. Fischer (ETH) for Archaean geodynamics and pointing to the Sizova et al. 2010 paper. I thank W. L. Griffin and S. O’Reilly for suggestions and comments on an early version of the manuscript. This is contribution 649 from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems ( This paper is published with permission of the Executive Director of the Geological Survey of Western Australia.

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Yuan, H. Secular change in Archaean crust formation recorded in Western Australia. Nature Geosci 8, 808–813 (2015).

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