The nature of Earth's first crust

Richard W. Carlson, Marion Garçon, Jonathan O'Neil, Jesse Reimink, Hanika Rizo

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40 Scopus citations


Recycling of crust into the mantle has left only small remnants at Earth's surface of crust produced within a billion years of Earth formation. Few, if any, of these ancient crustal rocks represent the first crust that existed on Earth. Understanding the nature of the source materials of these ancient rocks and the mechanism of their formation has been the target of decades of geological and geochemical study. This traditional approach has been expanded recently through the ability to simultaneously obtain U-Pb age and initial Hf isotope data for zircons from many of these ancient, generally polymetamorphic, rocks. The addition of information from the short-lived radiometric systems 146Sm-142Nd and 182Hf-182W allows resolution of some of the ambiguities that have clouded the conclusions derived from the long-lived systems. The most apparent of these is clear documentation that Earth experienced major chemical differentiation events within the first tens to hundreds of millions of years of its formation, and that Earth's most ancient crustal rocks were derived from these differentiated sources, not from primitive undifferentiated mantle. Eoarchean rocks from the North Atlantic Craton and the Anshan Complex of the North China Craton have sources in an incompatible-element-depleted mantle that dates to 4.4–4.5 Ga. Hadean/Eoarchean rocks from two localities in Canada show the importance of remelting of Hadean mafic crust to produce Eoarchean felsic crust. The mafic supracrustal rocks of the Nuvvuagittuq Greenstone Belt are a possible example of the Hadean mafic basement that is often called upon to serve as the source for the high-silica rocks that define continental crust. Many, but not all, ancient terranes show a shift in the nature of the sources for crustal rocks, and possibly the physical mechanism of crust production, between 3.0–3.6 Ga. This transition may reflect the initiation of modern plate tectonics. Eoarchean/Hadean rocks from some terranes, however, also display compositional characteristics expected for convergent margin volcanism suggesting that at least some convergent margin related magmatism began in the Hadean. The persistence of isotopic variability in 142Nd/144Nd into the mid-Archean, and the eventual reduction in that variability by the end of the Archean, provides new information on the efficiency by which mantle convection recombined the products of Hadean silicate-Earth differentiation. The rate of crust production and recycling in the Hadean/Archean, however, is not resolved by these data beyond the observation that extreme isotopic compositions, such as expected for Hadean evolved, continent-like, crust are not observed in the preserved Eoarchean rock record. The lack of correlation between 142Nd/144Nd and 182W/184W variation in Archean rocks suggests that these two systems track different processes; the Sm-Nd system mantle-crust differentiation while Hf-W is dominated by core formation. The major silicate differentiation controlling Sm/Nd fractionation occurred at ∼4.4 Ga, possibly as a result of the Moon-forming impact, after the extinction of 182Hf.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number119321
JournalChemical Geology
StatePublished - Dec 30 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geology
  • Geochemistry and Petrology


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