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Nature. 2019 Jun;570(7759):52-57. doi: 10.1038/s41586-019-1258-4. Epub 2019 Jun 5.

Surface erosion events controlled the evolution of plate tectonics on Earth.

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GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, Section of Geodynamic Modeling, Potsdam, Germany.
Institute of Geosciences, University of Potsdam, Potsdam, Germany.
Laboratory for Crustal Petrology, Department of Geology, University of Maryland, College Park, MD, USA.


Plate tectonics is among the most important geological processes on Earth, but its emergence and evolution remain unclear. Here we extrapolate models of present-day plate tectonics to the past and propose that since about three billion years ago the rise of continents and the accumulation of sediments at continental edges and in trenches has provided lubrication for the stabilization of subduction and has been crucial in the development of plate tectonics on Earth. We conclude that the two largest surface erosion and subduction lubrication events occurred after the Palaeoproterozoic Huronian global glaciations (2.45 to 2.2 billion years ago), leading to the formation of the Columbia supercontinent, and after the Neoproterozoic 'snowball' Earth glaciations (0.75 to 0.63 billion years ago). The snowball Earth event followed the 'boring billion'-a period of reduced plate tectonic activity about 1.75 to 0.75 billion years ago that was probably caused by a shortfall of sediments in trenches-and it kick-started the modern episode of active plate tectonics.


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