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Surface erosion events controlled the evolution of plate tectonics on Earth

Abstract

Plate tectonics is among the most important geological processes on Earth, but its emergence and evolution remain unclear. Here we extrapolate models of present-day plate tectonics to the past and propose that since about three billion years ago the rise of continents and the accumulation of sediments at continental edges and in trenches has provided lubrication for the stabilization of subduction and has been crucial in the development of plate tectonics on Earth. We conclude that the two largest surface erosion and subduction lubrication events occurred after the Palaeoproterozoic Huronian global glaciations (2.45 to 2.2 billion years ago), leading to the formation of the Columbia supercontinent, and after the Neoproterozoic ‘snowball’ Earth glaciations (0.75 to 0.63 billion years ago). The snowball Earth event followed the ‘boring billion’—a period of reduced plate tectonic activity about 1.75 to 0.75 billion years ago that was probably caused by a shortfall of sediments in trenches—and it kick-started the modern episode of active plate tectonics.

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Fig. 1: Global and regional models showing the effect of sediments on contemporary subduction.
Fig. 2: Geological proxies for subduction and plate tectonic activity.
Fig. 3: Geodynamic interpretation of geochemical proxies for recycling of sediments.
Fig. 4: Plume-induced retreating subduction generating a regional ‘plate tectonics’ cell48.
Fig. 5: Summary of the factors that control the emergence and evolution of plate tectonics on Earth.

Data and code availability

The executable file, as well as all input and output files, used in the calculations of the global plate velocities are available on request.

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Acknowledgements

We acknowledge comments by N. Arndt, A. Sobolev and colleagues from the Geodynamic Modeling Section in GFZ: A. Babeyko, S. Brune and B. Steinberger. We thank W. Behr for comments that prompted us to strengthen the arguments presented in the Article. We are grateful to R. Ernst who provided the LIP dataset and to Z.-X. Li who provided the orogen dataset27. S.V.S. is grateful to R. Stern, who brought to his attention the problems of the origin and evolution of plate tectonics. Deep Carbon Observatory supported S.V.S.’s participation in the Workshop on the Origin and Evolution of Plate Tectonics, Locarno, Switzerland in 2016, where he first presented the hypothesis discussed in the paper.

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Nature thanks Whitney Behr and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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S.V.S. conceived the study, suggested the hypothesis, designed and computed the models and produced the figures. S.V.S. and M.B. interpreted the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Stephan V. Sobolev.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Strength in the subduction channel.

ac, The subduction channel of the seismic cycle model for the southern Andes19. Shown are the stress distribution (a) and the strain rate distribution (b) during the inter-seismic phase of the seismic cycle, 320 years after the great earthquake, as well as a magnified image of the subduction channel (c). Temperature isolines are shown in degrees Celsius, and the location of the maximum shear stress in the channel is given as a proxy for the brittle–ductile transition. d, Sketch of the stress distribution inside the subduction channel, showing the friction-controlled (brittle) and ductile deformation domains.

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Sobolev, S.V., Brown, M. Surface erosion events controlled the evolution of plate tectonics on Earth. Nature 570, 52–57 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1258-4

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