Longevity and stability of cratonic lithosphere: Insights from numerical simulations of coupled mantle convection and continental tectonics

A. Lenardic*, L. N. Moresi, H. Mühlhaus

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

170 Citations (Scopus)


The physical conditions required to provide for the tectonic stability of cratonic crust and for the relative longevity of deep cratonic lithosphere within a dynamic, convecting mantle are explored through a suite of numerical simulations. The simulations allow chemically distinct continents to reside within the upper thermal boundary layer of a thermally convecting mantle layer. A rheologic formulation, which models both brittle and ductile behavior, is incorporated to allow for plate-like behavior and the associated subduction of oceanic lithosphere. Several mechanisms that may stabilize cratons are considered. The two most often invoked mechanisms, chemical buoyancy and/or high viscosity of cratonic root material, are found to be relatively ineffective if cratons come into contact with subduction zones. High root viscosity can provide for stability and longevity but only within a thick root limit in which the thickness of chemically distinct, high-viscosity cratonic lithosphere exceeds the thickness of old oceanic lithosphere by at least a factor of 2. This end-member implies a very thick mechanical lithosphere for cratons. A high brittle yield stress for cratonic lithosphere as a whole, relative to oceanic lithosphere, is found to be an effective and robust means for providing stability and lithospheric longevity. This mode does not require exceedingly deep strength within cratons. A high yield stress for only the crustal or mantle component of the cratonic lithosphere is found to be less effective as detachment zones can then form at the crust-mantle interface which decreases the longevity potential of cratonic roots. The degree of yield stress variations between cratonic and oceanic lithosphere required for stability and longevity can be decreased if cratons are bordered by continental lithosphere that has a relatively low yield stress, i.e., mobile belts. Simulations that combine all the mechanisms can lead to crustal stability and deep root longevity for model cratons over several mantle overturn times, but the dominant stabilizing factor remains a relatively high brittle yield stress for cratonic lithosphere.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)ETG 9-1 - 9-15
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 10 Jun 2003
Externally publishedYes


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