On the origin of hot metasedimentary quartzites in the lower crust of continental arcs

Chin, EJ, Lee CTA, Tollstrup DL, Xie LW, Wimpenny JB, Yin QZ.  2013.  On the origin of hot metasedimentary quartzites in the lower crust of continental arcs. Earth and Planetary Science Letters. 361:120-133.

Date Published:

Jan 1


beneath, california, constraints, continental arc, detrital zircon, granulite, lu-hf, magmatism, mantle, miogeocline, passive margin, rocks, Sierra nevada, sierra-nevada batholith, u-pb geochronology, zircon geochronology


Volcanic arcs associated with subduction zones are thought to be the primary building blocks of continents. The composition of the magmas, particularly in continental arcs, is the product of mixing between differentiation of juvenile magmas and pre-existing crustal wallrock, the former being typically mafic and the latter more silicic. Because the upper continental crust is on average thought to be more silicic than the mafic lower crust, mixing with silicic endmembers should occur primarily in the upper crust. However, we show here that the lower crust of continental arcs contains silicic metasediments. We examine garnet-bearing, granulite-facies sedimentary quartzite xenoliths from the Sierra Nevada batholith in California, a Cretaceous continental arc. The quartzites have equigranular textures and contain quartz (>50%), plagioclase (<30%), garnet (10%), and small amounts (<1%) of rutile, aluminosilicate, biotite, monazite, zircon, graphite and trace orthopyroxene. Cathodoluminescent images show zircons with rounded detrital cores mantled by metamorphic overgrowths. Hf isotopic model ages and U-Pb upper intercept ages, for a given zircon, are similar, but the zircon population shows variable protolith ages ranging from Proterozoic to Archean. In contrast, all zircons share similar lower intercept U-Pb ages (103 +/- 10 Ma), which coincide with the peak of arc magmatism in the Sierra Nevada. The Precambrian protolith ages are similar to North American cratonal basement and together with the abundance of quartz and detrital zircons, suggest that these quartzites represent ancient, passive margin sediments instead of juvenile active margin sediments in the oceanic trench and accretionary prism. Importantly, these quartzites record peak metamorphic temperatures and pressures of 700-800 degrees C using Ti-in-quartz thermometry and 0.7-1.1 GPa using garnet-aluminosilicate-plagioclase thermobarometry, indicating that these xenoliths experienced significant heating and possible partial melting in the lower crust, most likely related to arc magmatism as suggested by similarities between the lower intercept U-Pb ages and the ages of plutonism in the Sierra Nevada. Possible mechanisms by which these sediments were transported into the lower crust include continental underthrusting beneath the continental arc, underplating by buoyant slab-derived sedimentary diapirs, or viscous downflow of country rock in response to diapiric ascent of plutons. Continental underthrusting has been independently documented during the Sevier orogeny, coinciding with the peak of arc magmatism. We thus speculate that supracrustal rocks may have been underthrusted into deep crustal magmatic zones. Regardless of how these metasediments arrived in the lower crust, our observations indicate that silicic metasediments occur in the lower crust of volcanic arcs, not just in the upper crust as is commonly thought. Transport of metasediments into deep crustal magmatic zones should influence the composition of arc magmas and continental crust in general. (C) 2012 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.