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The continents are moving. When will they collide? - Jean-Baptiste P. Koehl

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In the early 20th century, Alfred Wegener's theory of Continental Drift laid the foundation for our modern theory of plate tectonics. And today we know something even more exciting: Pangea was only the latest in a long lineage of supercontinents, and it won’t be the last. Jean-Baptiste P. Koehl explores when the next supercontinent will emerge — and what it might mean for Earth’s environment.

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The paleomagnetic record may display globally aberrant behavior for some periods of time, such as in the late Neoproterozoic–early Cambrian, a period of transition between the Rodinia and Pangea supercontinents during which life emerged on land. It is therefore paramount to develop new methods and use different datasets to reconstruct the position of the tectonic plates during and prior to this crucial period. For instance, up until recently, geoscientists believed that the crust of Arctic regions consisted largely of oceanic crust and that the continental crust (e.g., in Svalbard) was made up of small slices of rocks, which moved hundreds to thousands of kilometers in different directions between the breakup of the Rodinia Supercontinent (ca. 750 Ma) and the assembly of the Pangea Supercontinent (ca. 300 Ma). 

Recent works show that the Arctic is made predominantly of old (≥ 550 million years old) continental crust—and that several-to-tens of kilometers-thick and thousands of kilometers-long systems of 650–550 million year-old cracks extend from northwestern Russia to the Norwegian Arctic. In addition, ongoing work focused on inter-plate correlation of deformation structures (e.g., between Svalbard and Greenland) suggests that these cracks can be traced across several tectonic plates. These findings indicate that the tectonic plates constituting present-day Arctic regions have been relatively stable over the past 600 million years. Visit www.arctictectonics.org for more information about the ArcTec project (funded by the EU Commission).

Predicting the shape, size, and time of assembly of the next supercontinent is an extraordinary challenge to tackle. It requires an extensive understanding of past plate tectonics and the development of technologies to forecast the direction and magnitude of plate movements in the near and distant future. Unfortunately, we still struggle with near-future predictions of tens of meters of tectonic movements along large cracks in the crust, which are responsible for earthquakes.

Since the near future of our planet and, therefore, our own survival is shrouded in uncertainty, we need to work intensively on developing existing and new technologies to mitigate our impact on the climate. Notably wind, solar, and geothermal energy technologies need further improvement if we intend to use them as reliable sources of renewable energy. Other technologies, such as storing dihydrogen in salt rock units to turn it into electricity when needed, could also provide a long-term alternative to fossil fuels. Since a global shift toward clean energy is still far away, it is also important to be able to prevent greenhouse gases from reaching the atmosphere. This could be achieved, for example, by storing carbon dioxide in basalt and/or sedimentary rocks.

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Jean-Baptiste P. Koehl
  • Director Iuri Araujo, Província Studio
  • Narrator Addison Anderson
  • Music Salil Bhayani, cAMP Studio
  • Sound Designer Zavid Lan, cAMP Studio
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Senior Producer Anna Bechtol
  • Associate Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Senior Editorial Producer Dan Kwartler
  • Script Editor Iseult Gillespie
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace

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