Changes in Continental Area Inferred from Space Geodesy

Brian Hahn, William E. Holt (SUNY Stony Brook), Paul Silver (DTM, Carnegie Institute Washington), Corné Kreemer (ENS Paris)

The Wilson Cycle of continental collision and breakup, as well as the more general deformation produced by plate tectonics , alters the areal extent of continental crust and lithosphere. Continental area is reduced during continental collisional events and is increased during rifting and extension. But what is the net effect: shrinkage, expansion, or neither? To address this question we have calculated the present-day areal rate of change for the continents using a global strain-rate model. A finite-element approach with over 24,000 grid elements is used to define the velocity gradient tensor field within all continental plate boundary zones. Over 3000 GPS velocity vectors, along with Quaternary fault-slip rates, are used to define the deformation field within the plate boundary zones as well as to define spherical cap motions. We calculate regional rates that include: 0.02 km2yr-1 in Africa, -0.04 km2yr-1 in South America ca, -0.10 km2yr-1 in Eastern and Central Asia, -0.05 km2yr-1 in Europe and Western Asia and -0.03 km2yr-1 in North America. These estimates have been corrected for the recoverable elastic strain for regions near convergent margins such as the west coast of South America. The worldwide rate for continental areal change is approximately -0.2 km2/yr and roughly corresponds to continental areal shrinkage of 10% per 100my, and if incompressible, causes them to thicken by the same percentage. That global continental areal change is negative is not surprising since most rifting even produce relatively short-lived continental crustal extension after which new oceanic crust is created. Thus plate tectonics preferentially reduces continental area and increases the thickness of continental crust and lithosphere. There are several implications for this change in the continents. First, regarding crustal volume, if the worldwide rate of -0.2 km2yr-1 can be applied over the long-term, then 10 km3yr-1 of crustal volume must be added to the margins of continents (through erosion of uplifted continent) in order to maintain constant crustal area with an average crustal thickness of 45 km. This required erosion rate is in fact similar to the worldwide sediment load introduced from rivers, and thus erosion may provide a means of maintaining constant crustal area. By contrast, the addition of crustal volume by island arc volcanism is approximately 1 km3yr-1, an order of magnitude too small to maintain constant continental area. Regarding continental lithosphere, an inevitable consequence of the continental area reduction is that the continental lithospheric mantle will grow in thickness by 10% every 100 my or by a factor of about 2.5 in a billion years. If lithospheric thickness is roughly constant over time, then there must be a counteracting process , either the continual new creation of thin continental lithosphere, or a process, such as delamination, that thins existing continental lithosphere.