Earth’s modern plate-tectonic regime emerged from earlier tectonic regimes (Sleep, 2000; Cawood et al.,
2018; Stern, 2018; Holder et al., 2019). This paper tests the hypothesis that the Mesoproterozoic was a
protracted single-lid tectonics. Below, I briefly outline what single-lid tectonics is before presenting
positive and negative evidence to test this hypothesis and explore some implications.
Plate Tectonics and Single-Lid Tectonics
Five concepts are central to this paper:
1. Active silicate bodies have convecting mantles. Tectonics is the lithospheric expression of mantle
2. Plate tectonics is lithosphere divided into a mosaic of strong plates, which move on and sink into
weaker ductile asthenosphere as a result of subduction. Plates move relative to each other across three
types of boundaries: divergent, convergent, and transform (Bird, 2003). The negative buoyancy of old
dense oceanic lithosphere sinking in subduction zones mostly powers plate movements (Forsyth and Uyeda,
3. Single-lid tectonics contrasts with plate tectonics by having a single, unfragmented, all-encompassing
4. There are many types of single-lid behavior but only one type of plate tectonics (Fig. 1).
Possible evolution of magmatotectonic styles for a large silicate body like Earth. Examples from active
Solar System bodies Io, Venus, and Mars are shown. Possible evolution of Earth is also shown. Strength
of mantle convection is indicated by arrowed curve thickness. Plate tectonics requires certain
conditions of lithospheric density and strength in order to occur and is likely to be presaged and
followed by different styles of stagnant lid tectonics. See text for further discussion. Modified after
Stern et al. (2018).
5. We are only beginning to explore the range of active silicate body single-lid behaviors, and
terminology is confusing. O’Neill and Roberts (2018) refer to stagnant, sluggish, plutonic squishy, or
heat pipe variants, whereas Fischer and Gerya (2016) refer to plume-lid tectonics. “Sagduction”—the
vertical sinking of weak lithosphere—is another vigorous non-plate tectonic–style (Nédélec et al.,
In 2015 we finished taking a first look at all of the large (= semi-spherical) bodies in the Solar System
using a variety of spacecraft (Stern et al., 2018). Four out of five tectonically active silicate bodies
in the Solar System show single-lid behavior; that is, they have an all-encompassing lithospheric lid
(Stern et al., 2018): Venus and Mars and the two Jovian inner moons, Io and Europa. We have imaged the
surfaces of Venus, Mars and Io, but not Europa because it is encased in an icy shell. Venus, Mars, and
Io show a wide range of single-lid tectonic behaviors. Io is subjected to strong tidal forces from
Jupiter, which heats its interior so that it is very active volcanically and tectonically (McGovern et
al., 2016). Io is characterized by heat pipe volcanism, where basaltic layers erupted from randomly
distributed volcanoes are buried and remelted a few kilometers below the surface. Venus exhibits
vigorous single-lid behavior dominated by mantle plumes and rifts (Ghail, 2015); the upward magma flux
is presumably matched by drips and delamination. Mars is a good example of sluggish single-lid behavior,
with a few great volcanoes and one great rift.
From studying other active silicate bodies of the Solar System we have learned three important things:
(1) there are two distinct tectonic styles: single lid and plate tectonics; (2) there are many
single-lid tectonic styles; and (3) only Earth has plate tectonics. Because single-lid tectonics is so
common among active silicate bodies, it seems likely that Earth experienced single-lid tectonic episodes
in the past.
The Mesoproterozoic (1600–1000 Ma) is the heart of the “Boring Billion,” a term coined by Holland (2006)
for the interval between 1.85 and 0.85 Ga when atmospheric oxygen levels changed little (Fig. 2A). The
term “Boring Billion” is now used to describe many more aspects about this time period than Holland
(2006) intended. Cawood and Hawkesworth (2014) called this “Earth’s middle age” and marshalled evidence
that the Mesoproterozoic was a time of environmental, evolutionary, and lithospheric stability distinct
from the dramatic changes documented for other times.
(A) Climate, (B–D) plate-tectonic, and (E–H) single-lid indicators for the past 3.0 Ga of Earth’s
history. Climate stability and plate-tectonic indicators from Stern (2018). “Boring Billion” from
Holland (2006). Single-lid tectonic indicators include (E) A-type granites (Condie, 2014), (F)
massif-type anorthosites (Ashwal, 2010), (G) thermobarometric ratios (n
= 564; best fit curve
from Brown et al., 2020), and (H) numbers of passive continental margins (Bradley, 2011). Fourfold
confidence subdivision of Bradley (2011) is simplified into two intervals of higher and lower
confidence. UHP—ultra-high pressure.
I have argued elsewhere (Stern, 2005; Stern, 2018) that Earth’s modern plate-tectonic regime began in
Neoproterozoic time. If Earth did not have plate tectonics, it had some type of single-lid tectonics.
Earth has always experienced deformation and magmatism, but studying Io, Venus, and Mars shows that this
could have been caused by single-lid as well as plate tectonics. An active silicate body’s tectonic
evolution is likely to be complicated, with multiple different episodes. Earth may have experienced
multiple episodes of different kinds of single-lid behavior and of plate tectonics. Different tectonic
regimes produce different structures, metamorphic rocks, and igneous rocks that, if preserved, provide
evidence about the tectonic regime that produced them. Erosion, alteration, and burial destroy some but
not all of the evidence of past tectonic regimes, at least for the past 3 Ga. Erosion may remove shallow
features such as porphyry copper deposits and ophiolite nappes but cannot extirpate intrusive and
metamorphic rocks, which extend to depth. Microscopic, geochemical, and isotopic evidence is useful for
identifying when a change occurred in Earth’s convective style but cannot reliably constrain when plate
tectonics began. Condie’s (2018, p. 58) admonition “… recycling of crust into the mantle does not
necessarily require subduction, and it may be possible for such recycling to occur in stagnant
[single]-lid regimes…” should be kept in mind.
Evidence that the Mesoproterozoic was a Protracted Single-Lid Episode
Geologic evidence—both negative and positive—should guide our interpretation of Mesoproterozoic
tectonics. Negative evidence shows an absence of key plate-tectonic indicators (Figs. 2B–2D). Positive
evidence specifies geologic features expected for single-lid behavior (Figs. 2E–2H). The first approach
is straightforward because we know the kinds of rocks produced by plate tectonics. The second approach
is more difficult because we are only beginning to think about what kinds of rocks should be produced by
active single-lid tectonics.
Consider the negative evidence first. Stern (2018) identified three groups of rocks and minerals that
only form by plate-tectonic processes. These are (1) ophiolites, indicators of subduction initiation and
seafloor spreading; (2) blueschists, lawsonite-bearing metamorphic rocks, and jadeitite, indicators of
subduction; and (3) ultra-high pressure (UHP) metamorphic rocks along with ruby and sapphire, indicators
of continent-continent collision (Figs. 2B–2D). All of these are abundant in Phanerozoic and
Neoproterozoic time and all are missing from the Mesoproterozoic. Brown and Johnson (2018) compiled data
for 456 metamorphic terranes from the Eoarchean to the Cenozoic and classified these into three groups.
Low dT/dP (which approximates the geothermal gradient at the time of metamorphism) metamorphic
environments correspond to blueschist and eclogite, metamorphic rocks that only form in subduction
zones. There are a few low dT/dP metamorphic rocks ca. 1.9 Ga but almost none in the Mesoproterozoic.
There are a lot of Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic low dT/dP metamorphic terranes. An independent
assessment by Palin et al. (2020) confirms that there were two great episodes of low dT/dP metamorphism:
one at 1.8–2.1 Ga and the second episode that began 0.7 Ga and continues today.
Positive evidence for single-lid behavior includes three types of indicators: (1) geochemical evidence of
unusual, dry magmatism; (2) metamorphic evidence of elevated heat flow; and (3) sedimentological
evidence for formation of passive continental margins. These are considered in greater detail below.
Because plate tectonics and subduction zones deliver large quantities of water deep into the mantle (van
Keken et al., 2011) and single-lid episodes deliver less water, magmas generated during single-lid
episodes should be drier than arc magmas generated by plate tectonics. I-type granitic rocks should
dominate during plate tectonic regimes. In contrast, A-type granitic rocks are anhydrous, alkali-rich,
and anorogenic (dall’Agnol et al., 2012). Mesoproterozoic A-type granites are unusually abundant
compared to earlier and later times (Fig. 2E).
Massif-type anorthosites are another positive single-lid indicator that reflect anhydrous magmas. These
were rarely emplaced in Neoproterozoic and Phanerozoic times but were placed abundantly in the
Mesoproterozoic (Fig. 2F). Mesoproterozoic anorthosites may reflect deep-crustal ponding of basaltic
magmas, crystallization and sinking of mafic silicates, and flotation of plagioclase in an Fe-rich magma
(Namur et al., 2011; Ashwal and Bybee, 2017). Formation of Fe-rich magmas requires fractionation under
low-oxygen fugacity conditions (Skaergaard trend). Low-oxygen fugacities are associated with dry magmas,
not those generated above subduction zones (Cottrell et al., 2021).
A second line of positive evidence is that the lithosphere heated up. This is shown by the metamorphic
thermobaric ratios (temperature/pressure, T/P) for Paleoarchean to Cenozoic metamorphic rocks
(Brown et al., 2020). Thermobarometric ratios over the past 3.0 Ga are highest for Mesoproterozoic time
(Fig. 2G). Heating up of the upper mantle (and the overlying lithosphere) is expected for single-lid
tectonic regimes. Plate tectonics better cools Earth because it injects cold lithosphere deep into the
mantle in subduction zones at the same time it releases asthenospheric heat at spreading ridges. An
all-encompassing single lid, in contrast, insulates the interior and traps heat in the asthenosphere.
Heat release is accomplished by magmatic outbursts and thinning the lithosphere (van Thienen et al.,
2005). Lithospheric thinning leads to an elevated thermal gradient that is preserved in metamorphic
The third line of evidence is the paucity of new passive continental margins that formed in
Mesoproterozoic time (Fig. 2H; Bradley, 2011). Passive continental margins form when continents rift and
drift apart. They form frequently in a plate-tectonic regime but not in a single-lid tectonic regime.
There are distinctive Mesoproterozoic ore deposits that do not form in younger times when we can be
confident that plate tectonics occurred, including sedimentary rock-hosted U, Kiruna magnetite-apatite,
iron oxide-copper-gold, and ilmenite ore deposits. Correspondingly, the Mesoproterozoic lacks ore
deposits that are common to younger assemblages formed by plate-tectonic processes such as orogenic gold
and porphyry copper deposits (Goldfarb et al., 2010). Different mineralization styles are expected to
accompany different tectonic styles. The contrast between younger plate tectonic–related and
Mesoproterozoic mineralization styles couldn’t be greater, which is consistent with an interpretation of
different tectonic styles for these intervals.
Finally, there is paleomagnetic evidence. Paleomagnetic measurements could resolve the controversy
because single-lid behavior should show that all continental blocks moved together. Unfortunately,
paleomagnetic data that bear on this question are equivocal. Evans and Mitchell (2011) compiled and
reported new paleomagnetic data and used these to conclude that there were “… minimal paleogeographic
changes across Earth’s first supercontinent cycle, in marked contrast to the dramatic reorganization
implied between such Rodinia configurations and the subsequent assembly of Gondwana” (p. 445). This is
consistent with the compilation of O’Neill et al. (2013), who found low plate-motion velocities through
Early and Middle Mesoproterozoic time, although a rapid increase in plate velocity was noted for Late
Mesoproterozoic time (see Discussion). On the basis of an independent compilation of paleomagnetic data,
Piper (2013) identified the 1.7–1.25 Ga time period as a single-lid episode. Piper (2013) further
inferred from paleomagnetic evidence that the transition to modern plate tectonics began ca. 1.1 Ga.
These conclusions are controversial; for example, Pisarevsky et al. (2014) argue that Nuna/Columbia
assembled by 1600 Ma and broke up at 1400 Ma. Meert and Santosh (2017) noted that “…despite the
exponential increase in available [paleomagnetic] data, knowledge of the assembly, duration and breakup
history of the supercontinent are contentious” (p. 67). Clearly, more paleomagnetic work is needed
to resolve this controversy.
Given that plate tectonics emerged from a single-lid episode, how does this happen and how long does it
take? Studies of Io, Venus, and Mars’ single-lid episodes compel the conclusion that plate tectonics is
a “Goldilocks” tectonic style. Oceanic lithosphere must be strong and dense, but not too strong or it
cannot break to form new subduction zones; too weak and the lithosphere will break off in subduction
zones. Single-lid tectonic regimes dominate when conditions for plate tectonics do not exist and when a
lid with appropriate strength and density cannot be ruptured to form the first subduction zone,
spreading ridge, and transform faults.
Sleep (2000) explored how an active silicate planet was likely to evolve through three different tectonic
styles as a result of changing heat flow and mantle potential temperature: magma ocean, plate tectonics,
and single-lid behavior. Magma ocean only happens early in planetary evolution, but cycling between
plate tectonics and single lid may happen after that. Specifically, as plate tectonics cools the planet,
lithosphere thickens and strengthens, ultimately transitioning into single lid. Single-lid regimes
insulate the mantle, trapping heat and leading to lithospheric weakening, favoring plate tectonics.
O’Neill et al. (2016) argued that Earth may have started in an Io-like heat-pipe tectonic regime that
evolved into short-lived alternating single-lid and plate-tectonic regimes over the next few billions of
years (Fig. 1). As Earth-like planets cool, they may evolve into a plate-tectonic regime before
eventually decaying into a terminal single-lid regime. The evidence presented here suggests that the
Mesoproterozoic era was one such single-lid episode, separating an episode of Paleoproterozoic plate
tectonics from the modern episode that began in Neoproterozoic time.
Evidence for cycling between single-lid and plate-tectonic styles is preserved in the rock record.
Preservation of some ca. 1.8–2.0 Ga ophiolites and low dT/dP metamorphic belts indicates a brief
plate-tectonic interval during this time. This episode ended with formation of a supercontinent called
Columbia (Rogers and Santosh, 2002) or Nuna (Hoffman, 1997) and Earth entered the Mesoproterozoic
single-lid episode. Immediately after a supercontinent forms is optimal for establishing a single-lid
tectonic regime because supercontinent assembly destroys subduction zones between them to stop plate
tectonics (Silver and Behn, 2008). Silver and Behn argued that formation of the Columbia/Nuna
supercontinent led to the Mesoproterozoic single-lid episode.
Given the wide range of possible single-lid behaviors, how should we characterize the Mesoproterozoic
episode? There was little orogenic activity during especially the first two-thirds of Mesoproterozoic
time (Fig. 3). There was significant if unusual igneous activity but a low rate of crustal growth; Brown
and Johnson (2018) infer that Mesoproterozoic crustal growth rates were 20%–50% that of other eons/eras.
The Mesoproterozoic single-lid episode seems to have been somewhat between the vigorous style of Venus
and the sluggish style of Mars today; perhaps “ponderous” single lid is an apt description.
Numbers of orogens through time back to 2.5 Ga; from Condie et al. (2015).
The Grenville Orogeny and Midcontinent Rift System
The end of Mesoproterozoic differs significantly from the beginning and the middle. In Early and Middle
Mesoproterozoic time there was a lot of igneous activity but little deformation, while the Late
Mesoproterozoic experienced much more deformation (Figs. 3–4; Condie et al., 2015). Late Mesoproterozoic
orogeny is known as Grenville in North America, Kibaran in Africa, and Sveconorwegian or Dalslandian in
Europe. All of these expressions of ca. 1.2–0.95 Ga compressional deformation are called the “Global
Grenville Orogeny” (GGO here for brevity). The GGO is generally accepted to manifest continental
collisions to form the supercontinent Rodinia (Li et al., 2008). If this interpretation is correct, then
plate tectonics operated in earlier Mesoproterozoic time, falsifying the central hypothesis that the
Mesoproterozoic was a single-lid tectonic episode. Are there alternative explanations for the GGO that
are consistent with a Mesoproterozoic single-lid episode? I think so. We know that few plate-tectonic
indicators are associated with the GGO (Figs. 2B–2D), suggesting that it was somehow different than
younger continental collision events, where such evidence is preserved.
Cartoon showing three tectono-magmatic episodes and key characteristics of each discussed in this paper.
(A) Early to Mid-Mesoproterozoic single-lid episode; (B) Late Mesoproterozoic regime; and (C)
Neoproterozoic and younger plate-tectonic regime. A—A-type granites; An—anorthosite.
Another difference between the GGO and younger continental collisions is that GGO compression was coeval
with strong foreland extension and large igneous province (LIP) formation. This is best shown by the
Mid-Continent Rift System (MCRS) of North America. The MCRS is at least 3000-km long, comparable to the
modern East African and Baikal rifts, but is not a linear rift. Instead, it defines an upside-down “U”
centered on Lake Superior with one arm that can be traced southwestward continuously as far as Kansas
and discontinuously as far as west Texas and another arm that extends southeastward at least through
Michigan. Stein et al. (2015) contrast the MCRS gravity signature with that of other continental rifts
that have negative gravity anomalies because they are mostly filled with low-density sediment. Instead,
the MCRS is filled with mostly mafic igneous rocks. Modeling of seismic and gravity profiles across the
MCRS indicates a total magma volume of ~1–2 × 106 km3 (Merino et al., 2013), an
order of magnitude larger than the threshold for large igneous provinces (105 km3)
defined by Ernst (2014).
The MCRS trends discontinuously south in the subsurface from Kansas into west Texas, where igneous rocks
can be traced south into the buried GGO deformation front. MCRS-related igneous rocks can be identified
farther west. Late Mesoproterozoic (1140–1040 Ma) mafic and felsic magmatism affected a broad,
~1500-km-long region along the southwestern U.S. (Bright et al., 2014). Similar igneous suites are found
elsewhere around the globe, including the 1078–1070 Ma Warakurna LIP of Australia, the 1112–1102 Ma
Umkondo LIP in southern Africa, and mafic intrusions in Bolivia and northern India (Bright et al.,
The relationship between global occurrences of the 1200–980 Ma GGO and 1150–1040 Ma LIP is unclear. Stein
et al. (2018) argue that much of what has been called “Grenville” in the U.S. is actually buried MCRS. I
concur with their assessment that the GGO and Late Mesoproterozoic LIPs need to be considered together,
evidence that important changes happened in the solid Earth system at that time. I also conclude that
the unusual nature of the GGO—including its lack of plate-tectonic indicators and association with
coeval LIPs—indicates that consideration of a non–plate-tectonic origin for this activity is warranted.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to explore in depth what that origin was, but the evidence for
strong coeval compression, and extension suggests that the Late Mesoproterozoic GGO-LIP system marks the
beginning of the transition from Mesoproterozoic single-lid to Neoproterozoic and younger plate
Solar System exploration shows that most active silicate bodies have some kind of single-lid tectonic
style and that only Earth has plate tectonics. Single-lid tectonic styles can range widely and will
evolve from more to less deformation and magmatism as the body cools. Single-lid tectonic regimes can
evolve into plate tectonics. We can’t understand the evolution of plate tectonics without better
understanding Earth’s episodes of single-lid behavior, when these were, and what the magmatic and
tectonic styles of each were. The single-lid tectonic history of our planet needs to be explored if we
are to understand how the modern solid Earth came to be. Negative evidence that plate tectonics did not
occur should be combined with positive evidence for a single-lid tectonic regime. The Mesoproterozoic is
the best interval of Earth history for this exploration to begin.
Without Kent Condie’s help, I wouldn’t know how to start to think about the Mesoproterozoic. Also, thanks
to Jean Bédard, Peter Cawood, and an anonymous referee for incisive reviews of an earlier version of
this manuscript, to Jerry Dickens for suggesting that GSA Today might be a good place to
publish this paper, to Peter Cawood for a second review, and to Mihai Ducea for speedy editorial
handling. This is University of Texas at Dallas geosciences contribution #1376.
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