Chemical evolution of the continental crust from a data-driven inversion of terrigenous sediment compositions

Ptáček, Matouš P.; Dauphas, Nicolas; Greber, Nicolas D. (2020). Chemical evolution of the continental crust from a data-driven inversion of terrigenous sediment compositions. Earth and planetary science letters, 539(116090), p. 116090. Elsevier 10.1016/j.epsl.2020.116090

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The nature of emerged continents through time is highly debated. Several studies relying on trace element data concluded that the Archaean crust was predominantly mafic, while Ti isotope systematics point to an Archaean crust that was predominantly felsic. Here, we resolve the inconsistency between these two approaches by applying a novel statistical method to a compilation of published elemental concentrations in terrigenous sediments (the OrTeS database). We use a filter based on the Local Outlier Factor to reject sediment samples that have been affected by alteration processes or mineral fractionation during transport. The nature of the emerged continents is calculated using an inverse mixing model based on a Markov Chain Monte Carlo algorithm. A procedure is presented to automatically select elemental ratios that are best suited for constraining the sediment provenance. We find that for all systems that accurately reconstruct the modern-day composition of the continents, a continuous >50% felsic contribution is required to explain the composition of fine-grained terrigenous sediments starting from 3.5 billion years ago. This finding is consistent with an early onset of plate tectonics. We estimate the geothermal gradient in the Archaean upper continental crust by tracking the reconstructed concentrations of the radiogenic heat-producing elements K, U, and Th through time. Radioactive heat production in the bulk continental crust was 50% higher in the Archaean compared to the present, resulting in a continental geothermal gradient that was about 40% higher.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Institute of Geological Sciences

UniBE Contributor:

Greber, Nicolas


500 Science > 550 Earth sciences & geology






[UNSPECIFIED] NASA ; [42] Schweizerischer Nationalfonds




Nicolas Greber

Date Deposited:

04 May 2020 13:57

Last Modified:

22 Aug 2021 02:41

Publisher DOI:


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