New video shows the movement of Earth’s tectonic plates over the past billions of years


An international team of geoscientists created the first continuous full-plate model with evolving plate boundaries stretching from a billion years ago to the present day.

Plate tectonics is a unifying theory of modern geology, explicitly linking evolution and the processes that link the Earth’s mantle, lithosphere, hydrosphere and atmosphere.

Tectonic forces control the rates of uplift and erosion where continents collide or separate and modulate the flow of energy between the oceans, lithosphere, and mantle as continental configurations change.

Changing patterns of plate tectonics also determine changes in how species are distributed over different land masses and infer chemical flux rates between the Earth’s surface and the deep interior.

The full models released over the past decade collectively span the last billion years. However, each of these models covers different time periods or regions of the world and each model is based on different assumptions and assumptions, and emphasizes different subsets of the geological record.

Thus, although continental movements and the evolution of plate boundaries have been categorized in one way or another over the past billion years, there is no fully continuous pattern defining the tectonic history of Earth for this time.

“Our planet is unique in the way it harbors life,” said Professor Dietmar Müller, a researcher at the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney.

“But this is only possible because geological processes, like plate tectonics, provide a support system for planetary life.”

“For the first time, a complete model of tectonics has been built, including all boundaries,” said Dr Michael Tetley, researcher at the University of Lyon.

“On a human scale, things move in centimeters per year, but as we can see from the animation, the continents have been everywhere in time. “

“A place like Antarctica, which today we think of as a cold and freezing place, was in fact once a very beautiful holiday destination on the equator.

Distribution of the Earth’s continental crust, ocean basins, and plate boundaries in the current plate model. The brown polygons are areas of the continental Neoproterozoic lithosphere, the blue polygons are areas of the current continental lithosphere. Abbreviations: A – Amazonia; Ant – Antarctica; AUS – Australia; BP – Province of Borborema; CCT – Chinese Central Tianshan; Cu – Cuyanie; CY – Chu Yili; K-Kalahari; KMT – Krygyz Middle Tianshan; KNT – Krygyz North Tianshan; KST – South Krygyz Tianshan; NB – Nigeria-Benin; NC – North of China; P – Paranapanem; ANS – Arab-Nubian Shield; Qa – Qaidam; Qi – Qilian; RDLP – Rio de la Plata; SC – South China; SM – Sahara Metacraton; T – Tarim; WAC – West African Craton. Image credit: Merdith et al., doi: 10.1016 / j.earscirev.2020.103477.

“Planet Earth is incredibly dynamic, with a surface made up of constantly jostling plates in a way unique among known rocky planets,” said Dr Sabin Zahirovic, a researcher at the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney.

“These plates move at the speed that fingernails grow, but when a billion years is condensed into 40 seconds, a haunting dance is revealed.”

“Oceans open and close, continents disperse and recombine periodically to form huge supercontinents.”

The team’s billion-year model will give scientists a better understanding of how the Earth’s interior convects, chemically mixes, and loses heat through seabed expansion and volcanism.

It will also help researchers understand how the climate has changed, how ocean currents have changed, and how nutrients have poured in from the depths of the Earth to stimulate biological evolution.

“Put simply, this comprehensive model will help explain how our home, planet Earth, became habitable for complex creatures. Life on Earth would not exist without plate tectonics, ”said Prof Müller.

“With this new model, we are closer to understanding how this beautiful blue planet became our cradle.”

The study is published in the journal Earth Sciences Opinion.


Andrew S. Merdith et al. 2021. Extending full-plate tectonic models in deep time: relating the Neoproterozoic and the Phanerozoic. Earth Sciences Opinion 214: 103477; doi: 10.1016 / j.earscirev.2020.103477


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