The nature of the sub-continental mantle: constraints from the major-element composition of continental flood basalts

Simon Turner*, Chris Hawkesworth

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

200 Citations (Scopus)


Many continental flood basalts (CFB) have isotope and trace-element signatures that differ from those of oceanic basalts and much interest concerns the extent to which these reflect differences in their upper mantle source regions. A review of selected data sets from the Mesozoic and Tertiary CFB confirms significant differences in their major- and trace-element compositions compared with those of basalts erupted through oceanic lithosphere. In general, those CFB suites characterised by low Nb/La, high ( 87Sr 86Sr)i and low ε{lunate}Ndi tend to exhibit relatively low TiO2, CaO Al2O3, Na2O and/or Fe2O3, and relatively high SiO2. In contrast, those which have high Nb/La, low ( 87Sr 86Sr)i and high ε{lunate}Ndi ratios, like the upper units in the Deccan Traps, have major- and trace-element compositions similar to oceanic basalts. It would appear that those CFB that have distinctive isotope and trace-element ratios also exhibit distinctive major-element contents, suggesting that major and trace elements have not been decoupled significantly during magma generation and differentiation. When compared (at 8% MgO) with oceanic basalt trends, the displacement of many CFB to lower Na2O, Fe2O3*, TiO2 and CaO Al2O3, but higher SiO2, at similar Mg#, is not readily explicable by crustal contamination. Rather, it reflects source composition and/or the effects of the melting processes. The model compositions of melts produced by decompression of mantle plumes beneath continental lithosphere have relatively low SiO2 and high Fe2O3*. In contrast, the available experimental data indicate that partial melts of peridotite have low TiO2, Na2O and Fe2O3* CaO Al2O3, if the peridotite has been previously depleted by melt extraction. Moreover, melting of hydrated, depleted peridotite yields SiO2-rich, Fe2O3- and CaO-poor melts. Since anhydrous, depleted peridotite has a high-temperature solidus, it is argued that the source of these CFB was variably melt depleted and hydrated mantle, inferred to be within the lithosphere. Isotope data suggest these source regions were often old and relatively enriched in incompatible trace elements, and it is envisaged that H2O±CO2 were added at the same time as the incompatible elements. An implication is that a significant proportion of the new continental crust generated since the Permian reflected multistage processes involving mobilization of continental mantle lithosphere that was enriched in minor and trace elements during the Proterozoic.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)295-314
Number of pages20
JournalChemical Geology
Issue number3-4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 1995
Externally publishedYes


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