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Archaean seafloors shallowed with age due to radiogenic heating in the mantle


Given the scarcity of geological data, knowledge of Earth’s landscape during the Archaean eon is limited. Although the continental crust may have been as massive as present by 4 Gyr ago, the extent to which it was submerged or exposed is unclear. One key component in understanding the amount of exposed landmasses in the early Earth is the evolution of the oceanic lithosphere. Whereas the present-day oceanic lithosphere subsides as it ages, based on numerical models of mantle convection we find that higher internal heating due to a larger concentration of radioactive isotopes in the Archaean mantle halted subsidence, possibly inducing seafloor shallowing before 2.5 Gyr ago. In such a scenario, exposed landmasses in the form of volcanic islands and resurfaced seamounts or oceanic plateaus can remain subaerial for extended periods of time, and may have provided the only stable patches of dryland in the Archaean. Our results therefore permit a re-evaluation of possible locations for the origin of life, as they provide support to an existing hypothesis that suggests that life had its origins on land rather than in an oceanic environment.

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Fig. 1: Bathymetric evolution of oceanic lithosphere at present and in the early Earth.
Fig. 2: Effect of radiogenic heating and mantle viscosity on seafloor bathymetry.
Fig. 3: Sea level as a function of continental growth and ocean–mantle water flux.
Fig. 4: Surface environment for rapid and gradual continental growth, with corresponding water fluxes.

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Data availability

Data used for figures in the main text and Methods are generated by our convection and freeboard computer codes. We have been unable to share these data due to the substantial size of the data files. Computer code to generate data files, however, is available upon request to the corresponding authors.

Code availability

Computer code is available upon request to the corresponding authors.


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We are grateful to K. Rogers, L. Williams and R. Hernandez for their help and assistance while preparing this manuscript. This material is based upon work supported in part by two grants from the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration: (1) through the NASA Astrobiology Institute under Cooperative Agreement No. NNA15BB03A, and (2) under Cooperative Agreement No. 80NSSC19M0069, both issued through the Science Mission Directorate. This material is also supported by the US National Science Foundation under grant EAR-1753916.

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J.C.R. performed the calculations and wrote the manuscript. J.K. designed the project, discussed the results and commented on the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Juan Carlos Rosas or Jun Korenaga.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature Geoscience thanks Norman Sleep and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work. Primary Handling Editor: Rebecca Neely.

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Extended data

Extended Data Fig. 1 Modelling strategy.

Numerical results of a model with Ra = 3 × 109 (η0 ≈ 1.3 × 1019 Pa s) and H* = 13.2 (H = 2.12 × 10−12 W kg−1), appropriate for present-day Earth. a-b: Snapshots of uppermost section of temperature field 40 Ma and 109 Ma, before and after onset of convection, respectively, with temperature contours at an interval of 100 C. c: Horizontally averaged temperature profiles for snapshots a and b. d: Ridge-perpendicular thermal structure constructed by assembling horizontally averaged temperature profiles for every time step. Subsidence may then be calculated by computing instantaneous Stokes flow and applying Equation (1). Location of temperature profiles a and b, as well as the onset time, are shown. Isotherms of 1200 C and 1300 C as calculated using radiogenic heating (RH; solid) and half space cooling (HSC; dashed) bathymetries are highlighted. before onset time, thermal structure of radiogenic heating model resembles that predicted by HSC model.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Subsidence deviation.

a: Evolution of δw for models with different values of H* and Ra = 3 × 108. Models are divided into conductive and convective phases at onset time, with each phase being fitted by a linear trend (δw1 and δw2, respectively). For any H*, δw1 intersects the horizontal axis at \({t}_{i}^{1/2}=2.5\) Myr1/2. b-c: Slope of δw1 (b) and δw2 at \({t}_{\max }=500\) Myr (c) as a function of H*. Linear trends are given by m1 = a1H* in b, where a1 = 0.001, and by \(\delta {w}_{2}({t}_{\max })={a}_{2}{H}^{* }+{b}_{2}\) in c, where a2 = 0.0228 and b2 = 0.0452. Colour coding as in a.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Comparison between modelled bathymetry and empirical scaling law.

a-c: Modelled seafloor subsidence for models with Ra = 3 × 108 (a), Ra = 1 × 109 (b) and Ra = 3 × 109 (c), respectively (solid). Colour coding as in Extended Data Figure 2. Seafloor subsidence as predicted from empirical scaling law is also shown (equation 16; dashed). d-f: Difference between modelled seafloor subsidence and empirical scaling for Ra = 3 × 108 (d), Ra = 1 × 109 (e) and Ra = 3 × 109 (f), respectively. Colour coding as in a. Zero-difference level is shown (thin horizontal line). Difference never exceeds 250 m (dashed horizontal lines).

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Rosas, J.C., Korenaga, J. Archaean seafloors shallowed with age due to radiogenic heating in the mantle. Nat. Geosci. 14, 51–56 (2021).

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