Continental drift: tectonic activity and ice ages (Introduction)

by David Turell @, Saturday, March 16, 2019, 20:28 (10 days ago) @ David Turell

A new study shows how they are related:

"In a study published in Science, the team reports that each of the last three major ice ages were preceded by tropical “arc-continent collisions” — tectonic pileups that occurred near the Earth’s equator, in which oceanic plates rode up over continental plates, exposing tens of thousands of kilometers of oceanic rock to a tropical environment.

"The scientists say that the heat and humidity of the tropics likely triggered a chemical reaction between the rocks and the atmosphere. Specifically, the rocks’ calcium and magnesium reacted with atmospheric carbon dioxide, pulling the gas out of the atmosphere and permanently sequestering it in the form of carbonates such as limestone.

"Over time, the researchers say, this weathering process, occurring over millions of square kilometers, could pull enough carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere to cool temperatures globally and ultimately set off an ice age.


"When an oceanic plate pushes up against a continental plate, the collision typically creates a mountain range of newly exposed rock. The fault zone along which the oceanic and continental plates collide is called a “suture.” Today, certain mountain ranges such as the Himalayas contain sutures that have migrated from their original collision points, as continents have shifted over millenia.

"In 2016, Jagoutz and his colleagues retraced the movements of two sutures that today make up the Himalayas. They found that both sutures stemmed from the same tectonic migration. Eighty million years ago, as the supercontinent known as Gondwana moved north, part of the landmass was crushed against Eurasia, exposing a long line of oceanic rock and creating the first suture; 50 million years ago, another collision between the supercontinents created a second suture.

"The team found that both collisions occurred in tropical zones near the equator, and both preceded global atmospheric cooling events by several million years — which is nearly instantaneous on a geologic timescale. After looking into the rates at which exposed oceanic rock, also known as ophiolites, could react with carbon dioxide in the tropics, the researchers concluded that, given their location and magnitude, both sutures could have indeed sequestered enough carbon dioxide to cool the atmosphere and trigger both ice ages.


“'We showed that this process can start and end glaciation,” Jagoutz says. “Then we wondered, how often does that work? If our hypothesis is correct, we should find that for every time there’s a cooling event, there are a lot of sutures in the tropics.”

"They identified three periods over the last 540 million years in which major sutures, of about 10,000 kilometers in length, were formed in the tropics. Each of these periods coincided with each of three major, well-known ice ages, in the Late Ordovician (455 to 440 million years ago), the Permo-Carboniferous (335 to 280 million years ago), and the Cenozoic (35 million years ago to present day). Importantly, they found there were no ice ages or glaciation events during periods when major suture zones formed outside of the tropics.

"He notes that a major suture zone, spanning about 10,000 kilometers, is still active today in Indonesia, and is possibly responsible for the Earth’s current glacial period and the appearance of extensive ice sheets at the poles."

Comment: continental movements and subduction zone have played active roles in several cycles which have benefited arranging Earth as a life friendly planet. Not a surprising discovery.

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