Plate tectonics started at least 3.5 billion years ago

Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome

ROCK OF AGES  Plate tectonics may have started as early as 3.5 billion years ago on Earth. That recycling of Earth’s surface leads to the separation of light-colored continental crust (exposed here at Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome) from darker, denser oceanic crust.  

© Basil Greber

Plate tectonics may have gotten a pretty early start in Earth’s history. Most estimates put the onset of when the large plates that make up the planet’s outer crust began shifting at around 3 billion years ago. But a new study in the Sept. 22 Science that analyzes titanium in continental rocks asserts that plate tectonics began 500 million years earlier

Nicolas Greber, now at the University of Geneva, and colleagues suggest that previous studies got it wrong because researchers relied on chemical analyses of silicon dioxide in shales, sedimentary rocks that bear the detritus of a variety of continental rocks. These rocks’ silicon dioxide composition can give researchers an idea of when continental rocks began to diverge in makeup from oceanic rocks as a result of plate tectonics.

But weathering can wreak havoc on the chemical makeup of shales. To get around that problem, Greber’s team turned to a new tool: the ratios of two titanium isotopes, forms of the same element that have different masses. The proportion of titanium isotopes in the rocks is a useful stand-in for the difference in silicon dioxide concentration between continental and oceanic rocks, and isn’t so easily altered by weathering. Those data helped the team estimate that continental rocks — and therefore plate tectonics — were already going strong by 3.5 billion years ago.

Carolyn Gramling is the earth & climate writer. She has bachelor’s degrees in geology and European history and a Ph.D. in marine geochemistry from MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

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