Millions of years ago, a supercontinent now called Pangaea contained what would later become South America, Africa, Antarctica, India, and Australia. Scientists estimate that the disintegration of Pangea started slowly, with the tectonic plates only moving about a millimeter a year, before gradually picking up speed and splitting the continents apart completely about 173 million years ago. In 2016, using seismic data and computer modeling, geophysicists from Australia and Germany quantified how tectonic plates behave during continental drifts. When under extreme stress, the plates can move apart at ever-accelerating speeds, up to a rate of 20 millimeters per year.
Breaking up is hard to do:
- Scientists from the University of Sydney and the University of Potsdam explained that tectonic plates experience fast and slow periods of motion. The results of increased tectonic plate activity include violent land movements, high levels of heat, and increased volcanic activity.
- “It’s the equivalent of moving around as a pedestrian to moving around in a very fast BMW,” said Dietmar Muller, an author of the study. He likened the top speed of tectonic plates to the rate at which fingernails grow.
- The research, published in the scientific journal Nature, was part of a five-year project designed to improve our understanding of how sedimentary basins and continental margins evolved.