Today, the Earth’s seven continents are distributed across the surface, with North and South America occupying one hemisphere, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia occupying the other, and Antarctica sitting alone around the South Pole. However, these continents were arranged in entirely different configurations throughout Earth’s history. On occasion, they formed supercontinents like Gondwana (ca. 550 to 180 million) and Pangaea (ca. 335 to 200 million years ago) that were surrounded by “superoceans.”
Eventually, the Earth’s tectonic plates will come together again to form the world’s next supercontinent. According to new research led by Curtin University in Bentley, Australia, this will happen roughly 200 to 300 million years from now. As they determined through a series of simulations, this will involve the Americas drifting westward until they collide with Australia and Asia (eliminating the Pacific Ocean) and Antarctica moving north to join them. This will give rise to the new supercontinent they have named “Amasia,” which will also have profound implications for life on Earth.
It is a well-known fact among Earth scientists that our planet periodically undergoes major changes in its climate. Over the course of the past 200 million years, our planet has experienced four major geological periods (the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous and Cenozoic) and one major ice age (the Pliocene-Quaternary glaciation), all of which had a drastic impact on plant and animal life, as well as effecting the course of species evolution.
For decades, geologists have also understood that these changes are due in part to gradual shifts in the Earth’s orbit, which are caused by Venus and Jupiter, and repeat regularly every 405,000 years. But it was not until recently that a team of geologists and Earth scientists unearthed the first evidence of these changes – sediments and rock core samples that provide a geological record of how and when these changes took place.
As noted, the idea that Earth experiences periodic changes in its climate (which are related to changes in its orbit) has been understood for almost a century. These changes consist of Milankovitch Cycles, which consist of a 100,000-year cycle in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit, a 41,000-year cycle in the tilt of Earth’s axis relative to its orbital plane, and a 21,000-year cycle caused by changes in the planet’s axis.
Combined with the 405,000-year swing, which is the result of Venus and Jupiter’s gravitational influence, these shifts cause changes in how much solar energy reaches parts of our planet, which in turn influences Earth’s climate. Based on fossil records, these cycles are also known to have had a profound impact on life on Earth, which likely had an effect on the course of species of evolution. As Prof. Bent explained in a Rutgers Today press release:
“The climate cycles are directly related to how Earth orbits the sun and slight variations in sunlight reaching Earth lead to climate and ecological changes. The Earth’s orbit changes from close to perfectly circular to about 5 percent elongated especially every 405,000 years.”
For the sake of their study, Prof. Kent and his colleagues obtained sediment samples from the Newark basin, a prehistoric lake that spanned most of New Jersey, and a core rock sample from the Chinle Formation in Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. This core rock measured about 518 meters (1700 feet) long, 6.35 cm (2.5 inches) in diameter, and was dated to the Triassic Period – ca. 202 to 253 million years ago.
The team then linked reversals in Earth’s magnetic field – where the north and south pole shift – to sediments with and without zircons (minerals with uranium that allow for radioactive dating) as well as to climate cycles in the geological record. What these showed was that the 405,000-years cycle is the most regular astronomical pattern linked to Earth’s annual orbit around the Sun.
The results further indicated that the cycle been stable for hundreds of millions of years and is still active today. As Prof. Kent explained, this constitutes the first verifiable evidence that celestial mechanics have played a historic role in natural shifts in Earth’s climate. As Prof. Kent indicated:
“It’s an astonishing result because this long cycle, which had been predicted from planetary motions through about 50 million years ago, has been confirmed through at least 215 million years ago. Scientists can now link changes in the climate, environment, dinosaurs, mammals and fossils around the world to this 405,000-year cycle in a very precise way.”
Previously, astronomers were able to calculate this cycle reliably back to around 50 million years, but found that the problem became too complex prior to this because too many shifting motions came into play. “There are other, shorter, orbital cycles, but when you look into the past, it’s very difficult to know which one you’re dealing with at any one time, because they change over time,” said Prof. Kent. “The beauty of this one is that it stands alone. It doesn’t change. All the other ones move over it.”
In addition, scientists were unable to obtain accurate dates as to when Earth’s magnetic field reversed for 30 million years of the Late Triassic – between ca. 201.3 and 237 million years ago. This was a crucial period for the evolution of terrestrial life because it was when the Supercontinent of Pangaea broke up, and also when the dinosaurs and mammals first appeared.
This break-up led to the formation of the Atlantic Ocean as the continents drifted apart and coincided with a mass extinction event by the end of the period that effected the dinosaurs. With this new evidence, geologists, paleontologists and Earth scientists will be able to develop very precise timelines and accurately categorize fossil evidence dated to this period, which show differences and similarities over wide-ranging areas.
This research, and the ability to create accurate geological and climatological timelines that go back over 200 million years, is sure to have drastic implications. Not only will climate studies benefit from it, but also our understanding of how life, and even how our Solar System, evolved. What emerges from this could include a better understanding of how life could emerge in other star systems.
After all, if our search for extra-solar life life comes down to what we know about life on Earth, knowing more about how it evolved here will better the odds of finding it out there.
Just how did the Earth — our home and the place where life as we know it evolved — come to be created in the first place? In some fiery furnace atop a great mountain? On some divine forge with the hammer of the gods shaping it out of pure ether? How about from a great ocean known as Chaos, where something was created out of nothing and then filled with all living creatures?
If any of those accounts sound familiar, they are some of the ancient legends that have been handed down through the years that attempt to describe how our world came to be. And interestingly enough, some of these ancient creation stories contain an element of scientific fact to them.
Hey, remember that one time when 90% of all life on Earth got wiped out?
I don’t either. But it’s a good thing it happened because otherwise none of us would be here to… not remember it. Still, the end-Permian Extinction — a.k.a. the Great Dying — was very much a real crisis for life on Earth 252 million years ago. It makes the K-T extinction event of the dinosaurs look like a rather nice day by comparison, and is literally the most catastrophic event known to have ever befallen Earthly life. Luckily for us (and pretty much all of the species that have arisen since) the situation eventually sorted itself out. But how long did that take?
The Permian Extinction was a perfect storm of geological events that resulted in the disappearance of over 90% of life on Earth — both on land and in the oceans. (Or ocean, as I should say, since at that time the land mass of Earth had gathered into one enormous continent — called Pangaea — and thus there was one ocean, referred to as Panthalassa.) A combination of increased volcanism, global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification and anoxia, and the loss of shallow sea habitats (due to the single large continent) set up a series of extinctions that nearly wiped our planet’s biological slate clean.
Exactly why the event occurred and how Earth returned to a state in which live could once again thrive is still debated by scientists, but it’s now been estimated that the recovery process took about 10 million years.
Research by Dr. Zhong-Qiang Chen from the China University of Geosciences in Wuhan, and Professor Michael Benton from the University of Bristol, UK, show that repeated setbacks in conditions on Earth continued for 5 to 6 million years after the initial wave of extinctions. It appears that every time life would begin to recover within an ecological niche, another wave of environmental calamities would break.
“Life seemed to be getting back to normal when another crisis hit and set it back again,” said Prof. Benton. “The carbon crises were repeated many times, and then finally conditions became normal again after five million years or so.”
“The causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”
– Michael Benton, Professor of Vertebrate Palaeontology at the University of Bristol
It wasn’t until the severity of the crises abated that life could gradually begin reclaiming and rebuilding Earth’s ecosystems. New forms of life appeared, taking advantage of open niches to grab a foothold in a new world. It was then that many of the ecosystems we see today made their start, and opened the door for the rise of Earth’s most famous prehistoric critters: the dinosaurs.
“The event had re-set evolution,” said Benton. “However, the causes of the killing – global warming, acid rain, ocean acidification – sound eerily familiar to us today. Perhaps we can learn something from these ancient events.”
The team’s research was published in the May 27 issue of Nature Geoscience. Read more on the University of Bristol’s website here.
So, you are curious about what is Pangaea? It was the supercontinent that existed 250 million years ago during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras. During the ensuing millenia, plate tectonics slowly moved each continent to its current position on the planet. Each continent is still slowly moving across the face of our world.
The breaking up and formation of supercontinents appears to have happened several times over Earth’s history with Pangaea being one among many. The next-to-last one, Pannotia, formed about 600 million years ago during the Proterozoic eon. Pannotia included large amounts of land near the poles and only a relatively small strip near the equator connecting the polar masses.
60 million years after its formation Pannotia broke up, giving rise to the continents of Laurentia, Baltica, and Gondwana. Laurentia would eventually become a large portion of North America, the microcontinent of Avalonia(a small portion of Gondwana) would become the northeastern United States, Nova Scotia, and England. All of these came together at the end of the Ordovician.
While this was happening, Gondwana drifted slowly towards the South Pole. These were the early steps in the formation of Pangaea. The next step was the collision of Gondwana with the other land mass. Southern Europe broke free of Gondwana. By late Silurian time, North and South China rifted away from Gondwana and started to head northward across the shrinking Proto-Tethys Ocean.
Movement continued slowly until the land masses drifted until their current positions. The list of oceans and microcontinents is too long to include in this article. We have many articles about this full process here on Universe Today. The evidence for Pangaea lies in the fossil records from the period. It includes the presence of similar and identical species on continents that are now great distances apart.
Additional evidence for Pangaea is found in the geology of adjacent continents, including matching geological trends between the eastern coast of South America and western Africa. The polar ice cap of the Carboniferous Period covered the southern end of Pangaea. Glacial deposits of the same age and structure are found on many separate continents which would have been together in the continent of Pangaea.
We know that the existence of supercontinents has been proven. We know that they have existed at different times in the Earth’s history. Also, we know that the tectonic plates are still moving. Is it possible that there will be another supercontinent someday in the distant future.
We have written many articles about Pangaea for Universe Today. Here’s an article about the Continental Drift Theory, and here’s an article about the continental plates.