1 Billion Years of Tectonic Plate Movement in 40 Seconds
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1 Billion Years of Tectonic Plate Movement in 40 Seconds

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1 Billion Years of Tectonic Plate Movement in 40 Seconds

According to plate tectonic theory, the Earth’s surface is made up of slabs of rock that are slowly shifting right under our feet.

Because of this constant movement, today’s Earth looks a lot different from what it did millions of years ago. Today’s animation looks at the Earth’s tectonic plate movement from 1 ga (geological time for 1 billion years ago) to the present-day, via EarthByte on YouTube.

Editor’s note: The video starts at time 1,000 ma (1,000 million years ago), and ticks down at the rate of about 25 million years every second.

The Emergence of Plate Tectonic Theory

Plate tectonics is a relatively new theory—in fact, according to National Geographic, it hadn’t become popular until the 1960s. However, the concept of continental movement was brewing long before it became widely accepted.

In 1912, German scientist Alfred Wegener proposed a theory he called continental drift. According to Wegener’s theory, Earth’s continents once formed a single, giant landmass, which he called Pangaea.

Over millions of years, Pangaea slowly broke apart, eventually forming the continents as they are today. Wegener believed this continental drift explained why the borders of South America and Africa looked like matching puzzle pieces. He also pointed to similar rock formations and fossils on these two continents as proof to back his theory.

Initially, the scientific community wasn’t on board with the theory of continental drift. But as more data emerged over the years, including research on seafloor spreading, the theory started to gain traction.

The Supercontinent Cycle

Nowadays, it’s believed that Pangea was just one of several supercontinents to mass together (and break apart) over the course of geological history.

The exact number of supercontinents is largely debated, but according to the Encylopedia of Geology, here are five (including Pangea) that are widely recognized:

  • Kenorland: 2.7-2.5 billion years ago
  • Nuna/Columbia: 1.6-1.4 billion years ago
  • Rodinia: 950–800 million years ago
  • Pannotia: 620-580 million years ago
  • Pangea: 325-175 million years ago

According to the theory, this cycle of breaking apart and coming together happens because of subduction, which occurs when tectonic plates converge with one another.

The supercontinent cycle also ties into ocean formation. The below example of the Wilson Cycle specifically keys in on how the Atlantic Ocean, and its predecessor, the Iapetus Ocean, were formed as supercontinents drifted apart:

the Wilson Cycle

Source: Hannes Grobe

The Importance of Plate Tectonics

Plate tectonics has been a game-changer for geologists. The theory has helped to explain tons of unanswered geological questions, assisting scientists in understanding how volcanoes, mountains, and ocean ridges are formed.

It’s also valuable for the oil and gas industry since it explains how sedimentary basins were created, allowing geologists and engineers to target and locate vast oil reserves.

Since the theory of plate tectonics is relatively new, there’s still a lot to be discovered in this field of research. However, in March 2021, a report was published in Earth-Science Reviews that, for the first time, visualized a continuous plate model that shows how Earth’s plates have shifted over the last billion years.

The video above visualizes this particular report and accurately depicts the Earth’s tectonic plates’ movement or the observed shift in Earth’s tectonic plates over the years.

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Demographics

Ranked: The 20 Countries With the Fastest Declining Populations

Population decline is a rising issue for many countries in Eastern Europe, as well as outliers like Japan and Cuba.

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Visualizing Population Decline by Country

Since the mid-1900s, the global population has followed a steep upwards trajectory.

While much of this growth has been concentrated in China and India, researchers expect the next wave of growth to occur in Africa. As of 2019, for example, the average woman in Niger is having over six children in her lifetime.

At the opposite end of this spectrum are a number of countries that appear to be shrinking from a population perspective. To shed some light on this somewhat surprising trend, we’ve visualized the top 20 countries by population decline.

The Top 20

The following table ranks countries by their rate of population decline, based on projected rate of change between 2020 and 2050 and using data from the United Nations.

RankCountryDecline 2020-2050
1🇧🇬 Bulgaria22.5%
2🇱🇹 Lithuania22.1%
3🇱🇻 Latvia21.6%
4🇺🇦 Ukraine19.5%
5🇷🇸 Serbia18.9%
6🇧🇦 Bosnia and Herzegovina18.2%
7🇭🇷 Croatia18.0%
8🇲🇩 Moldova16.7%
9🇯🇵 Japan16.3%
10🇦🇱 Albania15.8%
11🇷🇴 Romania15.5%
12🇬🇷 Greece13.4%
13🇪🇪 Estonia12.7%
14🇭🇺 Hungary12.3%
15🇵🇱 Poland12.0%
16🇬🇪 Georgia11.8%
17🇵🇹 Portugal10.9%
18🇲🇰 North Macedonia10.9%
19🇨🇺 Cuba10.3%
20🇮🇹 Italy10.1%

Many of these countries are located in or near Eastern Europe, for reasons we’ll discuss below.

The first issue is birth rates, which according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics (PIIE), have fallen since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Across the region, the average number of children per woman fell from 2.1 in 1988 to 1.2 by 1998.

Birth rates have recovered slightly since then, but are not enough to offset deaths and emigration, which refers to citizens leaving their country to live elsewhere.

Eastern Europe saw several waves of emigration following the European Union’s (EU) border expansions in 2004 and 2007. The PIIE reports that by 2016, 6.3 million Eastern Europeans resided in other EU states.

The Outliers

There are two geographical outliers in this dataset which sit on either side of Europe.

Japan

The first is Japan, where birth rates have fallen continuously since 1970. It wasn’t until 2010, however, that the country’s overall population began to shrink.

By the numbers, the situation appears dire. In 2021, 811,604 babies were born in Japan, while 1.44 million people died. As a result of its low birth rates, the island nation also has the world’s highest average age at 49 years old.

The Japanese government has introduced various social programs to make having kids more appealing, but these don’t appear to be getting to the root of the problem. For deeper insight into Japan’s low birthrates, it’s worth reading this article by The Atlantic.

Cuba

The second country is Cuba, and it’s the only one not located within the Eastern Hemisphere. Cuba’s fertility rate of 1.7 children per woman is the lowest in the Latin American region. It can be compared to countries like Mexico (2.2), Paraguay (2.5), and Guatemala (3.0).

Cuba’s immigration is also incredibly low compared to its neighboring countries. According to the International Organization for Migration, immigrants account for just 0.1% of its total population.

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Energy

Mapped: Average Wind Speed Across the U.S.

Wind is a great renewable energy source, but the spread of potential power is uneven. This graphic maps the average wind speed of the continental U.S.

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a map of average wind speed across the continental U.S. in 2021

Mapped: Average Wind Speed Across the U.S.

Wind energy is a hot topic in North America and around the world as a decarbonization tool, but full utilization requires a lot of wind.

This graphic from the team at the Woodwell Climate Research Center maps the average wind speed of the continental U.S. based on NOAA data from 2021.

Zooming in, you can examine North America’s wind regions and patterns in great detail. Clearly visible is the concentration of high wind speeds in the Great Plains (known as the Prairies in Canada), which has the greatest potential for wind power. You can also follow westerly winds traveling through the North American Cordillera of mountains, including the Rocky Mountains and Cascades.

Meanwhile, the Eastern U.S. and Canada have significantly lower average wind speeds, especially in the American South. That’s despite hurricanes with extremely high winds occasionally moving northward along the Eastern Seaboard towards the North Atlantic.

For more on on U.S. energy, head to Visualizing the Flow of U.S. Energy Consumption.
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