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Thermochemical lithosphere differentiation and the origin of cratonic mantle


Cratons record the early history of continental lithosphere formation, yet how they became the most enduring part of the lithosphere on Earth remains unknown1. Here we propose a mechanism for the formation of large volumes of melt-depleted cratonic lithospheric mantle (CLM) and its evolution to stable cratons. Numerical models show large decompression melting of a hot, early Earth mantle beneath a stretching lithosphere, where melt extraction leaves large volumes of depleted mantle at depth. The dehydrated, stiffer mantle resists further deformation, forcing strain migration and cooling, thereby assimilating depleted mantle into the lithosphere. The negative feedback between strain localization and stiffening sustains long-term diffused extension and emplacement of large amounts of depleted CLM. The formation of CLM at low pressure and its deeper re-equilibration reproduces the evolution of Archaean lithosphere constrained by depth–temperature conditions1,2, whereas large degrees of depletion3,4 and melt volumes5 in Archaean cratons are best matched by models with lower lithospheric strength. Under these conditions, which are otherwise viable for plate tectonics6,7, thermochemical differentiation effectively prevents yielding and formation of margins: rifting and lithosphere subduction are short lived and embedded in the cooling CLM as relict structures, reproducing the recycling and reworking environments that are found in Archaean cratons8,9. Although they undergo major melting and extensive recycling during an early stage lasting approximately 500 million years, the modelled lithospheres progressively differentiate and stabilize, and then recycling and reworking become episodic. Early major melting and recycling events explain the production and loss of primordial Hadean lithosphere and crust10, whereas later stabilization and episodic reworking provides a context for the creation of continental cratons in the Archaean era4,8.

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Fig. 1: Viscosity distribution, velocity field, surface strain rate and surface heat flow during lithosphere stretching and rifting and formation of depleted, stiffer continental lithospheric mantle.
Fig. 2: Viscosity distribution, surface strain rate and surface heat flow after about 1 Gyr of model time and comparisons with PT conditions in Archaean and Proterozoic cratons.
Fig. 3: Surface velocity and distribution of depletion degree, crust and recycled lithosphere in models developing plate tectonics-like features.
Fig. 4: Melt, melt rates and growth of the crust for different strengths tested versus model time.
Fig. 5: Sketch of the thermochemical differentiation of the lithosphere and the stabilization to form a craton.

Data availability

All data are generated using Underworld2 version 2.8.1b, available at Data generated are included at, licensed under a CC BY 4.0 license. Data in Fig. 2 are from refs. 1,2.


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We thank T. Gerya, C. Herzberg and G. Pearson for comments on the manuscript. We acknowledge support from Australian Research Council grants FT170100254 (to F.A.C.) and FL160100168 (to P.A.C.). We acknowledge the provision of resources and services from the National Computational Infrastructure (NCI), which is supported by the Australian Government.

Author information




F.A.C. and O.N. designed the models. F.A.C. implemented and ran the numerical simulations. All authors contributed to the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Fabio A. Capitanio.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Taras Gerya, Claude Herzberg and D. Graham Pearson for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Mantle adiabats for different potential temperatures, depletion degrees and density difference, for different water-content values versus depth.

Left, potential temperatures for the early Earth are estimated between 1,430 °C and 1,560 °C (blue and green) with respect to the present day (magenta). Right, depletion fraction and potential-density change ΔρP, that is, the differential density due to the difference with potential temperature, for dry solidus (Tsol, solid lines), wet solidus with minimum (dashed lines) and average (dotted lines) estimates of water content37 \({X}_{{{\rm{H}}}_{2}{\rm{O}}}\), and water-saturated solidus Tsat. The yellow area brackets the depletion values inferred for the Archaean3.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Mantle adiabats for present-day mantle potential temperatures at a mid-oceanic ridge and viscosity for different water contents, versus depth.

Left, potential temperatures for the present day and solidi for dry, wet, with different water-content values, and water-saturated mantle, from ref. 37. Right, viscosities of wet (dashed lines), dry (solid thick line) and wet-to-dry transition (thin black line). In grey, the effective viscosity used in this study. Viscosities are calculated using a background strain rate \(\dot{\varepsilon }={10}^{-15}\,{{\rm{s}}}^{-1}\).

Extended Data Fig. 3 Mantle adiabats for mantle potential temperatures ranging from that of the present-day to that inferred for early Earth at a mid-oceanic ridge, depletion degrees and potential-density difference, for dry and wet mantle, and viscosities, versus depth.

Left, potential temperatures for the early Earth are estimated between 1,430 °C and 1,560 °C (magenta and green) with respect to present day (cyan). Solidi for dry and wet, with average water content from ref. 37. Center, depletion fraction and potential density contrast for dry (solid lines) and wet (dashed lines) adiabats. The shaded area brackets the depletion values inferred for the Archaean3. Right panel, corresponding effective viscosities used in this study, calculated using a background strain rate \(\dot{\varepsilon }={10}^{-15}\,{{\rm{s}}}^{-1}\).

Extended Data Fig. 4 Lithospheric geotherms for different thicknesses, depletion fraction, density contrast, and rheology, for an early-Earth-like mantle potential temperature.

Left, the geotherms (half-space cooling) reproduce the effect of thinning of a thick (magenta) lithosphere into a thinner one (blue and indigo). Thin lines for the dry and water-saturated solidi. Centre, the depletion degree and volumes increase with thinning during rifting, and become increasingly shallow. Right, the viscosity of the lithosphere during rifting increases with thinning, as larger melting is produced and embedded in the mechanical boundary layer. Thin line are viscosities for η0, 10η0, 102η0 and 103η0 for the temperature-dependent viscosity η(T) and temperature- and depletion-dependent viscosity η(TF). Plastic viscosities are ηY for the lithospheric yielding and \({\eta }_{{\rm{Y}}}^{{\rm{C}}}\) for the crust. The viscosity is calculated using σ0 = 50 MPa for the lithosphere and background strain rate \(\dot{\varepsilon }={10}^{-15}\,{{\rm{s}}}^{-1}\).

Extended Data Fig. 5 The strength ratio of the thermochemical boundary layer, with depletion-dependent rheology and the thermal boundary layer versus the thickness of the lithosphere.

Potential temperatures tested are present-day, TP = 1,300 °C, and early-Earth-like, TP = 1,560 °C.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Initial adiabatic temperature distribution.

a, Model configuration after 500 Myr of convection with Ra = 107. The crust is shown in magenta. b, Horizontally averaged temperature. The crust (magenta) is defined by the isotherm T = 330 °C (vertical line; see Methods section ‘Initial conditions’) chosen to yield a mean crust thickness of 20 km. The dashed line represents the lower boundary of the magnification given in c.. c, All model geotherms in grey and the mean geotherm in black; magnification of region in b bounded by the horizontal dashed line and the solid vertical line. The crustal thickness in the initial condition varies between approximately 14 and 35 km.

Extended Data Fig. 7 Melt production and melt rate versus time.

The solid lines are the models presented herein and the dashed lines indicate the models with higher (short-dashed line) and lower (long-dashed line) viscosity cut-offs for three models with low, intermediate and high cohesion (grey, magenta and blue, respectively).

Extended Data Table 1 Symbols, definitions and values of the dimensional reference parameters used in this study
Extended Data Table 2 List of the model runs and their modelling parameters

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Capitanio, F.A., Nebel, O. & Cawood, P.A. Thermochemical lithosphere differentiation and the origin of cratonic mantle. Nature 588, 89–94 (2020).

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