Collaborative Research: How Does Lower Continental Crust Form? A Petrochronological Investigation of the Ivrea Zone

Project: Research project

Project Details


Continental crust occupies about 40 percent of the surface area of the Earth and is critical for the sustenance of habitability. Whereas the upper continental crust is known to be dominated by sedimentary rocks formed by the erosion of mountains, the composition and origin of lower continental crust is not well understood. The prevailing paradigm is that the lower crust is made of dense rock, rich in the elements iron (Fe) and magnesium (Mg), emplaced as rising melts from the mantle below. However, metamorphosed sediments are common in sections of lower crustal rock that are now exposed at the surface of the Earth. This research addresses the question: How are sediments incorporated into the lower crust? This question is addressed via a reconstruction of the pressure-temperature-time history of a characteristic section of the lower crustal, the Ivrea-Verbano Zone in Italy, to evaluate competing hypotheses for the formation of lower continental crust. The research project incorporates a new collaboration between Penn State, UC Santa Barbara, and the University of Lausanne, supports the training of two graduate students from under-represented groups, and engages undergraduates in academic research.

Characterizing how lower continental crust forms is fundamental to understanding crustal evolution, development of body forces, flow of crust, and chemical differentiation of the Earth. Using a suite of complementary techniques, this project tests three hypotheses for the formation of the Ivrea-Verbano Zone: Burial, Crustal Underplating, and Relamination. Detrital zircon U-Pb dates are used to determine how sediment deposition ages vary with depth. Lu-Hf garnet dates are used to bracket the timing of prograde garnet growth and residence at peak temperatures. Metamorphic zircon and monazite U/Th-Pb dates + trace-element abundances obtained by laser-ablation split-stream petrochronology enable assessment of the timescale over which the Ivrea Zone was assembled. Petrologic constraints are derived from pseudosections, optimal thermobarometry, and trace- element thermometry. In conjunction, these techniques facilitate reconstruction of the downsection variation in prograde P-T-t paths and peak metamorphic conditions. The complete dataset is used for rigorous testing of the three hypotheses.

This project is jointly funded by the Tectonics program and the Petrology & Geochemistry program in the division of Earth Sciences.

This award reflects NSF's statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation's intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Effective start/end date7/1/196/30/22


  • National Science Foundation: $291,408.00


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