Titanium isotopic evidence for felsic crust and plate tectonics 3.5 billion years ago

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Science  22 Sep 2017:
Vol. 357, Issue 6357, pp. 1271-1274
DOI: 10.1126/science.aan8086

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An early call for plate tectonics

The composition of continental crust far back in Earth's history gives us insight into when plate tectonics ramped up and has influenced ocean chemistry. Greber et al. looked at titanium isotopes in shales, which form from eroded continental crustal sediments, to estimate the composition 3.5 billion years ago, closer to the origins of Earth. They found a silica-rich composition, which indicates that plate tectonics was happening deep in our distant past. Other changes in crustal composition might be linked to changing ocean chemistry and major events such as the oxygenation of our atmosphere.

Science, this issue p. 1271


Earth exhibits a dichotomy in elevation and chemical composition between the continents and ocean floor. Reconstructing when this dichotomy arose is important for understanding when plate tectonics started and how the supply of nutrients to the oceans changed through time. We measured the titanium isotopic composition of shales to constrain the chemical composition of the continental crust exposed to weathering and found that shales of all ages have a uniform isotopic composition. This can only be explained if the emerged crust was predominantly felsic (silica-rich) since 3.5 billion years ago, requiring an early initiation of plate tectonics. We also observed a change in the abundance of biologically important nutrients phosphorus and nickel across the Archean-Proterozoic boundary, which might have helped trigger the rise in atmospheric oxygen.

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