The continents as a heat blanket

January 22, 2009

Drifting of the large tectonic plates and the superimposed continents is not only powered by the heat-driven convection processes in the Earth's mantle, but rather retroacts on this internal driving processes. In doing so, the continents function as a thermal blanket, which leads to an accumulation of heat underneath, and which in turn can cause the break-up of the super-continents.

These results of numerical modelling have been published by scientists from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in the latest volume of the journal Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors (Vol. 171, S. 313-322).

Alfred Wegener's theory of continental drift was turned up when the driving forces for continental drift were discovered during the 50s and 60s: The enormous heat in the Earth's core and Earth's mantle generates the flow of rocks within the Earth's mantle, a process similar to the movement of warm water in a cooking pot. This heat-driven mass transport is called convection. On the Earth's surface, this process leads not only to plate movement but also to drifting of the continents floating on the plates.

To date however, there has been no realistic mathematical-physical theory describing the interaction between the convective movement in the Earths mantle and the continental drift. V. Trubitsin, M. Kaban und M. Rothacher from the GFZ have now developed a numerical model, based on the current position of the continents, the structures of the Earth's mantle obtained through geophysical measurements, and the current displacement rates on the surface. Hence they were able to calculate the future position of the continents in hundreds of millions of years.

It could be shown that the enormous heat in the Earth's interior does not generally lead to a chaotic mass transport within the Earth's mantle. On the contrary, the continents influence the heat distribution within the Earth's mantle and the associated convective mass flow. In other words the continents act as a thermal blanket causing heat to accumulate beneath. A self-regulating system develops, beginning and ending with a super-continent. This super-continent breaks apart due to heat accumulation which in turn leads to a reorganoization of mantle convection with the pieces ultimately joining again to form a large super-continent.

Paper: V. Trubitsin, M. Kaban and M. Rothacher: "Mechanical and thermal effects of floating continents on the global mantle convection", Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors (Vol. 171, S. 313-322).

Source: Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres

Explore further: Teaming nature and technology for climate solutions

Related Stories

Teaming nature and technology for climate solutions

June 8, 2017

One corner of the Omani desert is blanketed by a type of rock with an unquenchable thirst for a colorless and odorless gas vital to life on Earth. That gas is CO2, and when it reacts with peridotite, a rock abundant in the ...

Seismic CT scan points to rapid uplift of Southern Tibet

June 7, 2017

Using seismic data and supercomputers, Rice University geophysicists have conducted a massive seismic CT scan of the upper mantle beneath the Tibetan Plateau and concluded that the southern half of the "Roof of the World" ...

A seismic mapping milestone

March 28, 2017

Because of Earth's layered composition, scientists have often compared the basic arrangement of its interior to that of an onion. There's the familiar thin crust of continents and ocean floors; the thick mantle of hot, semisolid ...

Recommended for you

Biodiversity loss from deep-sea mining will be unavoidable

June 26, 2017

Biodiversity losses from deep-sea mining are unavoidable and possibly irrevocable, an international team of 15 marine scientists, resource economists and legal scholars argue in a letter published today in the journal Nature ...

Iron chemistry matters for ocean carbon uptake

June 26, 2017

For many years, scientists have speculated that seeding the ocean with iron might help to stave off climate change. Iron in seawater promotes the growth of phytoplankton, which in turn devours carbon dioxide from the atmosphere ...

3 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

marjon
5 / 5 (1) Jan 22, 2009
How much geothermal heat escapes into the oceans and the atmosphere?
out7x
1 / 5 (2) Jan 23, 2009
nothing new here. Seafloor spreading and subduction rates are well known.
GrayMouser
not rated yet Jan 28, 2009
So, how much could we drop the global temperature if we sink all the continents?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.