The dependence of planetary tectonics on mantle thermal state: Applications to early Earth evolution

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For plate tectonics to operate on a planet, mantle convective forces must be capable of forming weak, localized shear zones in the lithosphere that act as plate boundaries. Otherwise, a planet's mantle will convect in a stagnant lid regime, where subduction and plate motions are absent. Thus, when and how plate tectonics initiated on the Earth is intrinsically tied to the ability of mantle convection to form plate boundaries; however, the physics behind this process are still uncertain. Most mantle convection models have employed a simple pseudoplastic model of the lithosphere, where the lithosphere 'fails' and develops a mobile lid when stresses in the lithosphere reach the prescribed yield stress. With pseudoplasticity high mantle temperatures and high rates of internal heating, conditions relevant for the early Earth, impede plate boundary formation by decreasing lithospheric stresses, and hence favour a stagnant lid for the early Earth. However, when a model for shear zone formation based on grain size reduction is used, early Earth thermal conditions do not favour a stagnant lid. While lithosphere stress drops with increasing mantle temperature or heat production rate, the deformational work, which drives grain size reduction, increases. Thus, the ability of convection to form weak plate boundaries is not impeded by early Earth thermal conditions. However, mantle thermal state does change the style of subduction and lithosphere mobility; high mantle temperatures lead to a more sluggish, drip-like style of subduction. This 'sluggish lid' convection may be able to explain many of the key observations of early Earth crust formation processes preserved in the geologic record. Moreover, this work highlights the importance of understanding the microphysics of plate boundary formation for assessing early Earth tectonics, as different plate boundary formation mechanisms are influenced by mantle thermal state in fundamentally different ways.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number20170409
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences
Issue number2132
StatePublished - Nov 13 2018

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Mathematics(all)
  • Engineering(all)
  • Physics and Astronomy(all)


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