Letter | Published:

Emergence of blueschists on Earth linked to secular changes in oceanic crust composition

Nature Geoscience volume 9, pages 6064 (2016) | Download Citation

Abstract

The oldest blueschists—metamorphic rocks formed during subduction—are of Neoproterozoic age1, and 0.7–0.8 billion years old. Yet, subduction of oceanic crust to mantle depths is thought to have occurred since the Hadean, over 4 billion years ago2. Blueschists typically form under cold geothermal gradients of less than 400 °C GPa−1, so their absence in the ancient rock record is typically attributed to hotter pre-Neoproterozoic mantle prohibiting such low-temperature metamorphism; however, modern analogues of Archaean subduction suggest that blueschist-facies metamorphic conditions are attainable at the slab surface3. Here we show that the absence of blueschists in the ancient geological record can be attributed to the changing composition of oceanic crust throughout Earth history, which is a consequence of secular cooling of the mantle since the Archaean4. Oceanic crust formed on the hot, early Earth would have been rich in magnesium oxide (MgO). We use phase equilibria calculations to show that blueschists do not form in high-MgO rocks under subduction-related geothermal gradients. Instead, the subduction of MgO-rich oceanic crust would have created greenschist-like rocks—metamorphic rocks formed today at low temperatures and pressures. These ancient metamorphic products can hold about 20% more water than younger metamorphosed oceanic crust, implying that the global hydrologic cycle was more efficient in the deep geological past than today.

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Acknowledgements

Comments from B. Kaus and J. Castro (JGU Mainz) are gratefully appreciated. R. Powell (Univ. Melbourne) is thanked for providing code to calculate densities with THERMOCALC.

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Affiliations

  1. Institute of Geosciences, Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz, 55128 Mainz, Germany

    • Richard M. Palin
  2. Institute of Geosciences, Johannes-Gutenberg University Mainz, 55128 Mainz, Germany

    • Richard W. White

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Contributions

R.M.P. conceived the idea and performed the calculations. Both authors analysed the data and wrote the paper.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Richard M. Palin.

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DOI

https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo2605

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