Collaborative Research: Testing the Hypothesis that Bigger Magma Chambers Crystallize Faster
The solidified remnants of large magma bodies within the continental crust hold the key to understanding the chemical and physical evolution of volcanic provinces through time. These deposits also commonly contain some of the world's most important ore deposits. Exposed deposits in South Africa, Greenland, USA, Canada, and Antarctica have led researchers to propose that the bigger the magma body, the faster it will crystallize. While this might seem counter-intuitive (typically it is thought that more magma = hotter = harder to cool), the comparison of these exposures show that bigger magma chambers maintain a molten top that is always in contact with the colder crust; whereas smaller magma chambers insulate themselves by crystallizing at the margins. The process is similar to the difference between a large cup of coffee with no lid, and a smaller cup of coffee held in a thermos. The large unprotected cup of coffee will cool down much faster than that held in the thermos. This research project of VanTongeren and Schoene will use previously collected rocks from the large (~8-9 km thick) Dufek Intrusion in Antarctica to precisely quantify how fast the magma chamber crystallized, and compare that rate to the much smaller magma chamber exposed in the Skaergaard Intrusion of E. Greenland. The work is an important step towards improving our understanding of time-scales associated with the thermal and chemical evolution of nearly all magma chambers on Earth, which will ultimately lead to better predictions of volcanic hazards globally. The work will also yield important insights into the timescales and conditions necessary for developing vast magmatic ore deposits, which is essential to the platinum and steel industries in the USA and abroad.
Based on observations of solidification fronts in six of the world's most completely exposed layered mafic intrusions, it was recently proposed that bigger magma chambers must crystallize faster than small magma chambers. While this is initially counter-intuitive, the hypothesis falls out of simple heat balance equations and the observation that the thickness of cumulates at the roofs of such intrusions is negatively proportional to the size of the intrusion. In this study, VanTongeren and Schoene will directly test the hypothesis that bigger magma chambers crystallize faster by applying high precision U-Pb zircon geochronology on 5-10 samples throughout the large Dufek Intrusion of Antarctica. Due to uncertainties in even the highest-precision ID-TIMS analyses, the Dufek Intrusion of Antarctica is the only large layered mafic intrusion on Earth where this research can be accomplished. VanTongeren and Schoene will place the geochronological measurements of the Dufek Intrusion into a comprehensive petrologic framework by linking zircon crystallization to other liquidus phases using mineral geochemistry, zircon saturation models, and petrologic models for intrusion crystallization. The research has the potential to radically change the way that we understand the formation and differentiation of large magma bodies within the shallow crust. Layered intrusions are typically thought to cool and crystallize over very long timescales allowing for significant differentiation of the magmas and reorganization of the cumulate rocks. If the 'bigger magma chambers crystallize faster hypothesis' holds this could reduce the calculated solidification time scales of the early earth and lunar magma oceans and have important implications for magma chamber dynamics of active intraplate volcanism and long-lived continental arcs. Furthermore, while the Dufek Intrusion is one of only two large layered intrusions exposed on Earth, very little is known about its petrologic evolution. The detailed geochemical and petrologic work of VanTongeren and Schoene based on analyses of previously collected samples will provide important observations with which to compare the Dufek and other large magma chambers.
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