A new compositional estimate for refractory lower continental crust with implications for the first terrestrial Pb-isotope paradox


The lower continental crust, representing up to 50% of the continental mass, is largely inaccessible, making its composition difficult to constrain. Previous composite models based on geophysical evidence and geochemical data of granulite terrains and xenoliths have proposed varying results, from a mafic, relatively refractory lower crust to an intermediate-felsic, more enriched composition. Here, we investigated the mineralogy and geochemistry of predominantly mafic granulite xenoliths from eastern Australia and the Kola Peninsula, Russia, using an in situ analytical approach that minimises host magma contamination. The resulting xenolith compositions are variably and often strongly depleted in most highly incompatible trace elements, including the heat-producing elements. These xenoliths represent an extremely refractory component of the lower continental crust, likely formed after high degrees of partial melting or crystallisation from a depleted source. A lower crust composed solely of this refractory endmember would be too exhausted in heat-producing elements to satisfy heat-flow constraints. However, a volumetrically significant component of the lower crust is this mafic and refractory material, combined with undifferentiated material and a felsic or metapelitic portion. Using geophysical constraints on proportions of refractory (55%), undepleted (38%) and enriched (7%) components, a new estimate for average lower continental crust that satisfies heat flow limits was calculated, including for elements such as Be, B, Cs, W and Tl, where previous estimates relied on very few data. Finally, we show that because much of the lower continental crust is so refractory and depleted in incompatible elements, it is unlikely to be a reservoir that can balance radiogenic isotope (unradiogenic Pb) and trace element ratios (e.g. Rb/Cs, Nb/Ta) for which bulk silicate Earth departs from chondritic ratios.</p

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