Supercontinent: Ten Billion Years in the Life of Our Planet
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Here's the past and future of Earth's supercontinets. If we're going to discuss past and future supercontinents, we first need to understand how landmasses can move around and the continents can take on new configurations. Let's start with the basics - rocky planets like Earth have five interior levels: heading outwards, these are the inner core, outer core, mantle, upper mantle, and the crust.
The crust and the part of the upper mantle form the lithosphere, a portion of our planet that is basically rigid, solid rock and runs to about kilometers below the planet's surface. Below that is the asthenosphere, which is hot enough that its rocks are more flexible and ductile than those above it. The lithosphere is divided into roughly two dozen major and minor plates, and these plates move very slowly over the almost fluid-like asthenosphere. There are two types of crust: oceanic crust and continental crust.
Predictably enough, oceanic crust makes up the ocean beds and are much thinner than their continental counterparts. Plates can be made up of either oceanic or continental crust, or just as often some combination of the two. There are a variety of forces pushing and pulling the plates in various directions, and indeed that's what keeps Earth's crust from being one solid landmass - the interaction of lithosphere and asthenosphere keeps tearing landmasses apart, albeit very, very slowly. The diagram below gives you a good idea of the different ways that plates can interact at the boundaries between them.
There are convergent boundaries, in which two plates smash into each other.
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Two possible things can happen here - either one plate slips underneath the other and is subsumed and destroyed in the furnace of Earth's mantle, or the two plates collide and force up huge mountain ranges. These collisions are also often responsible for volcanism. There can also be transform boundaries, where the two plates move in parallel, glancing off of each other with not much more than some scrapes. Of course, those scrapes become something much more severe when translated to human terms - one of the most famous examples of a transform boundary is California's San Andreas fault, responsible for some of the most devastating earthquakes in American history.
Finally, there are divergent boundaries, in which two plates slide away from each other. These are far more mild in their effects, and such boundaries have created places like Africa's Great Rift Valley and various giant ocean ridges like the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It's absolutely crucial to remember that all of this happens incredibly slowly, and that it takes many millions of years for any effects to be actually observable.
At their absolute quickest, plates only move about millimeters per year, and most only go about 10 to 40 millimeters per year. To get some idea of how slow that really is, let your hair and fingernails grow uncut for an entire year.
Your fingernail growth represents the slower pace of plate movement, while your hair growth is the same as the absolute greatest distance any plate has traveled in the last year. There are only so many directions in which the various plates can move, and it's only a matter of time before the continents smash together to form a single supercontinent. Right now, we're probably a little past halfway through the current supercontinent cycle, with the last supercontinent Pangaea having formed about million years ago and the next supercontinent due in very roughly million years.
We need to be careful with our terminology here.
Continent itself isn't a well-defined term - just look at how nobody knows whether the continent in the south Pacific Ocean should be called Australia or Oceania to see how tricky these things are to define - and the term supercontinent can be applied to any unusually large landmass. Indeed, the landmass consisting of Europe, Asia, and Africa is definitely a supercontinent, the Americas arguably count as well, and we're one submerged land bridge in the Bering Strait away from linking up all five anyway.
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So, for the sake of simplicity, we'll restrict the term "supercontinent" to only those that pretty much comprised all the landmasses on Earth at a given period. The most recent supercontinent, and the only one most people are familiar with, is Pangaea, which dominated Earth from about to million years ago.
There are a few ways we know of its existence. There's the fact that species from this time showed relatively little diversity, no matter how far apart they were geographically, which indicates they weren't isolated from one another by oceans. The geology of various modern continents also indicate how they used to be connected to each other. You only have to glance at a map to see how eastern South America and western Africa fit rather neatly together, and geological research has revealed these areas still share some key features that prove their one-time connection.
Pangaea gets remembered because it's the most recent supercontinent, and because its later days overlap with the birth of the dinosaurs in the late Triassic and early Jurassic. Geologically speaking, it's easy to look at Pangaea as a counterpart of sorts to the seven continents we live on today, with the twin giant continents of Gondwanaland and Laurasia as a transitional stage between these two extremes.
But it's generally forgotten that Pangaea is just the latest in a line of about half a dozen supercontinents, and Earth will see quite a few more over its final five billion years of life. Earth's earliest days remain somewhat mysterious - indeed, much of what we're discussing here is still being worked out by geologists, and so we have to make a lot of best guesses in tackling these topics.
A complete accounting of how our planet formed from clumps of space rock into something even theoretically capable of supporting life is really worth its own separate post. For our purposes, we can start around four billion years ago, when Earth's oceans were already in place and the first proto-continents began to form. During this period, plate building blocks known as cratons, which are essentially giant rock cores, started to come together and rise to the surface.
There are a couple candidates for the very first continents. There's some evidence that two cratons date back to as much as 3. It's a supercontinent simply because it was all alone on our planet - any explorers visiting Earth would have seen a single brownish dot against all the blue.
Today, Vaalbara is spread between two cratons - the Kaapvaal craton in southern Africa and the Pilbara craton in northwestern Australia. We suspect Vaalbara's existence because rocks ejected from these cratons are some of the oldest in the world, and there are a number of geological clues that the two cratons were once together. Still, Vaalbara's existence is still rather speculative, and so the more certain candidate for oldest supercontinent is Ur.
Like its possible predecessor, Ur was smaller than any of today's continents, but it may well have spent many millions of years as the only continent on our planet, with nothing but some tiny islands to keep it company.
Today, Ur lives on as part of India, Madagascar, and Australia. While Vaalbara likely existed from about 3. At just under 3 billion years, Ur is almost certainly the longest-lived landmass this planet will ever see, and yet now it remains hopelessly obscure. Of course, continents that were just half the size of Australia can't really be considered supercontinents by today's standards, but that was the world in which they existed.
The planet was almost entirely ocean at this phase in its history, and cratons weren't pushed up from the mantle all at once. We start to get a little closer with the emergence of Kenorland and Columbia, the next two supercontinents. Kenorland formed roughly 2. It comprised most of the modern US and Canada, Greenland, the Scandinavian countries, western Australia, and what is now the Kalahari Desert, which stretches over much of southern Africa.
Kenorland likely existed around the equator, and probably had about a hundred million years as the Earth's dominant landmass. Geologists are still working out the complete story, and I offer just one interpretation of how we got to this point. Picks and Pans Review: The private Mrs. Picks and Pans Main: section - Vol.
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