The processes that operated on the early Earth and the tectonic regimes in which it was shaped are poorly constrained, reflecting the highly fragmentary rock record and uncertainty in geodynamic conditions. Most models of early Earth geodynamics invoke a poorly mobile lid regime, involving little or episodic movement of the lithosphere, above a convecting mantle. However, such a regime does not reconcile with the record of Archean tectonics, which displays contrasting environments associated with either non-plate tectonics or plate tectonics. Here, we propose a regime for the early Earth in which progressive melt extraction at sites of divergence led to the formation of large portions of stiffer lithospheric lid, called proto-plates. These proto-plates enabled stress propagation to be focussed at their margins, which were then the locus for extension as oppose to shortening, under-thrusting and thickening to form adjoining proto-cratons. We test this hypothesis embedding lithospheric stiffening during melt extraction in thermo-mechanical models of mantle convection, under conditions that prevailed in the Archean. We demonstrate the emergence of migrating, rigid proto-plates in which regions of prolonged focused compression coexist with remnants of the stagnant lid, thereby reproducing the widespread dichotomy proposed for the Archean tectonic record. These diverse tectonic modes coexist in a single regime that is viable since the Hadean and lasted until the transition to modern plate tectonics.
- Archean tectonics
- planetary regime
- thermochemical differentiation