The fragment effect: an innovative new approach to apatite (U-Th)/He thermochronology

Webster, David Mark (2018) The fragment effect: an innovative new approach to apatite (U-Th)/He thermochronology. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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The uniquely low temperature sensitivity of the apatite (U-Th)/He system makes it an invaluable tool for studying shallow crustal processes which are not accessible through other techniques. Major advancements in both the theoretical and practical aspects of the technique have taken place over the past decade or so, however the routine application of the process is often held back by the perceived problem of single grain age ‘over dispersion’, particularly when applied to old, slowly cooled geological settings. There persists a misconception that age dispersion is indicative of a problem with the apatite (U-Th)/He system.
A significant component of single grain age dispersion is inherent to the natural system, and therefore beneficial to reconstructing robust thermal histories. Variations in crystal grain size, accumulated amounts of radiation damage and changes to the helium concentration gradient within a grain due to fragmentation all contribute positively to age dispersion. Other, imposed factors such as crystal zoning and 4He implantation (which are undesirable) can also contribute to dispersion, however in the vast majority of cases their effects are negligible and only contribute noise to the inherent natural dispersion signal.
The Ballachulish Igneous complex (BIC) in western Scotland has been used as a case study to demonstrate the range of age dispersion which should be expected when analysing large numbers of single grain aliquots per sample. Where 20+ grains are analysed, total dispersion will often be well in excess of 100% for old, slowly cooled samples, indeed dispersion in excess of 200% is possible. Such dispersion will often be as a consequence of outlying or apparently anomalous ages, however such ages should not be discounted unless there is sound analytical justification to do so. Apparent anomalous ages will often be ‘swallowed up’ by the data if more, or even different sized/shaped grains are analysed. Due to the competing effects of the three main causes of inherent natural dispersion, it should not be expected that large, well dispersed data sets will show any significant correlation between single grain age and either grain size or eU concentration. However a lack of correlation does not indicate poor quality data.
Brown, Beucher and co-workers (Brown et al., 2013; Beucher et al., 2013) proposed a new modelling approach to account for the common occurrence of broken crystals in apatite separates, demonstrating that the additional inherent natural age dispersion arising from analysing fragments can be exploited when reconstructing thermal histories. A new inversion technique – HelFRAG was developed, based on a finite length cylinder diffusion model. The model is computationally demanding, therefore sampling based inversion methods requiring many forward model simulations become less practical. Consequently, an approximation of the finite cylinder diffusion model has been incorporated into the modelling software QTQt (Gallagher, 2012). Here, the approximation – QFrag has been demonstrated capable of returning comparable results to the full HelFRAG inversion technique when given the same synthetic data set, enabling the more routine application of the fragment model.
Both QFrag and HelFRAG modelling techniques have been used to model the new BIC AHe dataset. The purpose is twofold: to demonstrate the importance of the fragment model with a real dataset, and to provide a new thermochronological interpretation for the BIC. When using this dataset, modelling samples individually shows only subtle differences (if any) between modelling broken grains correctly as fragments, verses modelling them incorrectly as whole grains. A far greater difference in the model output is seen when only modelling 3-6 grains compared to 20+, irrespective of whether fragments are treated correctly or not. When multiple samples are modelled together in a vertical profile, the fragment effect becomes much more important. A very different thermal history interpretation arises when any broken grains are modelled incorrectly as whole grains compared to when modelled as fragments.
The new thermal history interpretation for the BIC involves a four stage cooling history from the time of intrusion (c. 424Ma). Very rapid cooling and uplift occurred immediately after intrusion over the first c. 20Myrs of the history (Phase 1). This brought the complex from c. 10km depths to within 2-3km of the surface. There followed much slower continued uplift between c. 404Ma and c. 300Ma, resulting in up to 1km of denudation (Phase 2). Over the next c. 150Myrs only a small volume of uplift occurred, however the geothermal gradient increased towards the end of this time period, suggesting crustal thinning (Phase 3). A final, rapid period of cooling and uplift occurred at c. 140Ma, bringing the top of the profile very near to the surface (Phase 4). No significant denudation has occurred since the end of this rapid uplift phase (10’s to 100’s of meters at most). The first two phases of cooling are interpreted as the final stages of the Caledonian orogeny, with erosion driven isostatic uplift causing continued denudation after the cessation of collisional tectonics. The end of phase three and the subsequent rapid uplift (Phase 4) are interpreted as the beginnings of crustal thinning and continental rifting which ultimately led to the opening of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Geology, low temperature thermochronology, Apatite, (U-Th)/He, Ballachulish igneous complex.
Subjects: Q Science > QE Geology
Colleges/Schools: College of Science and Engineering > School of Geographical and Earth Sciences > Earth Sciences
Funder's Name: Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Supervisor's Name: Brown, Prof. Roderick
Date of Award: 2018
Depositing User: Mr David M. Webster
Unique ID: glathesis:2018-30777
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 11 Sep 2018 07:28
Last Modified: 15 Nov 2018 11:24

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