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Timescales for pluton growth, magma-chamber formation and super-eruptions


Generation of silicic magmas leads to emplacement of granite plutons, huge explosive volcanic eruptions and physical and chemical zoning of continental and arc crust1,2,3,4,5,6,7. Whereas timescales for silicic magma generation in the deep and middle crust are prolonged8, magma transfer into the upper crust followed by eruption is episodic and can be rapid9,10,11,12. Ages of inherited zircons and sanidines from four Miocene ignimbrites in the Central Andes indicate a gap of 4.6 Myr between initiation of pluton emplacement and onset of super-eruptions, with a 1-Myr cyclicity. We show that inherited zircons and sanidine crystals were stored at temperatures <470 °C in these plutons before incorporation in ignimbrite magmas. Our observations can be explained by silicic melt segregation in a middle-crustal hot zone with episodic melt ascent from an unstable layer at the top of the zone with a timescale governed by the rheology of the upper crust. After thermal incubation of growing plutons, large upper-crustal magma chambers can form in a few thousand years or less by dike transport from the hot-zone melt layer. Instability and disruption of earlier plutonic rock occurred in a few decades or less just before or during super-eruptions.

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Fig. 1: Location and geology of the Oxaya early Miocene ignimbrite formation, Central Andes.
Fig. 2: Geochronological data for the four ignimbrites of the Oxaya Formation.
Fig. 3: The evolution of 40Ar–39Ar ages in sanidine as a function of time and temperature owing to diffusion and 40Ar in growth.
Fig. 4: Simplified conceptual model of a transcrustal magmatic system.

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All data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and its Supplementary Information files. All isotopic and related geochemical data were placed in EarthChem:;

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This project was financed by BHP supporting the PhD of M.E.v.Z. BHP has given permission to publish. K. Cooper and an anonymous reviewer are thanked for their supportive and careful reviews. Zircon and sanidine analyses were supported by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) Isotope Geosciences Facilities Steering Committee grant IP-1466-1114 and Royal Society Research Grant RG140683 to F.J.C. D. Condon is thanked for his help with the analyses of inherited zircons. NERC are thanked for continued funding of the National Environmental Isotope Facility. R.S.J.S. acknowledges support of a Leverhulme Trust Emeritus Fellowship. There are no financial or non-financial competing interests.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



M.E.v.Z. carried out fieldwork, collected the samples and prepared them for geochronological analyses. D.F.M. conducted the 40Ar–39Ar analyses at the East Kilbride laboratories. C.B.K. and D.F.M. applied a Bayesian model to interpret the geochronological data. D.F.M. and R.S.J.S. integrated and interpreted the geochronology and developed the scientific narrative. M.M.T. contributed argon diffusion modelling to estimate storage temperatures and magma residence times for sanidine crystals. A.R. analysed Rayleigh–Taylor experiment data for the diapir detachment timescale. A.R. and R.S.J.S. developed the exchange flow models for magma transport. R.S.J.S. and D.F.M. led drafting the article and all authors contributed to the writing. F.J.C. and R.S.J.S. supervised PhD student M.E.v.Z. R.S.J.S. is the corresponding author. There are no financial or non-financial competing interests.

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Correspondence to R. S. J. Sparks.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Repose interval durations.

The posterior distributions for the durations of the repose intervals of each sequential pair of eruptions (Poconchile to Cardones, Cardones to Molinos, and Molinos to Oxaya), as illustrated for each pair by a normalized histogram of the stationary distribution of a Markov chain Monte Carlo model that integrates the constraints provided by (1) the posterior eruption age distributions for each ignimbrite derived from the Bayesian eruption age models, as well as (2) the relative age constraints provided by the stratigraphic superposition of the ignimbrite deposits. Although the absolute time uncertainties of the absolute eruption ages shown in Fig. 2 are substantially increased by systematic (tracer/standard and decay constant) uncertainties, such systematic uncertainties effectively cancel when calculating the relative durations shown here.

Extended Data Fig. 2 The form of the relative closure distribution, scaled from time of first closure (1.0) to time of eruption (0.0).

The empirical (‘bootstrapped’) estimate of the form of this closure distribution (thick blue line) decreases as a function of time before eruption, following a trend closely resembling that of a similarly scaled exponential distribution (thick black line). This bootstrapped closure distribution is calculated as the kernel density estimate of the union of the sets of scaled single-grain closure ages for each individual sample, the probability density functions of which are each shown as thin coloured lines in the background. Both the highly dispersed single-grain volcanic sanidine Ar–Ar age distributions of the four Central Andean ignimbrites (this study) as well as the similarly dispersed single-grain volcanic sanidine Ar–Ar age distributions of the Mesa Falls Tuff (Ellis et al., 2017)63 are consistent with an exponential relative closure distribution of this form.

Extended Data Table 1 Geochronological data. Locations of drill holes are shown in Fig. 1b
Extended Data Table 2 Configuration of the Nu Plasma HR ‘Zircon’ block used for U–Pb geochronology at the Geochronology and Tracers Facility, British Geological Survey

Supplementary information

Supplementary Table 1

Ar–Ar geochronology data summary. A tabulation of all Ar–Ar laser fusion data. The analytical conditions and calculation parameters are given in the sheets entitled: irradiation; parameters; and background and discrimination. Sample data are in the data summary sheet with localities listed in Extended Data Table 1. Each row is for a fragment of separated sanidine. Argon isotopic data, isotope ratios, age calculations and 2σ analytical error are listed in the columns. References in spreadsheet are numbered 53 (Lee et al. 2006) and 54 (Mark et al. 2011) in the main text.

Supplementary Table 2

U–Pb LA-ICP-MS data summary. A tabulation of all zircon data. Information on samples are listed in columns A and B and their localities are provided in Extended Table 1. Footnotes in the spreadsheet provide analytical parameter information and uncertainty assumptions.

Supplementary Table 3

Bayesian eruption age summary. A tabulation of all Bayesian eruption ages, age uncertainties both with and without systematic uncertainty, and upper and lower 95% confidence intervals based on (A) Ar–Ar geochronology and (B) U–Pb geochronology for (1) Poconchile, (2) Cardones, (3) Molinos and (4) Oxaya (this work), as well as (5) Mesa Falls (Ellis et al. 2017; reference 63 in the main text)—all datasets with large primary age dispersion in both U–Pb and Ar–Ar systems preventing a simple traditional interpretation of, for example, a weighted mean as an eruption age.

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van Zalinge, M.E., Mark, D.F., Sparks, R.S.J. et al. Timescales for pluton growth, magma-chamber formation and super-eruptions. Nature 608, 87–92 (2022).

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