A billion years on Earth in 40 seconds

A video which shows the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates over the past billion years, has been released by University of Adelaide scientists.

The time-lapse series displays the movement in just 40 seconds. The video is part of an international research project, published in Earth Science Reviews.

The co-author and leader of Adelaide’s Tectonics and Earth Systems Research Group and member of the Environment Institute, Professor Alan Collins, said “the plates really dance around dramatically”. He said rocks where Adelaide now stands were old enough to feature in the entire video.

“You can’t really put Melbourne and Sydney in because they’re sitting on rocks that are too young,” he said. But the rocks that make up “the basement of Adelaide” were ancient. “If you drilled down from the city centre, down hundreds of metres, you’d come to some quite solid crystalline shiny rocks,” Prof Collins said.

“They’re part of a thing called the Gawler Craton, which is really the old part of Australia and joins on with Yilgarn Craton in Western Australia, and it’s really part of the multiple billion-year old kernel of the continent.”

Adelaide is on the edge of that old continent, whereas everything from the Mount Lofty Ranges east is younger. The next challenge is to use the modelling to work out how deep seas were and how high the mountains were through this time. Then scientists can model the shape of the Earth’s surface over a billion years and start to put it into global climate models.

Professor Collins can envisage a three-dimensional model of plate tectonics, showing mountains rising and falling. He describes continents as “the scum of the Earth”, literally, like the slag that rises to the surface in an iron furnace. There have been models showing movement of the continents in the past, but this is the first showing the plates.

The team is delighted with the result and the reaction to date. The original video has been viewed more than half a million times on YouTube, Twitter and other websites, including The New York Times. “This is the sort of thing I’ve been working towards for 20 years,” he said. “I’ll see out pretty much the rest of my career doing more of this, improving and working on the implications of this.”

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