Earth’s mantle convection, which facilitates planetary heat loss, is manifested at the surface as present-day plate tectonics1. When plate tectonics emerged and how it has evolved through time are two of the most fundamental and challenging questions in Earth science1,2,3,4. Metamorphic rocks—rocks that have experienced solid-state mineral transformations due to changes in pressure (P) and temperature (T)—record periods of burial, heating, exhumation and cooling that reflect the tectonic environments in which they formed5,6. Changes in the global distribution of metamorphic (P, T) conditions in the continental crust through time might therefore reflect the secular evolution of Earth’s tectonic processes. On modern Earth, convergent plate margins are characterized by metamorphic rocks that show a bimodal distribution of apparent thermal gradients (temperature change with depth; parameterized here as metamorphic T/P) in the form of paired metamorphic belts5, which is attributed to metamorphism near (low T/P) and away from (high T/P) subduction zones5,6. Here we show that Earth’s modern plate tectonic regime has developed gradually with secular cooling of the mantle since the Neoarchaean era, 2.5 billion years ago. We evaluate the emergence of bimodal metamorphism (as a proxy for secular change in plate tectonics) using a statistical evaluation of the distributions of metamorphic T/P through time. We find that the distribution of metamorphic T/P has gradually become wider and more distinctly bimodal from the Neoarchaean era to the present day, and the average metamorphic T/P has decreased since the Palaeoproterozoic era. Our results contrast with studies that inferred an abrupt transition in tectonic style in the Neoproterozoic era (about 0.7 billion years ago1,7,8) or that suggested that modern plate tectonics has operated since the Palaeoproterozoic era (about two billion years ago9,10,11,12) at the latest.
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This work was funded by the Morton K. Blaustein Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Johns Hopkins University. T.E.J. acknowledges support from the State Key Laboratory for Geological Processes and Mineral Resources, China University of Geosciences, Wuhan (Open Fund GPMR210704). R. Rudnick and B. Hacker provided helpful discussion in the project’s infancy. The authors thank P. Cawood and R. Stern for their constructive reviews of this work.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Publisher’s note: Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
The distribution of ages of metamorphism is characterized by peaks at about 2.6, 1.9, 1.0, 0.5 and <0.2 Gyr ago. For the statistical evaluation of metamorphic data presented in this paper, the data were binned about each of these discrete peaks to provide more statistically robust (with higher number of data points) interpretations.
Extended Data Fig. 2 Comparison between T/P values for the Orocopia–Pelona–Rand schist and for the entire dataset used in this study.
a, All data are divided into low-, intermediate- and high-T/P after ref. 4. b, Moving averages (300-Myr window) and one-standard-deviation envelopes of the data shown in a. The OPRS is thought to have formed in response to a transition from steeper, colder subduction (‘Franciscan-type’) to shallower (more gently dipping), hotter subduction related to the incoming of an oceanic plateau (thicker, more buoyant oceanic lithosphere)26. Many Mesoproterozoic and Palaeoproterozoic orogenic belts preserve bimodal distributions of metamorphism, with the lower-T/P rocks (‘intermediate-T/P’ in this figure) being characterized by average T/P similar to that of the OPRS (about 500–650 °C GPa−1)26, including the Grenville, Sveconorwegian, Trans-North China, Trans-Hudson, Eburnean, Ubendian–Usagaran and Belomorian belts.