Time will tell: Secular change in metamorphic timescales and the tectonic implications

Chowdhury, P. and Chakraborty, S. and Gerya, T.V.

Volume: 93 Pages: 291-310
DOI: 10.1016/
Published: 2021

The pressure-temperature-time (P-T-t) evolution of metamorphic rocks is directly related to geodynamics as different tectonic settings vary in their thermal architecture. The shapes of P-T paths and thermobaric ratios (T/P) of metamorphic rocks have been extensively used to distinguish different tectonic domains. However, the role of metamorphic timescales in constraining tectonic settings remains underutilized. This is because of the poorly understood relationship between them, and the difficulty in accurately constraining the onset and end of a particular metamorphic event. Here, we show why and how the intrinsic relationship between thermal regime, rheology and rate of motion controlled by the heat, mass and momentum conservation laws translate to differences in heating, cooling, burial, exhumation rates of metamorphic rocks and thereby, to the duration of metamorphism. We compare the P-T-t paths of the orogenic metamorphic rocks of different ages and in particular, analyse their retrograde cooling rates and durations. The results show that cooling rates of the metamorphic rocks are variable but are dominantly <50 °C/Ma during most of the Precambrian before increasing by an order of magnitude (>100 °C/Ma) during the late Neoproterozoic to Phanerozoic. To seek what controlled this secular change in metamorphic cooling rates, we use thermomechanical modelling to calculate the P-T-t paths of crustal rocks in different types of continental orogenic settings and compare them with the rock record. The modelled P-T-t paths show that lithospheric peel-back driven orogenic settings, which are postulated as an orogenic mode operating under the hotter mantle conditions of late Archean to early Proterozoic, are characterised by longer durations of metamorphism and slower cooling rates (a few 10s of °C/Ma) as compared to the modern orogenic settings (a few 100s of °C/Ma) operating under relatively colder mantle conditions. This is because peel-back orogens feature: (1) hot lithospheres with very high crustal geotherms being sustained by high mantle heat-flow and profuse magmatism, and (2) distributed deformation patterns that limit vertical extrusion (exhumation) of the metamorphic rocks along localized deformation zones and instead, trap them in the orogenic core for a long time. In contrast, modern orogens mostly involve colder lithospheres and allow rapid exhumation through localized deformation, which facilitates faster cooling of hot, exhumed metamorphic rocks in a colder ambience. Thus, we propose that the secular change in metamorphic cooling rates indicates a changing regime of orogenesis and thereby, of plate tectonics through time. Predominance of the slower metamorphic cooling rates before the Neoproterozoic indicate the occurrences of peel-back orogenesis and truncated hot (collisional) orogenesis during that time, while the appearance of faster cooling rates since the late Neoproterozoic indicates the transition to modern style of orogenesis. A transition between these orogenic styles also accounts for the prolonged longevity (>100 million years) of many Precambrian orogenic belts as compared to the Phanerozoic ones. This study underscores the strength of timescales in combination with P-T paths to distinguish tectonic settings of different styles and ages. © 2021 International Association for Gondwana Research

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