A Billion Years of Tectonic-Plate Movement in 40 Seconds: A Quick Glimpse of How Our World Took Shape

We all remem­ber learn­ing about tec­ton­ic plates in our school sci­ence class­es. Or at least we do if we went to school in the 1960s or lat­er, that being when the the­o­ry of plate tec­ton­ics — which holds, broad­ly speak­ing, that the Earth­’s sur­face com­pris­es slow­ly mov­ing slabs of rock — gained wide accep­tance. But most every­one alive today will have been taught about Pangea. An impli­ca­tion of Alfred Wegen­er’s the­o­ry of “con­ti­nen­tal drift,” first pro­posed in the 1910s, that the sin­gle gigan­tic land­mass once dom­i­nat­ed the plan­et.

Despite its renown, how­ev­er, Pangea makes only a brief appear­ance in the ani­ma­tion of Earth­’s his­to­ry above. Geo­log­i­cal sci­en­tists now cat­e­go­rize it as just one of sev­er­al “super­con­ti­nents” that plate tec­ton­ics has gath­ered togeth­er and bro­ken up over hun­dreds and hun­dreds of mil­len­nia. Oth­ers include Kenor­land, in exis­tence about 2.6 bil­lion years ago, and Rodinia, 900 mil­lion years ago; Pangea, the most recent of the bunch, came apart around 175 mil­lion years ago. You can see the process in action in the video, which com­press­es a bil­lion years of geo­log­i­cal his­to­ry into a mere 40 sec­onds.

At the speed of 25 mil­lion years per sec­ond, and with out­lines drawn in, the move­ment of Earth­’s tec­ton­ic plates becomes clear­ly under­stand­able — more so, per­haps, than you found it back in school. “On a human timescale, things move in cen­time­ters per year, but as we can see from the ani­ma­tion, the con­ti­nents have been every­where in time,” as Michael Tet­ley, co-author of the paper “Extend­ing full-plate tec­ton­ic mod­els into deep time,” put it to Euronews. Antarc­ti­ca, which “we see as a cold, icy inhos­pitable place today, actu­al­ly was once quite a nice hol­i­day des­ti­na­tion at the equa­tor.”

Cli­mate-change trends sug­gest that we could be vaca­tion­ing in Antarc­ti­ca again before long — a trou­bling devel­op­ment in oth­er ways, of course, not least because it under­scores the imper­ma­nence of Earth­’s cur­rent arrange­ment, the one we know so well. “Our plan­et is unique in the way that it hosts life,” says Diet­mar Müller, anoth­er of the paper’s authors. “But this is only pos­si­ble because geo­log­i­cal process­es, like plate tec­ton­ics, pro­vide a plan­e­tary life-sup­port sys­tem.” Earth won’t always look like it does today, in oth­er words, but it’s thanks to the fact that it does­n’t look like it did a bil­lion years ago that we hap­pen to be here, able to study it at all.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Plate Tec­ton­ic Evo­lu­tion of the Earth Over 500 Mil­lion Years: Ani­mat­ed Video Takes You from Pangea, to 250 Mil­lion Years in the Future

A Map Shows Where Today’s Coun­tries Would Be Locat­ed on Pangea

Paper Ani­ma­tion Tells Curi­ous Sto­ry of How a Mete­o­rol­o­gist The­o­rized Pan­gaea & Con­ti­nen­tal Drift (1910)

What Earth Will Look Like 100 Mil­lion Years from Now

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.


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