Continents are underlain by thick, cold thermal boundary layers. Thermal contraction should render these boundary layers negatively buoyant and unstable; this is why old, cold oceanic lithospheres subduct. However, the ancient lithospheric roots of many continents appear to have existed for billions of years. In the common view, this preservation is due to the fact that the thermal boundary layers are compositionally distinct from the ambient mantle in that they are highly melt-depleted and dehydrated; the former provides positive buoyancy and the latter provides strength. Here, we show using mantle xenoliths that the Precambrian South China Block originally was underlain by highly depleted mantle, but has been refertilized via silicate melts generated from the asthenosphere. It is now more fertile than the ambient convecting mantle and is intrinsically denser by more than 1.5%. Achieving sufficient melt generation for refertilization is only possible if the lithosphere is thin enough to provide "headspace" for decompression melting. Thus, continental boundary layers thinner than the maximum depth of melting should experience refertilization, whereas thicker continents would altogether suppress melting and hence the potential for refertilization. We propose that refertilization, once initiated, will destabilize the base of the continent; this in turn will increase the amount of "headspace" and promote further refertilization, resulting in a positive feedback that could culminate in lithospheric destruction. By contrast, continents that are thick enough may not experience significant refertilization. This suggests that initial lithospheric thickness, as well as lithospheric composition, may be important for defining the fate of continents.
- Continental destabilization
- Lithospheric initial thickness
- Peridotite xenolith