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Plate Tectonics May Have Begun a Billion Years After Earth's Birth

Granite that's 3.2 billion years


old sits next to sedimentary
rocks that date back 3 billion
years at White Mfolozi Inlier,
KwaZulu-Natal province, South
Africa.
Credit: Copyright Axel Hofmann

The grinding of giant chunks of


Earth's outer layer
responsible for burping
volcanoes, crushing temblors
and burgeoning mountains,
among other things may have
started half a billion years earlier
than previously believed.

Precisely what Earth looked like before plate tectonics, which drive these chunks of crust
around, bumping and grinding into one another, is an open question. During the Archean
eon 4 billion to 2.5 billion years ago, there was water and rock on Earth, but little oxygen in
the atmosphere. Simple life arose in this era, possibly around hydrothermal vents, though
no one knows exactly when. The earliest chemical traces that could be evidence of life date
back to just before 4 billion years ago. More widely accepted as evidence of early life are
fossils in Australia of microbial mats, called stromatolites, which date back 3.5 billion years.

Continental Drift: Theory & Definition

Tectonic plates of the Earth.

Continental drift was a theory that explained


how continents shift position on Earth's
surface. Set forth in 1912 by Alfred Wegener,
a geophysicist and meteorologist, continental
drift also explained why look-alike animal
and plant fossils, and similar rock formations,
are found on different continents.
Wegener thought all the continents were once joined together in an "Urkontinent" before
breaking up and drifting to their current positions. But geologists soundly denounced
Wegener's theory of continental drift after he published the details in a 1915 book called
"The Origin of Continents and Oceans." Part of the opposition was because Wegener didn't
have a good model to explain how the continents moved apart.

Though most of Wegener's observations about fossils and rocks were correct, he was
outlandishly wrong on a couple of key points. For instance, Wegener thought
the continents might have plowed through the ocean crust like icebreakers smashing
through ice.

The Continental Drift Theory: Revolutionary and Significant


From an article by Alfred Wegener (1880-1930) on his theory of Continental Drift published in
Discovery, London, 1922. Getty Images

Continental Drift was a revolutionary scientific theory developed in the years 1908-1912
by Alfred
Wegener (1880-
1930), a German
meteorologist,
climatologist, and
geophysicist, that
put forth the
hypothesis that
the continents had
all originally been
a part of one
enormous
landmass or
supercontinent
about 240 million years ago before breaking apart and drifting to their current
locations. Based on the work of previous scientists who had theorized about horizontal
movement of the continents over the earths surface during different periods of geologic
time, and based on his own observations drawing from different fields of science,
Wegener postulated that about 200 million years ago this supercontinent that he called
Pangaea, (which means all lands in Greek) began to break up.

Over millions of years the pieces separated, first into two smaller supercontinents
during the Jurassic period, called Laurasia and Gondwanaland, and then by the end of
the Cretaceous period, into the continents we know today.

Wegener first presented his ideas in 1912, and then published them in 1915 in his
controversial book, The Origins of Continents and Oceans, which was received with
great skepticism, and even hostility. He revised and published his book in subsequent
editions in 1920,1922, and 1929. The book (Dover translation of the 1929 fourth
German edition) is still available today on Amazon and elsewhere.

Wegeners theory, although not completely correct, and by his own admission,
incomplete, sought to explain why similar species of animals and plants, fossil remains,
and rock formations, exist on disparate lands separated by great distances of sea. It was
also an important and influential step in leading to the modern theory of plate tectonics,
which is how scientists understand the earths structure, history, and dynamics of the
earths crust and the movement of continents today.

Alfred Wegener, the Geologic Supersleuth


Alfred Wegener, a German meteorologist, was the first to begin to work out details to explain this
interesting observation. To begin with, the current geologic theory was that the crust was all
stationary, and continents were relatively unchanging - they didn't move around.
Alfred Wegener knew that other people had made observations of the fit of the coastlines. He
accidentally became drawn into that topic by discovering evidence that might explain that
phenomenon.

Fossil Evidence
In the fall of 1911, though, he came across a scientific paper that described the locations of identical
plant and animal fossils on very different continents.
These fossils included mesosaurus, which was a freshwater reptile, lystrosaurus, a land
reptile, cynognathus, a land reptile, and glossopteris, which was a tropical fern.
These were on very different continents, and he wondered, how could these same plants and
animals be on such different land masses? How could they have migrated over such vast distances
or survived in such harsh conditions? The current theories were that the continents were connected
by land bridges that have since eroded away or by stepping-stone islands. (Stepping-stone islands
would be a series of islands that traversed the ocean.)
Wegener developed a much simpler hypothesis that stated perhaps the continents were all together
at one point, thereby also explaining the fit of the coastline.
He then theorized a supercontinent he named Pangea, which meant 'one earth'. He realized,
though, that if this idea were to be accepted, he would need much more supporting data than he had
(just fossils and fits of coastlines).