(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘continental drift

“Appearances are a glimpse of the unseen”

A shower of comets rains down on Earth while violent volcanic eruptions billow up from below. Both events may follow our planet’s passage through dark matter concentrated in the Milky Way’s plane and help to trigger extinction events.

Are we on the verge of understanding the upheavals that have shaped the earth?

Do geologists dream of a final theory? Most people would say that plate tectonics already serves as geology’s overarching idea. The discovery of plate tectonics 50 years ago was one of the great scientific achievements of the 20th century, but is the theory complete? I think not. Plate tectonics describes Earth’s present geology in terms of the geometry and interactions of its surface plates. Geologists can extrapolate plate motions both back in time and into the future, but they cannot yet derive the behavior and history of plate tectonics from first principles.

Although scientists can interpret the history through the lens of what they see today, an important question remains: Why did geologic events — such as hot-spot volcanism, the breakup of continents, fluctuations in seafloor spreading, tectonic episodes, and sea-level oscillations — occur exactly when and where they did? Are they random, or do they follow some sort of a pattern in time or space?

A complete theory of Earth should explain geologic activity in the spatial domain, as plate tectonics does quite well for the present (once you incorporate hot spots), but also in the time and frequency domains. Recent findings suggest to me that geology may be on the threshold of a new theory that seeks to explain Earth’s geologic activity in time and space in the context of its astronomical surroundings.

The solar system oscillates with respect to the midplane of the disk-shaped Milky Way Galaxy with a period of about 60 million years. The Sun’s family passes through this plane twice each period, or once every 30 million years or so. The solar system behaves like a horse on a carousel — as we go around the disk-shaped galaxy, we bob up and down through the disk, passing through its densest part roughly every 30 million years.

Surely, it is too much of a coincidence that the cycle found in mass extinctions and impact craters should turn out to be one of the fundamental periods of our galaxy. The idea seemed almost too pretty to be wrong. But people searching for cycles have been fooled before, and we still had to answer the question: How does this cycle of movement lead to periodic perturbations of the Oort Cloud comets?

The idea of a roughly 30 million-year rhythm in geologic events has a long history in the geological literature. In the early 20th century, W.A. Grabau, an expert on sedimentary strata, proposed that tectonic activity and mountain building drove periodic fluctuations in sea level with an approximately 30 million-year cycle. In the 1920s, noted British geologist Arthur Holmes, armed with a few age determinations from radioactive decay, saw a similar 30 million-year cycle in Earth’s geologic activity…

If the cycles are real, what could be driving these long-term changes in volcanism, tectonics, sea level, and climate at such regular, if widely spaced, intervals? At first, I thought that the periodic energetic impacts might somehow be affecting deep-seated geological processes. I suggested in a short note in the journal Nature that large impacts might so deeply excavate and fracture the crust — to depths in excess of 10 miles (16 km) — that the sudden release of pressure in the upper mantle would result in large-scale melting. This would lead to the production of massive flood-basalt lavas, which would cover the crater and possibly create a mantle hot spot at the site of the impact. Hot spots could lead to continental breakup, which can cause increased tectonics and changes in ocean-floor spreading rates, and in turn cause global sea levels to fluctuate. Unfortunately, no known terrestrial impact structure has a clear association with volcanism, although some volcanic outpourings on Mars seem to be located along radial and concentric fractures related to large impacts.

The potential key to resolving this geological conundrum may come from outer space. Remember that Randall and Reece suggested that Earth passes through a thin disk of dark matter concentrated along the Milky Way’s midplane every 30 million years or so. Astrophysicist Lawrence Krauss and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek of Harvard University, and independently Katherine Freese, an astrophysicist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, proposed that Earth could capture dark matter particles that would accumulate in the planet’s core. The number of dark matter particles could grow large enough so that they would undergo mutual annihilation, producing prodigious amounts of heat in Earth’s interior.

A 1998 paper in the journal Astroparticle Physics (which I am sure few geologists ever read) provided a potential missing link. Indian astrophysicists Asfar Abbas and Samar Abbas (father and son, respectively) at Utkal University also were interested in dark matter and its interactions with our planet. They calculated the amount of energy released by the annihilation of dark matter captured by Earth during its passage through a dense clump of this material. They found that mutual destruction among the particles could produce an amount of heat 500 times greater than Earth’s normal heat flow, and much greater than the estimated power required in Earth’s core to generate the planet’s magnetic field. Putting together the predicted 30 million-year periodicity in encounters with dark matter with the effects of Earth capturing this unstable matter produces a plausible hypothesis for the origin of regular pulses of geologic activity.

Excess heat from the planet’s core can raise the temperature at the base of the mantle. Such a pulse of heat might create a mantle plume, a rising column of hot mantle rock with a broad head and narrow tail. When these rising plumes penetrate Earth’s crust, they create hot spots, initiate flood-basalt eruptions, and commonly lead to continental fracturing and the beginning of a new episode of seafloor spreading. The new source of periodic heating by dark matter in our planet’s interior could lead to periodic outbreaks of mantle-plume activity and changes in convection patterns in Earth’s core and mantle, which could affect global tectonics, volcanism, geomagnetic field reversals, and climate, such as our planet has experienced in the past.

These geologic events could lead to environmental changes that might be enough to cause extinction events on their own. A correlation of some extinctions with times of massive volcanic outpourings of lava supports this view. This new hypothesis links geologic events on Earth with the structure and dynamics of the Milky Way Galaxy.

It is still too early to tell if the ingredients of this hypothesis will withstand further examination and testing. Of course, correlations among geologic events can occur even if they are not part of a periodic pattern, and long-term geological cycles may exist apart from any external cosmic connections. The virtue of the galactic explanation for terrestrial periodicity lies in its universality — because all stars in the galaxy’s disk, many of which harbor planets, undergo a similar oscillation about the galactic midplane — and in its linkage of biological and geological evolution on Earth, and perhaps in other solar systems, to the great cycles of our galaxy.

Dark matter’s shadowy effect on Earth“: Earth’s periodic passage through the galaxy’s disk could initiate a series of events that ultimately lead to geological cataclysms and mass extinctions. From Michael Rapino (@mrr1_michael)

For very different angle on the evolution of the earth, the wonderful Walter Murch: “Why Birds Can Fly Over Mount Everest.”

* Anaxagoras


As we dig deep, we might spare a thought for Harlow Shapley; he died on this date in 1972. An astronomer known as “the Modern Copernicus,” he did important work first at the Mt. Wilson Observatory, and then as head of the Harvard College Observatory. He boldly and correctly proclaimed that the globulars outline the Galaxy, and that the Galaxy is far larger than was generally believed and centered thousands of light years away in the direction of Sagittarius: he discovered the center of our Galaxy, and our position within it.


“Everything is in motion. Everything flows.”*…

(Roughly) Daily has looked at the related theories of plate tectonics and continental drift before (e.g., here and here). They are relatively young: proposed in the early twentieth century by Alfred Wegener, they weren’t widely accepted until 1960 or so. Now they’re fundamental– and allowing scientists to reconstruct the earth’s past. To wit, this animation looking at the Earth’s tectonic plate movement from 1 ga (geological time for 1 billion years ago) to the present-day (the video starts at time 1,000 ma [1,000 million years ago], and moves at the rate of about 25 million years every second)…

From Earthbyte

Here’s a even more ambitious project, looking back 3.3 billion years:

More on plate tectonics and the supercontinents that it formed (and unformed) at Visual Capitalist.

* William Hazlitt


As we buckle up, we might recall that in the very late 50s, the Ohio Art Company– which had been pursuing a pair of business: toys (e.g., windmills and a climbing monkey) and custom metal lithography products for food container and specialty premium markets– found a way to merge the two.  It acquired the rights to French electrician André Cassagnes‘ L’Écran Magique (The Magic Screen)– a drawing toy that allowed users to spin knobs to create line drawings, which could be erased by by turning the device upside down and shaking it. Ohio Art renamed it the Etch A Sketch, and introduced it in this date in 1960.

At its launch, which was near the peak of the Baby Boom, the Etch A Sketch was priced at $2.99 (equivalent to $26 in 2020); the company sold 600,000 units that year … and went on to sell over 100 million units and to earn a place in the National Toy Hall of Fame.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

July 12, 2021 at 1:00 am

“The forces which displace continents are the same as those which produce great fold-mountain ranges”*…

Some 240 million years ago, the patch of land that would one day become the National Mall was part of an enormous supercontinent known as Pangea. Encompassing nearly all of Earth’s extant land mass, Pangea bore little resemblance to our contemporary planet. Thanks to a recently released interactive map, however, interested parties can now superimpose the political boundaries of today onto the geographic formations of yesteryear—at least dating back to 750 million years ago.

The results are intriguing: During the Early Triassic Epoch, the National Mall in Washington, D.C., for example, was wedged almost directly adjacent to Mauritania, yet to be separated from the Northwest African country by the vast waters of the Atlantic Ocean.

Ancient Earth, the tool behind this millennia-spanning visualization, is the brainchild of Ian Webster, curator of the world’s largest digital dinosaur database [an old friend of (Roughly) Daily]…

Visualize the changes between the Cryogenian Period and the present: “This Map Lets You Plug in Your Address to See How It’s Changed Over the Past 750 Million Years.”

* Alfred Wegener, the originator of theory of continental drift


As we go with the flow, we might send rocky birthday greeting to Maurice-Irénée-Marie Gignoux; he was born on this date in 1881. A geologist, he helped chart the stratigraphy of the Mediterranean during the Pliocene Epoch (5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) and the Quaternary Period (from 2.6 million years ago to the present). His work with “fold models” (that allowed playing out the tectonic forces at work in continental drift and in the formation of mountains) led to a deeper understanding of the structure of the Alps.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

October 20, 2020 at 1:01 am

“South America must have lain alongside Africa and formed a unified block which was split in two in the Cretaceous; the two parts must then have become increasingly separated over a period of millions of years like pieces of a cracked ice floe in water”*…

Earth, 600 million years ago. The Ediacaran Period; life is evolving in the sea, and multicellular life is just beginning to emerge.

From the good folks who brought you Dinosaur Pictures, a chance to watch continental drift at work– a marvelous interactive model of the earth that you can view from the present to 600 million years ago: Ancient Earth.

* Arthur Wegener


As we marvel at the evolving reality of nature, we might marvel as well at the laws that govern it: it was on this date in 1686, the publication of Newton’s Principia (the Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematicawas arranged in London at the Royal Society. The minutes of the meeting record that the astronomer Edmond Halley would “undertake the business of looking after it and printing it at his own charge.”

Title page of the first edition



Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 2, 2018 at 1:01 am

“It is not down in any map; true places never are”*…

Still, maps hold us in thrall.  Consider, for example, this exquisite piece created around 1715 by Johann Baptist Homann, a German mapmaker working in Nuremberg. It measures 2 ¾ inches in diameter.

This particular pocket globe came in four pieces that nest inside each other like matryoshka dolls. The outside case, made of leather and featuring an S-shaped hook that secured the two pieces together, is lined with concave representations of a celestial map, showing constellations as seen from the earth. (Celestial globes were among the earliest globes produced, and were once commonly sold alongside their terrestrial cousins.)

Inside, the terrestrial globe (on which California is depicted as an island, a common misconception of the time) is hollow. Split into two parts, it reveals an armillary sphere: a type of skeleton celestial globe that represents the movement of heavenly bodies through circles. This armillary sphere has a band around it that’s illustrated with zodiacal symbols.

Katie Taylor, of the Whipple Museum of the History of Science in the U.K., writes that pocket globes could have served as “status symbols for wealthy gentlemen,” or functioned as educational tools for children. Homann made no other globes, specializing instead in maps and atlases; he might have sold this pocket version as a trinket…

The globe is featured in Sylvia Sumira’s Globes: 400 Years of Exploration, Navigation, and Power.  Read more in “An Itsy-Bitsy Early 18th-Century Pocket Globe” at Rebecca Onion’s essential The Vault.

* Herman Melville


As we plot our courses, we might spare a thought for Samuel Warren Carey; he died on this date in 2002.  As a geology graduate student in Australia, he read a translation of Alfred Wegener‘s  The Origin of Continents and Oceans, the book largely responsible for introducing the concept of continental drift to the English-speaking world; as a result, he became an early advocate of Wegener’s theory.  Carey’s plate tectonics reconstructions led him to develop the Expanding Earth hypothesis– a theory now largely rejected by the scientific community, but one that generated research and debate that helped advance the field of tectonics materially.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 20, 2014 at 1:01 am

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