Deformation Mechanisms and Strain Localization in the Mafic Continental Lower Crust
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The rheology and strength of the lower crust play a key role in lithosphere dynamics, influencing the orogenic cycle and how plate tectonics work. Despite their geological importance, the processes that cause weakening of the lower crust and strain localization are still poorly understood. Through microstructural analysis of naturally deformed samples, this PhD aims to investigate how weakening and strain localization occurs in the mafic continental lower crust. Mafic granulites are analysed from two unrelated continental lower crustal shear zones which share comparable mineralogical assemblages and high-grade deformation conditions (T > 700 °C and P > 6 Kbar): the Seiland Igneous Province in northern Norway (case-study 1) and the Finero mafic complex in the Italian Southern Alps (case-study 2). Case-study 1 investigates a metagabbroic dyke embedded in a lower crustal metasedimentary shear zone undergoing partial melting. Shearing of the dyke was accompanied by infiltration of felsic melt from the adjacent partially molten metapelites. Findings of case-study 1 show that weakening of dry and strong mafic rocks can result from melt infiltration from nearby partially molten metasediments. The infiltrated melt triggers melt-rock reactions and nucleation of a fine-grained (< 10 µm average grain size) polyphase matrix. This fine-grained mixture deforms by diffusion creep, causing significant rheological weakening. Case-study 2 investigates a lower crustal shear zone in a compositionally-layered mafic complex made of amphibole-rich and amphibole-poor metagabbros. Findings of case-study 2 show that during prograde metamorphism (T > 800 °C), the presence of amphibole undergoing dehydration melting reactions is key to weakening and strain localization. Dehydration of amphibole generates fine-grained symplectic intergrowths of pyroxene + plagioclase. These reaction products form an interconnected network of fine-grained (< 20 µm average grain size) polyphase material that deforms by diffusion creep, causing strain partitioning and localization in amphibole-rich layers. Those layers without amphibole fail to produce an interconnected network of fine grained material. In this layers, plagioclase deforms by dislocation creep, and pyroxene by microfracturing and neocrystallization. Overall, this PhD research highlights that weakening and strain localization in the mafic lower crust is governed by high-T mineral and chemical reactions that drastically reduce grain size and trigger diffusion creep.