Large-scale tectonic cycles in Europe revealed by distinct Pb isotope provinces
Lead isotopic systematics of U-poor minerals, such as sulfides and feldspars, can provide unique insights into the origin and evolution of continents because these minerals “freeze in” the Pb isotopic composition of the crust during major tectonothermal events, allowing the history of a continent to be told through Pb isotopes. Lead model ages constrain the timing of crust formation while time-integrated U/Pb, Th/Pb, and Th/U ratios shed light onto key geochemical processes associated with continent formation. Using ∼6800 Pb isotope measurements of primarily lead ores and minor K-feldspar, we mapped out the Pb isotope systematics across Europe and the Mediterranean. Lead model ages define spatially distinct age provinces, consistent with major tectonic events ranging from the Paleozoic to the Proterozoic and latest Archean. However, the regions defined by time-integrated U/Pb and Th/Pb ratios cut across the boundaries of age provinces, with high U/Pb systematics characterizing most of southern Europe. Magmatic influx, followed by segregation of dense sulfide-rich mafic cumulates, resulted in foundering of U- and Th-poor lower crust, thereby changing the bulk composition of the continental crust and leading to distinct time-integrated U-Th/Pb provinces. We show that the tectonic assembly of small crustal fragments leaves the crust largely undifferentiated, whereas the formation of supercontinents results in fundamental changes in the composition of the crust, identifiable in time and space by means of Pb isotope systematics. Observations based on Pb isotopes open up a new perspective on possible relationships between crustal thickness and geodynamic processes, in particular the role of crustal foundering into the mantle and the mechanisms responsible for the existence of cratons.