Archean Magmatism

Archean Magmatism

I.  Archaean specificities

A.What ?

The Archaean = the oldest period of Earth’s history for which we’ve got direct geological evidences. It extends from the oldest known rocks (today: 4.04 Ga Acasta gneisses in the Slave Province, Canada, plus older zircons crystals in younger sediments, 4.4 Ga), to the Grat Dyke of Zimbabwe (ca. 2.5 Ga). It therefore represents 1/3 to 1/2 of Earth’s history.

B.   Where ?

The oldest Archaean terranes
-   The Acasta gneisses in the Slave province are just big enclaves in much younger rocks;
-  The oldest coherent Archaean block: SW Greenland (Isua Greenstone belt, Amitsoq gneisses)
-  Pilbara (NW Australia) and Kaapvaal (Barberton) cratons formed between 3.5 and 3.2 Ga, they are probably the next oldest blocks.

Present in many small blocks in all continents, both as Archaean terranes, or as reworked/covered provinces.

C. Why ? 

Most of the continental crust (up to 75 % ?) formed during the Archaean.

Important economic resources associated with Archaean terranes: gold (either primary deposits – cf mines around Barberton: Sheba, Consort, Fairview—or reworked: Rand gold), PGE-bearing sulfides, nickel…

Interesting petrological problems: different rocks and no direct evidence of geodynamic context.

D.   Geology of Archaean terranes

Three main components:
- “grey gneisses”= more or less complex unit of orthogneisses,broadly of TTG (see below) composition;
- “greenstone belts”: synclines of mafic/ultramafic lavas and detrical metasediments, commonly metamorphosed in greenschist facies;
-  Late to post-tectonic granites.

E. Why was the Archaean different? 

Most of the Earth’s heat production comes from disintegration of radioactive nuclide; therefore, heat production decreases exponentially. In the Archaean, possibly 2-4 times more heat produced than now.

Effects of higher heat production? Two end-members:
- “uniform” increase of the heat fluxes: all parts of the Earth are hotter. This can result in hotter intra-plate situations, and maybe blur the difference between within plate and plate boundaries situations. This would correspond to a “non-plate tectonics” model. Supported by geological evidences such as “dome and basin” structures (Zimbabwe, Pilbara)/
- “heterogen” increase, with more hot zones (ridges) and less cold zones, maybe resulting in more numerous, smaller plates (but still plate tectonics operating).

Anyway, there is no consensus on the nature of Archaean tectonics – so, studying Archaean igneous rocks is more complicated because it is not possible to make assumptions on the context of formation of the rocks. More careful studies, cautiously moving from observations to interpretations, are needed: a good case study to test our understanding of petrogenetic processes.

Two types of Archaean igneous rocks are really different from modern associations:
- komatiites
-  TTGs

II.  Komatiites

They are a class of ultramafic, magnesian lavas first described in Barberton Greenstone Belt in 1969 (along the Komatii River).

45-50 % SiO2 and 20-25 % MgO: this is very close to peridotite (mantle) composition!

A.   Structure of komatiite flows

Komatiites form small (1-5 m thick) lava flows, each with the same succession:

1. Typical section

From top to bottom, komatiites are made of

-          Chilled top: Pillows and/or breccias, glassy, subaquatic quenching.
-          Spinifex olivine texture: Large needles of olivine, growing from the top. Named after an Australian grass
-          Euhedral olivine flow: “suspension” of euhedral olivine crystals in a fine grained matrix
-          Chilled base: Emplacement breccias, like in all normal lava flows.

2.Emplacement of komatiitic flows

-          Emplaced in subaquatic situations (they form pillows) (important implication for climate, origin of life, etc.: there was free liquid water on Earth’s surface).
-          Form lava tubes or tunnels, with chilled top and bottom preserving lava flow inside
-          Fast cooling results in important undercooling and fast growth rate, resulting in development of huge, euhedral crystals with particular morphology (spinifex texture).

B.   Origin of komatiite lavas

-Must form from the mantle at high melt fraction (only way to get a composition close to the mantle…)
-Melting must therefore occur at very high temperature (1600-1800 °C).

This is a very high temperature, much higher than the hottest part of present’s day mantle (hotspots). Suggest  that:
- Komatiites formed in mantle plumes
- Archaean mantle plumes were hotter than modern mantle plumes

Komatiites and the Archaean mantle

Several groups of komatiites can be defined on the base of their chemistry (Gd/Yb and Ca/Al ratios). This corresponds to (1) komatiites formed from the “primitive” mantle; (2) komatiites formed from “non-primitive” mantle.
This shows that differenciation of the mantle occurred very early (before 3.5 Ga) in Earth’s history.


Archaean grey gneisses = dominant component of Archaean continents.
Formed of more or less complex orthogneisses

A.   The TTG series

The main component of the grey gneisses is made of calc-alkaline granitoids (≈ I-types), with some differences from modern I-type plutons:
- They are rich in Na, and consequently in sodic plagioclage (albite) (whereas modern I-types are rich in K and K-Spar). They therefore are made of tonalites, trondhjemites (leuco-tonalites, quartz bearing) and granodiorites – therefore the name TTG.
-  They have characteristic trace elements signatures, marked with relatively low Y or HREE contents (elements with strong affinity for garnet), and corresponding high La/Yb or Sr/Y. La/Yb vs. Yb or Sr/Y vs. Y diagrams clearly show the difference.

B.Origin of TTG magmas

Sodic, intermediate magmas must be formed from a plagioclase-rich source; experimental studies show that the most likely source is amphibolite (metamorphosed basalt).

Melting is produced by dehydration-melting of amphibole: Amp + Pg = Melt + Grt/Opx;  quite similar to the reactions that form granites (Bt+Pg = M + Crd/Grt).

Low Y and Yb imply that Garnet was present in the residuum, so pressures must have been above 10-12 kbar.

C. Geodynamic context

Two end-members (cf. discussion on Archaean tectonics above):
-   Melting of the subducted slab
-   Melting of the base of a thick crust –either a thick oceanic plateau or underplated basalts in a subduction zone (cf. discussion on adakites/sodic plutons in modern subductions).

D.   Some lines of research and debate

 1.      TTGs and adakites

Are TTGs and adakites similar? Some think yes, some think no.

    If they are: Adakites can be used as an indicator of the site of TTG formation, but…
         Are the adakites formed as slab melts
         .. Or as melts of underplated basalts (Cordilera Blanca)?
    If they are not: they still are rather similar, how to explain this?

It seems that TTGs younger than 3.0 Ga are rather similar to adakites, but older TTGs are more different – the main difference is Mg, Ni, Cr contents. 

2.      Interactions between TTGs and mantle wedge

TTGs are typically Mg, Ni and Cr richer than experimental melts, suggesting some sort of “secondary” enrichement. This could be due to interaction between TTG liquids and ultramafic mantle wedge during magma ascent, and this implies a geometry with the basaltic source located below peridotites. Can this be achieved in a situation other than a subducted slab?

Increasing Mg Ni Cr contents in TTGs from 3.5 to 2.5 Ga suggest that the magnitude of these interactions increase from 3.5 to 2.5 Ga. This is consistent with progressive cooling of the Earth and progressively deeper melting, until the Earth becomes to cold to allow melting (at the end of the Archaean), except in some specific situations (adakites).

Other rock types (“sanukitoids”) are known, that also show important TTG-mantle interactions, again suggesting melting of a basaltic slab located below peridotites.
See also
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