Constraining crustal silica on ancient Earth

C. Brenhin Keller and T. Mark Harrison

Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2020:

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On geologic timescales, Earth’s habitable climate is maintained by a negative feedback process wherein atmospheric CO₂ is consumed by reaction with silicate rocks during erosion and weathering. However, relative to modern continental crust, many models propose an ancient crust that was thinner, denser, and significantly lower in silica for the first 1 to 2 billion years of Earth history. Like modern oceanic crust, such mafic crust would likely be poorly exposed to the atmosphere, resulting in a less climatically stable early Earth. We find that two geologic processes (mantle cooling and atmospheric oxidation) significantly compromise some previous methods for estimating ancient crustal composition. Accounting for these factors results in estimates much closer to the composition of modern continental crust.

Accurately quantifying the composition of continental crust on Hadean and Archean Earth is critical to our understanding of the physiography, tectonics, and climate of our planet at the dawn of life. One longstanding paradigm involves the growth of a relatively mafic planetary crust over the first 1 to 2 billion years of Earth history, implying a lack of modern plate tectonics and a paucity of subaerial crust, and consequently lacking an efficient mechanism to regulate climate. Others have proposed a more uniformitarian view in which Archean and Hadean continents were only slightly more mafic than at present. Apart from complications in assessing early crustal composition introduced by crustal preservation and sampling biases, effects such as the secular cooling of Earth’s mantle and the biologically driven oxidation of Earth’s atmosphere have not been fully investigated. We find that the former complicates efforts to infer crustal silica from compatible or incompatible element abundances, while the latter undermines estimates of crustal silica content inferred from terrigenous sediments. Accounting for these complications, we find that the data are most parsimoniously explained by a model with nearly constant crustal silica since at least the early Archean.

Suggested citation:
Keller, C.B. and Harrison, T.M. (2020). Constraining crustal silica on ancient Earth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 117 (35), 21101–21107.