Bifurcation in the growth of continental crust

Dennis Höning*, Nicola Tosi, Hendrik Hansen-Goos, Tilman Spohn

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Is the present-day water-land ratio a necessary outcome of the evolution of plate tectonic planets with a similar age, volume, mass, and total water inventory as the Earth? This would be the case – largely independent of initial conditions – if Earth's present-day continental volume were at a stable unique equilibrium with strong self-regulating mechanisms of continental growth steering the evolution to this state. In this paper, we question this conjecture. Instead we suggest that positive feedbacks in the plate tectonics model of continental production and erosion may dominate and show that such a model can explain the history of continental growth. We investigate the main mechanisms that contribute to the growth of the volume of the continental crust. In particular, we analyze the effect of the oceanic plate speed, depending on the area and thickness of thermally insulating continents, on production and erosion mechanisms. Effects that cause larger continental production rates for larger values of continental volume are positive feedbacks. In contrast, negative feedbacks act to stabilize the continental volume. They are provided by the increase of the rate of surface erosion, subduction erosion, and crustal delamination with the continental volume. We systematically analyze the strengths of positive and negative feedback contributions to the growth of the continental crust. Although the strengths of some feedbacks depend on poorly known parameters, we conclude that a net predominance of positive feedbacks is plausible. We explore the effect of the combined feedback strength on the feasibility of modeling the observed small positive net continental growth rate over the past 2–3 billion years. We show that a model with dominating positive feedbacks can readily explain this observation in spite of the cooling of the Earth's mantle acting to reduce the continental production rate. In contrast, explaining this observation using a model with dominating negative feedbacks would require the continental erosion and production rates to both have the same or a sufficiently similar functional dependence on the thermal state of the mantle, which appears unreasonable considering erosion to be largely dominated by the surface relief and weathering. The suggested scenario of dominating positive feedbacks implies that the present volume of the continental crust and its evolution are strongly determined by initial conditions. Therefore, exoplanets with Earth-like masses and total water inventories may substantially differ from the Earth with respect to their relative land/surface ratios and their habitability.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)37-50
Number of pages14
JournalPhysics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors
Early online date3 Jan 2019
Publication statusPublished - Feb 2019


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