The composition and weathering of the continents over geologic time

Alex G. Lipp, Oliver Shorttle, Erik A. Sperling, Jochen J. Brocks, Devon Cole, Peter W. Crockford, Lucas Del Mouro, Keith Dewing, Stephen Q. Dornbos, Joseph F. Emmings, Una C. Farrell, Amber Jarrett, Benjamin W. Johnson, Pavel Kabanov, C. Brenhin Keller, Marcus Kunzmann, Austin J. Miller, N. Tanner Mills, Brennan O’Connell, Shanan E. Peters, Noah J. Planavsky, Samantha R. Ritzer, Shane D. Schoepfer, Philip R. Wilby, and Jianghai Yang

Geochemical Perspectives Letters, 2021:


The composition of continental crust records the balance between construction by tectonics and destruction by physical and chemical erosion. Quantitative constraints on how igneous addition and chemical weathering have modified the continents’ bulk composition are essential for understanding the evolution of geodynamics and climate. Using novel data analytic techniques we have extracted temporal trends in sediments’ protolith composition and weathering intensity from the largest available compilation of sedimentary major element compositions: ∼15,000 samples from 4.0 Ga to the present. We find that the average Archean upper continental crust was silica-rich and had a similar compositional diversity to modern continents. This is consistent with an early Archean, or earlier, onset of plate tectonics. In the Archean, chemical weathering sequestered ∼25 % more CO2 per mass eroded for the same weathering intensity than in subsequent time periods, consistent with carbon mass balance despite higher Archean outgassing rates and more limited continental exposure. Since 2.0 Ga, over long (>0.5 Gyr) timescales, crustal weathering intensity has remained relatively constant. On shorter timescales over the Phanerozoic, weathering intensity is correlated to global climate state, consistent with a weathering feedback acting in response to changes in CO2 sources or sinks.

Suggested citation:
Lipp, A.G., Shorttle, O., Sperling, E.A., Brocks, J.J., Cole, D.B., Crockford, P.W., Del Mouro, L., Dewing, K., Dornbos, S.Q., Emmings, J.F., Farrell, U.C., Jarrett, A., Johnson, B.W., Kabanov, P., Keller, C.B., Kunzmann, M., Miller, A.J., Mills, N.T., O’Connell, B., Peters, S.E., Planavsky, N.J., Ritzer, S.R., Schoepfer, S.D., Wilby, P.R., & Yang, J. (2021) The composition and weathering of the continents over geologic time. Geochemical Perspectives Letters 17, 21–26.