Discovery Files

Study presents new clues about the rise of Earth's continents

One popular explanation for properties that result in dry land is unlikely, according to new experiments

Continents are part of what makes Earth uniquely habitable for life among the planets of the solar system, yet surprisingly little is understood about what gave rise to these huge pieces of the planet's crust and their special properties.

U.S. National Science Foundation-supported research by Megan Holycross at Cornell University and Elizabeth Cottrell at the National Museum of Natural History deepens the understanding of Earth's crust by testing and ultimately eliminating one popular hypothesis about why continental crust is lower in iron and more oxidized compared to oceanic crust. The iron-poor composition of continental crust is a major reason why vast portions of the Earth's surface stand above sea level as dry land, making terrestrial life possible today.

The study, published in Science, uses laboratory experiments to show that the iron-depleted, oxidized chemistry typical of Earth's continental crust likely did not come from crystallization of the mineral garnet, as a popular explanation proposed in 2018.

The building blocks of new continental crust issue forth from the depths of the Earth at what are known as continental arc volcanoes, which are found at subduction zones where an oceanic plate dives beneath a continental plate. In the garnet explanation for continental crust's iron-depleted and oxidized state, the crystallization of garnet in the magmas beneath these continental arc volcanoes removes non-oxidized iron (reduced or ferrous, as it is known among scientists) from the terrestrial plates, simultaneously depleting the molten magma of iron, leaving it more oxidized.

In 13 experiments, Cottrell and Holycross grew samples of garnet from molten rock inside the piston-cylinder press under pressures and temperatures designed to simulate conditions inside magma chambers deep in Earth's crust. The pressures used in the experiments ranged from 1.5 to 3 gigapascals — that is roughly 15,000 to 30,000 Earth atmospheres of pressure or 8,000 times more pressure than inside a can of soda. Temperatures ranged from 950 to 1,230 degrees Celsius, which is hot enough to melt rock.

Next, the team collected garnets from researchers around the world. Crucially, this group of garnets had already been analyzed so their concentrations of oxidized and unoxidized iron were known.

Finally, the study authors took the materials from their experiments and those gathered from collections to the Advanced Photon Source at the U.S. Department of Energy's Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois. There the team used high-energy X-ray beams to conduct X-ray absorption spectroscopy, a technique that can tell scientists about the structure and composition of materials based on how they absorb X-rays. In this case, the researchers were looking into the concentrations of oxidized and unoxidized iron.

The samples with known ratios of oxidized and unoxidized iron provided a way to check and calibrate the team's X-ray absorption spectroscopy measurements and facilitated a comparison with the materials from their experiments.

The results of these tests revealed that the garnets had not incorporated enough unoxidized iron from the rock samples to account for the levels of iron depletion and oxidation present in the magmas that are the building blocks of Earth's continental crust. Now the leading theory is that oxidized sulfur could be oxidizing the iron.