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Two-dimensional convection models with moving continents show that continents profoundly affect the pattern of mantle convection. If the continents are wider than the wavelength of the convection cells (???3000 km, the thickness of the mantle), they cause neighboring deep mantle thermal upwellings to coalesce into a single focused upwelling. This focused upwelling zone will have a potential temperature anomaly of about 200??C, much higher than the 100??C temperature anomaly of upwelling zones generated beneath typical oceanic lithosphere. Extensive high-temperature melts (including flood basalts and late potassic granites) will be produced, and the excess temperature anomaly will induce continental uplift (as revealed in sea level changes) and the eventual breakup of the supercontinent. The mantle thermal anomaly will persist for several hundred million years after such a breakup. In contrast, small continental blocks (<1000 km diameter) do not induce focused mantle upwelling zones. Instead, small continental blocks are dragged to mantle downwelling zones, where they spend most of their time, and will migrate laterally with the downwelling. As a result of sitting over relatively cold mantle (downwellings), small continental blocks are favored to keep their cratonic roots. This may explain the long-term survival of small cratonic blocks (e.g., the Yilgarn and Pilbara cratons of western Australia, and the West African craton). The optimum size for long-term stability of a continental block is <3000 km. These results show that continents profoundly affect the pattern of mantle convection. These effects are illustrated in terms of the timing and history of supercontinent breakup, the production of high-temperature melts, and sea level changes. Such two-dimensional calculations can be further refined and tested by three-dimensional numerical simulations of mantle convection with moving continental and oceanic plates.
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Cold cratonic roots and thermal blankets: How continents affect mantle convection