New research sheds light on the recycling of the earth’s crust

Posted on

According to scientists at St Andrews, ancient volcanoes dating back billions of years could provide new insights into how the Earth’s surface is recycled, . A study, published today in Nature Communications, reveals the fate of the Earth’s ancient crust and could help solve the mystery of how the Earth’s surface and mantle are connected.

The Earth’s outermost layer is made up of rigid tectonic plates which move around and collide at regions called subduction zones. In areas of collision, crustal materials get transported into the deep mantle, and one of the grand challenges in Earth Sciences is to understand what happens to this crust and how long it resides in the mantle.

At a few volcanoes on Earth geologists can find traces of these ancient crustal materials in the erupted lava. To date most of this work has focused on oceanic islands like Hawaii or the Canaries. However, oceanic islands are only present at the surface of the Earth for a few million years before they themselves subside and are subducted back into the mantle, and so can only provide a tiny snapshot of crustal recycling over the four billion years of Earth history.

Although these magmas have very unusual chemistries, they show many similarities with those oceanic lavas and, crucially, are found throughout Earth’s geological record.

The team focused on an alkaline province in south-west Greenland using cutting-edge isotope techniques to chemically fingerprint ancient crustal material in the source of these magmas.

Through a combination of remote field work (by boat and helicopter) and careful chemical analysis the team was able to show that these magmas were tapping into ancient crust subducted into the mantle 500 million years before the volcanoes started erupting.

Once the team understood these processes in Greenland they compiled a global data on alkaline magma chemistry and were surprised to find that the vast majority contained a recycled crustal component in their magma source.

Lead author Dr Will Hutchison, from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at the University, said: “Our key result is that the isotopes of alkaline magmas are highly variable and this suggests that their recycled crustal sources have changed through geological time.

“The beauty of our global dataset is that it extends back over two billion years and so these unique alkaline rocks represent an extremely powerful record for understanding crustal recycling over Earth history. By carefully bringing together the igneous and sedimentary isotope records, this might allow us to understand how changing crustal input is tied to volcanic output, and ultimately build a much better understanding of what happens to tectonic plates once they get transported into the deep Earth.”

For further information and images go to

St Andrews QV (Qui Vive) is an independent not-for-profit, non-political platform for news and debates about issues that are important to the Town. It exists to hold decision makers and public services to account while its editorial policy is to accommodate all shades of opinion from all parts of the community, prioritising evidence-based arguments. St Andrews QV is a member of the Independent Community News Network and is committed to the Community Journalism Charter

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy