On the causes of electrical conductivity anomalies in tectonically stable lithosphere

Kate Selway*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

166 Citations (Scopus)


Magnetotelluric (MT) data can image the electrical resistivity of the entire lithospheric column and are therefore one of the most important data sources for understanding the structure, composition and evolution of the lithosphere. However, interpretations of MT data from stable lithosphere are often ambiguous. Recent results from mineral physics studies show that, from the mid-crust to the base of the lithosphere, temperature and the hydrogen content of nominally anhydrous minerals are the two most important controls on electrical conductivity. Graphite films on mineral grain boundaries also enhance conductivity but are stable only to the uppermost mantle. The thermal profile of most stable lithosphere can be well constrained, so the two important unknowns that can affect the conductivity of a lithospheric section are hydrogen content and graphite films. The presence of both of these factors is controlled by the geological history of the lithosphere. Hydrogen in nominally anhydrous minerals behaves as an incompatible element and is preferentially removed during melting or high-temperature tectonothermal events. Grain-boundary graphite films are only stable to ~900 °C so they are also destroyed by high-temperature events. Conversely, tectonic events that enrich the lithosphere in incompatible elements, such as interaction with fluids from a subducting slab or a plume, can introduce both hydrogen and carbon into the lithosphere and therefore increase its electrical conductivity. Case studies of MT results from central Australia and the Slave Craton in Canada suggest that electrical conductivity can act as a proxy for the level of enrichment in incompatible elements of the lithosphere.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)219-257
Number of pages39
JournalSurveys in geophysics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2014
Externally publishedYes


  • Magnetotellurics
  • Electrical resistivity
  • Cratons
  • Lithosphere
  • Hydrogen
  • Graphite


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