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Giant impacts and the origin and evolution of continents

Abstract

Earth is the only planet known to have continents, although how they formed and evolved is unclear. Here using the oxygen isotope compositions of dated magmatic zircon, we show that the Pilbara Craton in Western Australia, Earth’s best-preserved Archaean (4.0–2.5 billion years ago (Ga)) continental remnant, was built in three stages. Stage 1 zircons (3.6–3.4 Ga) form two age clusters with one-third recording submantle δ18O, indicating crystallization from evolved magmas derived from hydrothermally altered basaltic crust like that in modern-day Iceland1,2. Shallow melting is consistent with giant impacts that typified the first billion years of Earth history3,4,5. Giant impacts provide a mechanism for fracturing the crust and establishing prolonged hydrothermal alteration by interaction with the globally extensive ocean6,7,8. A giant impact at around 3.6 Ga, coeval with the oldest low-δ18O zircon, would have triggered massive mantle melting to produce a thick mafic–ultramafic nucleus9,10. A second low-δ18O zircon cluster at around 3.4 Ga is contemporaneous with spherule beds that provide the oldest material evidence for giant impacts on Earth11. Stage 2 (3.4–3.0 Ga) zircons mostly have mantle-like δ18O and crystallized from parental magmas formed near the base of the evolving continental nucleus12. Stage 3 (<3.0 Ga) zircons have above-mantle δ18O, indicating efficient recycling of supracrustal rocks. That the oldest felsic rocks formed at 3.9–3.5 Ga (ref. 13), towards the end of the so-called late heavy bombardment4, is not a coincidence.

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Fig. 1: Zircon oxygen isotope data for magmatic samples superimposed on the geological map of the Pilbara Craton, Western Australia.
Fig. 2: Zircon δ18O (‰) versus age (Ga) for individual magmatic zircon grains from the Pilbara Craton.
Fig. 3: Geodynamic cartoons illustrating the three-stage evolution of the Pilbara Craton.
Fig. 4: Zircon δ18O (‰) versus age (Ga) for individual magmatic zircon grains from the Yilgarn Craton and Acasta Gneiss Complex.

Data availability

New oxygen isotope data were collected from 56 samples from the Pilbara and Yilgarn cratons (Supplementary Table 1). Data from other samples are from: ref. 24 (sample 142661), ref. 16 (samples 142535, 142974, 142981, 153190, 160212, 160498, 160730, 169028, 169045, 178230, 178231, 180057, 195893, 195894, 216546, 229913, 193410, 97969255A, 96969080, 178102, 193434, 169068, 96969087, 98267, 178196, 185921, 179446, 185985, 96969039, 198212, 96969016, 178194), ref. 25 (samples 15TKPB23, OGC, 15TKPB25, 15TKPB26, 15TKPB27) and ref. 63 (samples TKN49, TKN58, TKN74). SIMS oxygen isotope analysis session details, including reference material values, are provided in Supplementary Table 1. Sample details, summary zircon oxygen isotope compositions and U–Pb age data are provided in Supplementary Table 2. The U–Pb isotopic ratios for the analysed samples can also be downloaded from http://dmp.wa.gov.au/geochron/. Whole-rock geochemical data are given in Supplementary Table 3. All the supplementary data and full thin-section images of samples 216545 and 216594 are available to download from the EarthChem library (https://doi.org/10.26022/IEDA/112307).

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Acknowledgements

This work was supported by the Western Australian Government Exploration Incentive Scheme (EIS). T.E.J. and C.L.K. acknowledge support from Curtin University and funding from the Australian Government through Australian Research Council Discovery (DP200101104) and Linkage (LP180100199) projects, respectively. We thank L. Martin and M. Aleshin at the Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis, the University of Western Australia, for assistance with analyses and M. Prause for drafting figures. R.H.S. and Y.L. publish with the permission of the Executive Director, Geological Survey of Western Australia.

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The authors collectively conceived the research. T.E.J. wrote the original draft with input from all authors and all authors contributed to its subsequent revision. C.L.K. and Y.L. contributed to the analysis of samples and all authors engaged in the interpretation of the data.

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Correspondence to Tim E. Johnson.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Cathodoluminescence (CL) images.

Representative CL images of zircon grains for sample 216594 (top) and 216545 (bottom), showing spot numbers (italics) and δ18O values (in parentheses). The spot analyses targeted crystalline areas of grains that yielded concordant U–Pb ages, and record low 16O1H/16O ratios and show no correlation between zircon δ18O and any measure of secondary processes (i.e., 16O1H/16O, U, Th, Th/U or concordance), suggesting the δ18O values represent primary magmatic signatures.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Whole-rock geochemical data.

Plots of whole-rock Sr/Y (a), Gd/Yb (b) and Mg# (c) versus median zircon δ18O value of magmatic samples from the Pilbara (white disks) and Yilgarn (black) cratons (Supp. Table 3). The isotopically-light zircon grains (δ18O < 4.7‰) come from samples with low whole-rock Sr/Y and Gd/Yb ratios, consistent with their derivation from a shallow, hydrothermally-altered source. With the exception of a single mafic amphibolite, these samples also have low or very low Mg#, consistent with highly-fractionated magmatic sources, conceivably the uppermost layers of a crystallised magma ocean. Samples containing zircon with mantle-like and isotopically-heavy median δ18O values show a greater compositional diversity consistent with the derivation of many from much deeper crustal levels with the stability field of garnet.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Age vs δ18O for other cratons.

a, Yilgarn Craton; b, Acasta Gneiss Complex (data from ref. 50); c, West Greenland (data from ref. 64); d, Superior Craton (data from ref. 65); e, filtered detrital zircon data from the Jack Hills, Narryer Terrane, Western Australia (data from ref. 66).

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Supplementary Information

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Supplementary Tables

Supplementary Tables 1–3.

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Johnson, T.E., Kirkland, C.L., Lu, Y. et al. Giant impacts and the origin and evolution of continents. Nature 608, 330–335 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04956-y

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