Luca Dal Zilio


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Production and recycling of Archean continental crust

Production and recycling of Archean continental crust

Continents are essential for the development and survival of life on Earth. However, as surprising as it may sound, there did not exist a planetary scale numerical model to show the formation of the oldest continents until the recent study ‘Growing primordial continental crust self-consistently in global mantle convection models‘ in Gondwana Research by Jain et al., 2019. Hot off the press, the first author of this study himself, Charitra Jain, Post Doctoral Research Associate in the Department of Earth Sciences at Durham University, shares the scoop in our News & Views!

Why do we care?

Uniquely positioned within the habitable zone [1], Earth is the sole planet within our solar system that sustains life. Understanding the factors that make a planet habitable [2,3] are becoming increasingly relevant with the rapidly expanding catalogue of extrasolar planets over the last decade [4,5]. The operation of plate tectonics and the formation and stability of continental landmasses have played a crucial role in the atmospheric evolution and development of life on Earth [6]. Plate tectonics is a theory where the outer surface of the Earth (lithosphere) is fragmented into a number of mobile plates that drift at a speed of few centimetres per year relative to each other, atop a convecting mantle. Mountains, volcanoes, and earthquakes are found at the boundaries of these plates. Continents cover about a third of the planet’s surface area and are made of thin crust overlying a thick and undeformable cratonic lithosphere [7,8]. Even after having assembled a reasonable model for its origins and internal workings, many fundamental questions pertaining to Earth sciences remain unresolved, for example:

  • How did the first continents form and what accounts for their stability over billions of years? Was their growth an episodic process [9] or a continuous process with a significant drop in crustal growth rate around 3 Ga (billion years ago) [10]? How much of the continental crust has recycled into the mantle [11]?
  • What was the global geodynamic regime exhibited by early Earth? When and how did the subduction-driven plate tectonics commence [12]? Did the presence of continents play a role in a regime transition from vertical tectonics to horizontal tectonics around 3Ga [13]?

Owing to the increasing paucity of natural observational data as we go back further in time [14], numerical modelling constrained by experimental and field data has thus become indispensable to uncover the secrets of Earth’s evolutionary history. Our recent study [15] is a step in the right direction where we have developed a new two-stage melting algorithm to create oceanic (basaltic/mafic) and continental (felsic) crust in self-consistent global mantle convection models for the first time.

What’s new in these models?

Generally, two stages of mantle differentiation are inferred to generate continental crust as shown in the schematic in Fig. 1A. First, basaltic magma is extracted from the mantle. Second, it is buried and partially melts to form felsic continental crust. During the much hotter Archean conditions [16,17], majority of continental crust was made of Tonalite-Trondhjemite-Granodiorite (TTG) [18,19] rocks. Experimental data suggests that TTGs are formed when hydrated basalt melts at garnet-amphibolite, granulite or eclogite facies conditions [20,21] and specific P-T conditions [22] have been employed as a criterion for generating TTGs by the authors in their models.

Interested in the long-term planetary evolution, we parametrised the processes of melt generation and melt extraction. If the melt is generated within the top 300 km of the mantle (Fig.1B1), it is instantaneously removed from the depth (Fig.1B2) [23,24] and transported both to the bottom of the crust (plutonism/intrusion) and to the top of the model domain (volcanism/eruption) (Fig. 1B3). The intruded melt stays molten while a temperature adjustment to account for adiabatic decompression is applied, and tends to result in a warm, weak lithosphere. The erupted melt is rapidly solidified by setting its temperature to the surface temperature (300K), resulting in a strong and cold lithosphere [25]. The mass ratio of erupted to intruded melt is controlled by a parameter called eruption efficiency, which is tested extensively in our simulations. Geological data suggests that the majority of mantle-derived melts intrude at a depth, corresponding to an eruption efficiency between 9% and 20% [26].


Figure 1: A, One-dimensional compositional variation with basalt-harzburgite continuum consisting of a mixture of olivine (ol) and pyroxene-garnet (px-gt) mineralogies in different proportions. Upon initialisa- tion, the whole mantle has a pyrolytic composition. B, Cartoon depicting a section of a mesh column (not to scale) in a stage: B1, where crustal production has already happened; B2, after melt removal but before compaction or opening gaps in lithosphere for magmatism; B3, with the eruption and intrusion of the melt with the white downgoing arrows representing compaction of tracers/markers.

How do these results stack up against data?

By varying initial core temperature, eruption efficiency, and limiting the mass of TTG that can be generated in our simulations to 10% and 50% of basalt mass, we present results from two sets of simulations. The crustal volumes have the same order of magnitude and the crustal composition follows similar trends as reported from geological and geochemical data [10,27,28]. Interestingly, we report two stages of TTG production without needing a significant change in convection regime: a period of continuous linear growth with time and intense recycling fuelled by strong plume activity and lasting for around 1 billion years, followed by a stage with reduced TTG growth and moderate recycling. The production of TTGs happen at the tip of deformation fronts driven by the lateral spreading of plumes (mantle upwellings) that rise to the surface (Fig. 2). These results indicate that the present-day slab- driven subduction was not required for the genesis of Archean TTGs [29,30] and early Earth exhibited a “plutonic squishy lid” or vertical-tectonics geodynamic regime [31–33].


Figure 2: Thermal (top) and compositional (bottom and zoom-in) evolution with time for a simulation with initial core temperature of 6000 K, mantle potential temperature of 1900 K, eruption efficiency of 40%, and TTG mass limited to 10% of basalt mass. The lighter shades of teal in the composition field represent progressive mantle depletion (higher harzburgite content) with time.

What’s coming next?

These results are parameter-dependent to some extent and they would change in a 3D domain as that would limit the impact of plumes on lithosphere dynamics. Future models will aim for forming the viscous cratonic roots and incorporating the effects of water [34,35] and grain-size [36–38] on mantle rheology. Going forward, modelling coupled core-mantle-atmosphere systems will shed more light on the role of different tectonic modes towards planetary habitability [39,40] and help solve these contentious aspects.

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The geodynamic processes behind the generation of the earliest continents

The geodynamic processes behind the generation of the earliest continents

The earliest continents played a fundamental role on Earth’s habitability. However, their generation is still not understood, and it requires an integrated approach between petrology and geodynamic modelling. In a new study, Piccolo and co-workers developed a method to handle the effects of chemical evolution on the geodynamic processes. They show that the production of the earliest felsic crust triggers a self-feeding chain of events that leads to the generation of the first proto-continents.

The Archean Eon (4.0-2.5) is the first act of the evolution of life and represent one of the first steps of Earth towards its present-state. Only few remnants have reached us representing different space-time windows that are difficult to reconcile in a unique interpretative framework. Many questions are still unsolved, and all the answers may be interconnected. One of them is related to the generation of the continental crust, which played a fundamental role on the developing of the biosphere as we know now. Although the present-day sites of production are all most understood, we still try to grasp the dominant process that were generating its constituents (e.g. granitoids) during the Archean. Herein the main “hot” topic is the felsic components of the continental crust,  (i.e. felsic crust/melts), and their generation during the Archean, following the recent results from Piccolo et al. (2019) [1].

Felsic melts cannot be directly produced from a partially molten mantle source; therefore, silica-rich magma generation must occur via a multistage process [2] that comprises at least two main steps: i) extraction of raw mafic materials; ii) differentiation via fractional crystallization or via partial melting of the hydrated basalts. Both processes come at costs, and, in fact the generation of felsic melts implies the production of large volume of complementary mafic/ultramafic dense residuum (the solid fraction of a partially melted rock), which is not observed in geological records. Such residual rocks have a different chemical composition with respect to the parental magma, being more mafic, and thus potentially producing denser minerals. During the Archean the most widely accepted recipe to produce felsic crust is to bake hydrated meta-basalts at high pressure until they partially melt [3]–[5].

Available Archean geological records are not enough to provide a coherent picture. Therefore, it is natural to assist the interpretation of available data with indirect means such as numerical and petrological modelling. Moreover, it is necessary to employ an integrated approach between geodynamic and petrology to study the effect of the chemical evolution on the overall dynamics of the lithosphere. In Piccolo et al. (2019), the authors accepted this challenge by conjugating petrological phase diagrams with geodynamic simulations to handle a simple — but petrologically robust — chemical evolution of the mafic protolith. They produce a set of genetically linked phase diagrams for both mantle and mafic crustal compositions — exploiting the recent advances on thermodynamic modelling for mafic/ultramafic systems (for further details, [5]–[8]) — to simulate the chemical evolution as a function of the melt extracted. Then, they modify their finite element code (MVEP2) to change the compositional phase as a function of the principal mineralogical transformation.

The base line scenario comprise a lithosphere (composed by hydrated effusive basalts, intrusive rocks and a residual lithospheric mantle) underlaid  by a fertile asthenosphere featuring high temperature and radiogenic heat production consistently with Archean conditions [9], [10]. During the initial stage of the experiments, asthenosphere self-heats above solidus, resulting in the genesis of more mafic melts that are readily extracted and converted into mafic hydrated basalts and dry intrusions. The latter are emplaced within the lower crust and heat the overlying hydrated units that start to partially melt. Such two-steps processes have two main consequences: the production of the first granitoids that are emplaced at middle-crust depths and the production of large amount of dense mafic residuum. Such rocks are not so common in the geological record, as stated above. Therefore, the inevitable question is: what are the processes that assists their disposal? The solution of this conundrum relies on the density contrast between the underlying mantle and complementary mafic residuum. If the density contrast is sufficient high, any geometrical and thermal perturbation between them can trigger Rayleigh-Taylor drip instabilities. The foundering of such drip into the mantle forces the weak asthenosphere to upwell causing more mafic melts and thus inducing more felsic crust production and consequent gravitational instabilities. After a few million years the mantle is quiescent because its temperature significantly drops because it mixes with the dripped mafic while the crust start being more enriched of felsic crustal components. Several parameters have been tested, and the main chains of events have been replicated in a plethora of conditions, especially at lower mantle temperature, suggesting that the generation of felsic crust is associated to mantle cooling events, that may buffer the upper mantle temperature.

Melt coming from the astenosphere percolates through the lithosphere, heating and both plastically and thermally weakening it. Part of the mafic melts are emplaced in the lower crust, while the remnants are erupted. As soon as a critical amount of residuum is reached, RTIs are triggered, and asthenosphere fills the space left by the delaminated lithosphere. This results in a feedback between mantle melting and new felsic crust production. From ref. [1].

The removal of the residuum implies production of more mafic melts, and thus more felsic crust that leads inevitably to again to gravitational instabilities yielding a self-feeding. Moreover, any vertical tectonic setting fuelled by mantle magmatic processes is suitable to produce proto-continents thank to these feedbacks. Such findings are consistent with many independent line of research (e.g., [11], [12], [13]) and the novelty of this study relies in a first attempt to conjugate realistic petrological constraint with the chemical evolution induced by melt extraction.


1. A. Piccolo, R. M. Palin, B. J. P. Kaus, and R. W. White, “Generation of Earth’s early continents from a relatively cool Archean mantle,” Geochemistry, Geophys. Geosystems, 2019.
2. R. L. Rudnick and S. Gao, “4.1 – Composition of the Continental Crust,” in Treatise on Geochemistry, 2014, pp. 1–51.
3. J.-F. Moyen and G. Stevens, “Experimental constraints on TTG petrogenesis: implications for Archean geodynamics,” Archean Geodyn. Environ., pp. 149–175, 2006.
4. R. P. Rapp, N. Shimizu, and M. D. Norman, “Growth of early continental crust by partial melting of eclogite,” Nature, vol. 425, pp. 605–609, Oct. 2003.
5. R. M. Palin, R. W. White, and E. C. R. Green, “Partial melting of metabasic rocks and the generation of tonalitic???trondhjemitic???granodioritic (TTG) crust in the Archaean: Constraints from phase equilibrium modelling,” Precambrian Res., vol. 287, pp. 73–90, 2016.
6. R. M. Palin, R. W. White, E. C. R. Green, J. F. A. Diener, R. Powell, and T. J. B. Holland, “High-grade metamorphism and partial melting of basic and intermediate rocks,” J. Metamorph. Geol., vol. 34, no. 9, pp. 871–892, 2016.
7. E. C. R. Green, R. W. White, J. F. A. Diener, R. Powell, T. J. B. Holland, and R. M. Palin, “Activity–composition relations for the calculation of partial melting equilibria in metabasic rocks,” J. Metamorph. Geol., vol. 34, no. 9, pp. 845–869, 2016.
8. R. W. White, R. M. Palin, and E. C. R. Green, “High-grade metamorphism and partial melting in Archean composite grey gneiss complexes,” J. Metamorph. Geol., vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 181–195, 2017.
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10. J. Ganne and X. Feng, “Primary magmas and mantle temperatures through time,” Geochemistry, Geophys. Geosystems, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 872–888, Feb. 2017.
11. J. H. Bédard, “A catalytic delamination-driven model for coupled genesis of Archaean crust and sub-continental lithospheric mantle,” Geochim. Cosmochim. Acta, vol. 70, no. 5, pp. 1188–1214, 2006. 12. T. E. Zegers and P. E. van Keken, “Middle Archean continent formation by crustal delamination,” Geology, vol. 29, no. 12, pp. 1083–1086, 2001. 13. E. Sizova, T. V. Gerya, K. Stüwe, and M. Brown, “Generation of felsic crust in the Archean: A geodynamic modeling perspective,” Precambrian Res., vol. 271, pp. 198–224, 2015.

EGU 2018: convening a session

EGU 2018: convening a session

The European Geosciences Union (EGU) General Assembly 2018 took place in Vienna, Austria, from 8–13 April 2018 and brought together geoscientists from all over the world to one meeting covering all disciplines of the Earth, planetary and space sciences.

If you are an early career research, convening a session at the EGU General Assembly can seem intimidating, especially if you are a first-time convener. However, continued education and keeping up with academic trends is a key focus at EGU General Assembly. After a short discussion with Susanne Buiter — chair of the EGU Programme Committee — I had the opportunity of convening a session for the first time.

Initially, the session programme defined how the EGU General Assembly was organised. It consisted of sessions representing all programme groups of each Division. From there, a skeleton programme was created, based on the programme of previous years, so that each Division had a few sessions in it to kick things off. When the call for sessions was open – usually over the summer preceding the conference – I suggested a new session, by proposing a title, someone to co-convene the session and providing a session description. Once the call closed, the president of each Division evaluated the proposed sessions and decided if they should be included in the programme. They might also suggest modifications to skeleton sessions. Specifically, I indicated that I’d like my session to be co-organised with another Division. My request for a cross Division collaboration was accepted by all relevant chairs.

Meeting point at EGU

Overall, I was impressed by the fact that the EGU General Assembly continues to grow. In 2018, more than 15,000 scientists from over 100 countries participated in it. More than half of these were under the age of 35. But more importantly, the Geodynamic Division (GD) made an impact at the event not just through posters and presentations. There was ample evidence that the Division output continues to be held in very high regard by other scientists.

For me, convening a session at EGU was an important task in bringing people together for networking, starting new projects, and discussing new ideas. And I would like to continue to contribute to making that possible even in the future. The key ingredients are an idea for a session, a couple of co-conveners and a good session description.

The EGU General Assembly serves the geosciences community, through enabling networking, discussions and information sharing. Also, I believe that the meeting is very important for outreach and education as well, through short courses for examples, which are for all participants.

Postcard from Singapore: Global Young Scientists Summit 2018

Postcard from Singapore: Global Young Scientists Summit 2018

Excite, engage, enable. These three words were the driving mission behind the gathering of over 250 PhD and postdoctoral fellows at the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) in Singapore. In January 2018, Thomas Schutzius, Michael Zumstein, Daniel Sutter, and I had the distinct pleasure of representing the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich) at this year’s summit.

The GYSS is a multi-disciplinary summit, covering topics ranging from chemistry, physics and medicine to mathematics, computer science and engineering. With its theme “Advancing Science, Creating Technologies for a Better World”, GYSS focuses on key areas in science, research, technology innovation, and society, as well as their solutions to tackle global challenges. The speakers invited to the GYSS are globally-recognised scientific leaders, who are recipients of prestigious awards: the Fields Medal, Millennium Technology Prize, Nobel Prize, and Turing Award. They gave lectures and talks, and held discussions both with summit participants and also the public. During the summit, anyone could come across these extraordinary scientists at various venues such as the National University of Singapore, the National Library and the Science Centre Singapore.

One of my main takeaways from the conference is that the boundaries between the fields are blurring. This encouraged participants to ask more questions, even in fields they were not experts in. Indeed, they were not shy about doing this. I have also observed how more and more researchers are studying and working in Asia—just another sign of the times.

“I love the creativity, enthusiasm, and optimism of young scientists. It gives me energy!”, says Frances Arnold who was awarded the 2016 Millennium Technology Prize (MTP) for her innovations of directed evolution and efficient methods for creating enzymes. Stuart Parkin, the 2014 MTP winner for multiplying information storage capacity and enabling Big Data, finds the fresh way of thinking of the young generation of scientists especially interesting. “Meeting young scientists is always very stimulating since they often think differently from scientists and researchers later in their career who perhaps become too aligned with the dogma of the research establishment”, professor Parkin says.

Stuart Parkin, Millennium Technology Prize (2014). Credit: National Research Foundation.

I am tremendously grateful for having been given the chance to represent the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zürich) at the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) 2018. I would describe attending the GYSS as a once-in-a-PhD opportunity, if not a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The week-long event is highly interdisciplinary—covering a range of topics from medicine to engineering and biology to physics. Moreover, the poster session is designed to bring together ideas and researchers from different fields. It provided me with an exciting opportunity to share broader insights from my PhD with researchers outside of geophysics. Singapore needs all the talent it can get, especially as companies and universities invest in new technologies and spread their wings abroad.

I certainly had several scientists whom I much admired and respected—mostly those who really were interested in understanding the fundamental workings of nature and not those who rather treated science and research more as a career path.

ETH delegation at GYSS 2018, from left to right: Thomas Schutzius, Daniel Sutter, Michael Zumstein and Luca Dal Zilio. Credit: National Research Foundation.

Singapore is much more than the sum of its numerous attractions. It’s constantly evolving, reinventing, and reimagining itself, especially with people who are passionate about creating new possibilities. It’s where foodies, explorers, collectors, action seekers, culture shapers, and socialisers meet and new experiences are created every day. Although small in physical space (the country is about half the size of Los Angeles), Singapore offers large opportunities for high quality research set on a breathtaking tropical island with a bustling metropolitan area. Whether I was navigating the crowds in Chinatown, exploring Hindu temples in Little India, eating diverse cuisines in a local hawker center or relaxing in the Chinese Garden, this beautiful island provided exciting adventures every day.

Solar supertrees are vertical gardens in Gardens by the Bay in Singapore, which are designed to mimic the ecological functions of real trees. Each structure is outfitted with an array of photovoltaic cells that collect and store solar energy throughout the day – power that’s used to illuminate the garden when the sun goes down each night.

I have immersed myself in a society with very different cultural norms and rules from my own. By witnessing the functionality of many of Singapore’s well-known programs, such as the housing development board and water treatment plant, we were enabled to expand our views of what a successful society can be. Upon returning from GYSS 2018 in Singapore, I have gained a refreshing new perspective on what it means to be a part of the international scientific community. My time in Singapore reminds me of the beautiful unity we all share: to further the progress of humanity and better our global society. Through its fundamental research and implementations, Singapore is an excellent example of how scientific innovations can be integrated for the welfare of society.