Pangaea, Panɡæa or Pangea, was the supercontinent that is theorized to have existed during the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras about 250 million years ago, before the component continents were separated into their current configuration.
The name was first used by the German originator of the continental drift theory, Alfred Wegener, in the 1920 edition of his book The Origin of Continents and Oceans (Die Entstehung der Kontinente und Ozeane), in which a postulated supercontinent Pangaea played a key role.
Formation of Pangaea
The breakup and formation of supercontinents appears to have been cyclical through Earth's 4.6 billion year history. There may have been several others before Pangaea. The next-to-last one, Rodinia, formed about 1.1 billion years ago during the Proterozoic era, and lasted until 700-750 Ma. The exact configuration and geodynamic history of Rodinia are not nearly as well understood as for Pangaea.
When Rodinia broke up, it split into three pieces, the supercontinent of Proto-Laurasia and the supercontinent of Proto-Gondwana, and the smaller Congo craton. Proto-Laurasia and Proto-Gondwana were separated by the Proto-Tethys Ocean. Soon thereafter Proto-Laurasia itself split apart to form the continents of Laurentia, Siberia and Baltica. The rifting also spawned two new oceans, the Iapetus Ocean and Khanty Ocean. Baltica was situated east of Laurentia, and Siberia northeast of Laurentia.
Around 600 Ma, most of these masses came back together to form the supercontinent of Pannotia, which included large amounts of land near the poles and only a relatively small strip near the equator connecting the polar masses.
In the Cambrian period the independent continent of Laurentia, which would become North America, sat on the equator, with three bordering oceans: the Panthalassic Ocean to the north and west, the Iapetus Ocean to the south and the Khanty Ocean to the east. In the Earliest Ordovician, around 480 Ma, the microcontinent of Avalonia, a landmass that would become the northeastern United States, Nova Scotia and England, broke free from Gondwana and began its journey to Laurentia.
Baltica, Laurentia, and Avalonia all came together by the end of the Ordovician to form a minor supercontinent called Euramerica or Laurussia, closing the Iapetus Ocean. The collision also resulted in the formation of the northern Appalachians. Siberia sat near Euramerica, with the Khanty Ocean between the two continents. While all this was happening, Gondwana drifted slowly towards the South Pole. This was the first step of the formation of Pangaea.
The second step in the formation of Pangaea was the collision of Gondwana with Euramerica. By Silurian time, 440 Ma, Baltica had already collided with Laurentia to form Euramerica. Avalonia hadn't collided with Laurentia yet, and a seaway between them, a remnant of the Iapetus Ocean, was still shrinking as Avalonia slowly inched towards Laurentia.
Meanwhile, southern Europe fragmented from Gondwana and started to head towards Euramerica across the newly formed Rheic Ocean and collided with southern Baltica in the Devonian, though this microcontinent was an underwater plate. The Iapetus Ocean's sister ocean, the Khanty Ocean, was also shrinking as an island arc from Siberia collided with eastern Baltica (now part of Euramerica). Behind this island arc was a new ocean, the Ural Ocean.
By late Silurian time, North and South China rifted away from Gondwana and started to head northward across the shrinking Proto-Tethys Ocean, and on its southern end the new Paleo-Tethys Ocean was opening. In the Devonian Period, Gondwana itself headed towards Euramerica, which caused the Rheic Ocean to shrink.
In the Early Carboniferous, northwest Africa had touched the southeastern coast of Euramerica, creating the southern portion of the Appalachian Mountains, and the Meseta Mountains. South America moved northward to southern Euramerica, while the eastern portion of Gondwana (India, Antarctica and Australia) headed towards the South Pole from the equator.
North China and South China were on independent continents. The Kazakhstania microcontinent had collided with Siberia (Siberia had been a separate continent for millions of years since the deformation of the supercontinent Pannotia) in the Middle Carboniferous.
Western Kazakhstania collided with Baltica in the Late Carboniferous, closing the Ural Ocean between them, and the western Proto-Tethys in them (Uralian orogeny), causing the formation of the Ural Mountains, and the formation of the supercontinent of Laurasia. This was the last step of the formation of Pangaea.
Meanwhile, South America had collided with southern Laurentia, closing the Rheic Ocean, and forming the southernmost part of the Appalachians and Ouachita Mountains. By this time, Gondwana was positioned near the South Pole, and glaciers were forming in Antarctica, India, Australia, southern Africa and South America. The North China block collided with Siberia by Late Carboniferous time, completely closing the Proto-Tethys Ocean.
By Early Permian time, the Cimmerian plate rifted away from Gondwana and headed towards Laurasia, with a new ocean forming in its southern end, the Tethys Ocean, and the closure of the Paleo-Tethys Ocean. Most of the landmasses were all in one. By the Triassic Period, Pangaea rotated a little, in a southwest direction. The Cimmerian plate was still travelling across the shrinking Paleo-Tethys, until the Middle Jurassic time. The Paleo-Tethys had closed from west to east, creating the Cimmerian Orogeny. Pangaea looked like a C, with an ocean inside the C, the new Tethys Ocean. Pangaea had rifted by the Middle Jurassic, and its deformation is explained below.
Evidence of Pangaea's existence
Fossil evidence for Pangaea includes the presence of similar and identical species on continents that are now great distances apart. For example, fossils of the therapsid Lystrosaurus have been found in Gandu, South Africa, India and Australia, alongside members of the Glossopteris flora, whose distribution would have ranged from the polar circle to the equator if the continents had been in their present position; similarly, the freshwater reptile Mesosaurus has only been found in localized regions of the coasts of Brazil and West Africa.
The polar ice cap of the Carboniferous Period covered the southern end of Pangaea. Glacial deposits, specifically till, of the same age and structure are found on many separate continents which would have been together in the continent of Pangaea.
Apparent Polar Wandering Paths also support the idea of a super-continent. Geologists can determine the movement of continental plates by examining the orientation of magnetic minerals in rocks; when rocks are formed, they take on the magnetic properties of the Earth and indicate in which direction the poles lie relative to the rock. Because we know that the poles do not move more than a few degrees, magnetic anomalies in rocks can only be explained by the drifting of continents.
Rifting and break-up of Pangaea
There were three major phases in the break-up of Pangaea. The first phase began in the Early-Middle Jurassic, when Pangaea created a rift from the Tethys Ocean in the east and the Pacific in the west. The rifting took place between North America and Africa, and produced multiple failed rifts. The rift resulted in a new ocean, the Atlantic Ocean.
The Atlantic Ocean did not open uniformly; rifting began in the north-central Atlantic. The South Atlantic did not open until the Cretaceous. Laurasia started to rotate clockwise and moved northward with North America to the north, and Eurasia to the south. The clockwise motion of Laurasia also led to the closing of the Tethys Ocean. Meanwhile, on the other side of Africa, new rifts were also forming along the adjacent margins of east Africa, Antarctica and Madagascar that would lead to the formation of the southwestern Indian Ocean that would also open up in the Cretaceous.
The second major phase in the break-up of Pangaea began in the Early Cretaceous (150–140 Ma), when the minor supercontinent of Gondwana separated into four multiple continents (Africa, South America, India and Antarctica/Australia). About 200 Ma, the continent of Cimmeria, as mentioned above (see "Formation of Pangaea"), collided with Eurasia. However, a subduction zone was forming, as soon as Cimmeria collided.
This subduction zone was called the Tethyan Trench. This trench might have subducted what is called the Tethyan mid-ocean ridge, a ridge responsible for the Tethys Ocean's expansion. It probably caused Africa, India and Australia to move northward. In the Early Cretaceous, Atlantica, today's South America and Africa, finally separated from eastern Gondwana (Antarctica, India and Australia), causing the opening of a "South Indian Ocean". In the Middle Cretaceous, Gondwana fragmented to open up the South Atlantic Ocean as South America started to move westward away from Africa. The South Atlantic did not develop uniformly; rather, it rifted from south to north.
Also, at the same time, Madagascar and India began to separate from Antarctica and moved northward, opening up the Indian Ocean. Madagascar and India separated from each other 100–90 Ma in the Late Cretaceous. India continued to move northward toward Eurasia at 15 centimeters (6 in) per year (a plate tectonic record), closing the Tethys Ocean, while Madagascar stopped and became locked to the African Plate. New Zealand, New Caledonia and the rest of Zealandia began to separate from Australia, moving eastward towards the Pacific and opening the Coral Sea and Tasman Sea.
The third major and final phase of the break-up of Pangaea occurred in the early Cenozoic (Paleocene to Oligocene). North America/Greenland broke free from Eurasia, opening the Norwegian Sea about 60–55 Ma. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans continued to expand, closing the Tethys Ocean.
Meanwhile, Australia split from Antarctica and moved rapidly northward, just as India did more than 40 million years earlier, and is currently on a collision course with eastern Asia. Both Australia and India are currently moving in a northeastern direction at 5–6 centimeters (2–3 in) per year. Antarctica has been near or at the South Pole since the formation of Pangaea about 280 Ma. India started to collide with Asia beginning about 35 Ma, forming the Himalayan orogeny, and also finally closing the Tethys Seaway; this collision continues today. The African Plate started to change directions, from west to northwest toward Europe, and South America began to move in a northward direction, separating it from Antarctica and allowing complete oceanic circulation around Antarctica for the first time, causing a rapid cooling of the continent and allowing glaciers to form. Other major events took place during the Cenozoic, including the opening of the Gulf of California, the uplift of the Alps, and the opening of the Sea of Japan. The break-up of Pangaea continues today in the Great Rift Valley.
It has been stated that in the next 250 million years in the future, Pangaea Ultima will form.
- List of supercontinents
- History of Earth
- Supercontinent cycle
- Plate Tectonics
- Continental Drift
- ^ Plate Tectonics and Crustal Evolution, Third Ed., 1989, by Kent C. Condie, Pergamon Press
- ^ Stanley, Steven (1998). Earth System History. USA. pp. 355–359.
- ^ Stanley, Steven (1998). Earth System History. USA. pp. 386–392.
- ^ Benton, M.J. Vertebrate Palaeontology. Third edition (Oxford 2005), 25.
- ^ Barbara W. Murck, Brian J. Skinner, Geology Today: Understanding Our Planet, Study Guide, Wiley, ISBN 978-0-471-32323-5
- USGS Overview
- In honor of Alfred Wegener, at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (AWI) an information system for georeferenced data from earth system research is named Pangea
- An explanation of tectonic forces
- Europe's First Stegosaurus Boosts Pangaea Theory
- Map of Triassic Pangaea at Paleomaps
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