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Deep continental roots and cratons

Abstract

The formation and preservation of cratons—the oldest parts of the continents, comprising over 60 per cent of the continental landmass—remains an enduring problem. Key to craton development is how and when the thick strong mantle roots that underlie these regions formed and evolved. Peridotite melting residues forming cratonic lithospheric roots mostly originated via relatively low-pressure melting and were subsequently transported to greater depth by thickening produced by lateral accretion and compression. The longest-lived cratons were assembled during Mesoarchean and Palaeoproterozoic times, creating the stable mantle roots 150 to 250 kilometres thick that are critical to preserving Earth’s early continents and central to defining the cratons, although we extend the definition of cratons to include extensive regions of long-stable Mesoproterozoic crust also underpinned by thick lithospheric roots. The production of widespread thick and strong lithosphere via the process of orogenic thickening, possibly in several cycles, was fundamental to the eventual emergence of extensive continental landmasses—the cratons.

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Fig. 1: Defining cratonic regions with seismic imaging of continental mantle lithosphere.
Fig. 2: Estimating depth of melt extraction for lithospheric peridotites.
Fig. 3: Geodynamic modelling of possible craton formation processes: lateral compression and plume residue dispersal.

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Acknowledgements

D.G.P. is grateful for a Canada Excellence Research Chair, which allowed the development of the data and ideas presented. A University of Otago, William Evans Visiting Fellowship was crucial to completing this manuscript. Modelling performed by L.H.W. was funded by Research Council of Norway (grant 280567). We thank P. Cawood for constructive comments.

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D.G.P. wrote the manuscript, with major contributions to the various concepts covered by J.M.S., T.C., J.L., A.S., L.H.W., J.v.H., P.B.K. and K.S. J.M.S. drafted the figures. A.S. provided the seismology models, L.H.W. performed the geodynamic models, augmented by J.v.H. J.L. performed the trace element modelling.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to D. Graham Pearson.

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Peer review information Nature thanks Peter Cawood, Jolante van Wijk and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Figure 1a & 1b, and Supplementary Location Notes to Box 3a and 3b.

Supplementary Video 1

Video of dynamic model of lateral compression of cratonic mantle showing temperature and degree of melt depletion in the mantle. See “On-line Methods” for model methodology and caption to Figure 3 for further details.

Supplementary Video 2

Video of dynamic model of lateral compression of cratonic mantle showing temperature and viscosity in the mantle. See “On-line Methods” for model methodology and caption to Figure 3 for further details.

Supplementary Video 3

Video of the dynamics of the dispersion of mantle melting residues produced by mantle plumes showing temperature and extent of melt depletion in the mantle. See “On-line Methods” for model methodology and caption to Figure 3 for further details.

Supplementary Video 4

Video of the dynamics of the dispersion of mantle melting residues produced by mantle plumes showing temperature and viscosity in the mantle. See “On-line Methods” for model methodology and caption to Figure 3 for further details.

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Pearson, D.G., Scott, J.M., Liu, J. et al. Deep continental roots and cratons. Nature 596, 199–210 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03600-5

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