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Lithospheric Xenoliths from the Marie Byrd Land Volcanic Province, West Antarctica

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posted on 2021-11-08, 22:00 authored by Wysoczanski, Richard J

Studies of the Earths lithosphere, and particularly the lower crust, have in the past relied on geophysical methods, and on geochemical studies of granulite terrains exposed at the surface. Geophysical studies can not evaluate the compositions to any large extent. Granulite terrains typically represent ancient rather than present day sections, have invariably suffered retrograde metamorphism, and have been affected by fluids during uplift. More recently, studies of lithospheric xenoliths (fragments of the lithosphere brought to the surface by entraining (typically alkaline) melts) have been used to study the composition of, and processes influencing, the lithosphere. Xenoliths have the advantage of representing relatively unaltered and young fragments of the lithosphere, and together with other studies have added much to our understanding of the Earths composition and processes. The study of the lithosphere in Marie Byrd Land (MBL), West Antarctica, is complicated by the difficult access and harsh climate of the region. Geophysical studies are limited, and deep crustal exposures are entirely absent. In an attempt to study the composition and structure of the MBL lithosphere, xenoliths were collected from various volcanic edifices in MBL, including the volcanoes of the Executive Committee Range (ECR), and the USAS Escarpment in central MBL, and Mount Murphy on the Walgreen coast. The xenolith suite consists of peridotites, pyroxenites and granulites, spanning a vertical section from upper mantle to lower crust, that are in pristine condition, due to the arid Antarctic conditions. The peridotite suite from MBL consists of spinel Iherzolites from Mounts Hampton and Cumming in the ECR, the USAS Escarpment, and Mount Murphy. Cr-diopside rich peridotites also occur at Mounts Hampton and Murphy, indicating a more chemically diverse upper mantle in these regions (e.g. Mg# 75-92 in Cr-diopside rich peridotites compared to Mg# 87-92 in spinel Iherzolites). REE contents of the peridotites vary from LREE-depleted (up to 0.293 (La/Yb)n in USAS Escarpment peridotites) to LREE-enriched (up to 10.015 (La/Yb)n in Mount Hampton peridotites), further indicating the extreme heterogeneity of the MBL upper mantle. Lower crustal xenoliths from Mounts Sidley and Hampton in the ECR, and from Mount Murphy have meta-igneous textures ranging from pyroxenite to gabbro. They consist of varying amounts of olivine, clinopyroxene, orthopyroxene, plagioclase and spinels; garnet is entirely absent. Orthopyroxene is absent in Mount Sidley xenoliths, whereas olivine is rare in Mount Hampton xenoliths. Mineral P-T equilibria indicate crystallisation of Mounts Sidley and Murphy pyroxenites at lower levels (7-11 kb and 6.5-12 kb respectively) than the granulites (3-5.5 kb and 3-9 kb), with Mount Hampton pyroxenites (6-7.5 kb) and granulites (5.5-8.5 kb) crystallising at similar crustal levels. High temperatures of equilibration (> 1000 [degrees] C) are consistent with a rift-like geotherm in the MBL lithosphere. Whole rock composition of the lower crustal xenoliths is controlled by the mineral assemblage, reflecting their origin as mafic cumulate rocks. Elements that partition readily into the xenolith mineral assemblage are present in higher abundances (e.g. up to 1700 ppm Sr in plagioclase rich xenoliths, and 3745 ppm Cr in clinopyroxene rich pyroxenites) than elements that do not (e.g. Rb < 6 ppm in all lower crustal xenoliths). 87Sr/86Sr (0.702861 [plus or minus] 7 to 0.704576 [plus or minus] 15) and 143Nd/144Nd (0.512771 [plus or minus] 6 to 0.512870 [plus or minus] 5) ratios indicate that the melts were primitive magmas, that did not assimilate any isotopically evolved crustal material prior to or during crystallisation. The single-pyroxene mineral assemblage of Mount Sidley (and possibly Mount Murphy) xenoliths crystallised from an alkaline melt, whereas the two-pyroxene assemblage of Mount Hampton xenoliths crystallised from a sub-alkaline melt. Xenoliths from Mount Sidley reveal petrographic and geochemical evidence for melt-fluid interaction at lower crustal depths. This interaction is inferred to be associated with late Cenozoic plume-related volcanism. It is manifested by high-temperature oxidation of olivine, replacement of clinopyroxene by kaersutite, traces of alkaline mafic glass, and the growth of apatite, Fe-Ti oxides and plagioclase. The xenolith suite has been enriched in elements that readily partition into these mineral phases (e.g. Ti, K, P, Sr, Ba), as well as in mobile elements (e.g. LILEs and LREEs). Pb isotopic ratios (e.g. 206Pb/204Pb from 18.005 - 19.589) and REEs define mixing lines between unradiogenic lower crust (206Pb/204Pb = 18.005) and small volume melts (206Pb/204Pb > 19.53) approaching HIMU composition, sourced from the inferred mantle plume. The composition of the infiltrating melts has also evolved, by percolative fractional crystallisation in the lower crust. The chemical heterogeneity detected in the MBL lower crust indicates a lower crustal discontinuity in the ECR, between Mount Sidley and Mount Hampton, here termed the ECR lower crustal discontinuity. Granulites from Mount Sidley are similar in composition to granulites from the Transantarctic Mountains (TM) in the McMurdo Sound region, Mount Ruapehu and Fiordland (New Zealand). Granulites from Mount Hampton are similar in composition to granulites from Mount Murphy, and the Ross Embayment (RE). These groups have been termed the TM Group and the RE Group respectively. The compositional similarity of granulites in each group may indicate the derivation of the lower crust in these regions from similar melts, and possibly indicate their juxtaposition as parts of the Gondwana supercontinent. The mafic cumulate character of the xenolith suite is inferred to represent original oceanic crust, and a model for the growth of the crust since its formation in latest pre-Cambrian - early Cambrian is presented here.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Doctor of Philosophy

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Geography, Environment and Earth Sciences


Gamble, John