Letter | Published:

Supercontinent cycles and the calculation of absolute palaeolongitude in deep time

Nature volume 482, pages 208211 (09 February 2012) | Download Citation

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Abstract

Traditional models of the supercontinent cycle predict that the next supercontinent—‘Amasia’—will form either where Pangaea rifted (the ‘introversion’1 model) or on the opposite side of the world (the ‘extroversion’2,3,4 models). Here, by contrast, we develop an ‘orthoversion’5 model whereby a succeeding supercontinent forms 90° away, within the great circle of subduction encircling its relict predecessor. A supercontinent aggregates over a mantle downwelling but then influences global-scale mantle convection to create an upwelling under the landmass6. We calculate the minimum moment of inertia about which oscillatory true polar wander occurs owing to the prolate shape of the non-hydrostatic Earth5,7. By fitting great circles to each supercontinent’s true polar wander legacy, we determine that the arc distances between successive supercontinent centres (the axes of the respective minimum moments of inertia) are 88° for Nuna to Rodinia and 87° for Rodinia to Pangaea—as predicted by the orthoversion model. Supercontinent centres can be located back into Precambrian time, providing fixed points for the calculation of absolute palaeolongitude over billion-year timescales. Palaeogeographic reconstructions additionally constrained in palaeolongitude will provide increasingly accurate estimates of ancient plate motions and palaeobiogeographic affinities.

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Acknowledgements

We are grateful for discussions with J. Besse, W. Bleeker, M. Brandon, I. Rose and L. Tauxe, editorial suggestions from P. Hoffman and B. Skinner, and reviews from B. Steinberger and R. Van der Voo. R.N.M. was funded by an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Yale University, 210 Whitney Avenue, New Haven, Connecticut 06511, USA

    • Ross N. Mitchell
    • , Taylor M. Kilian
    •  & David A. D. Evans

Authors

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Contributions

R.N.M. developed the conceptual idea for the study, D.A.D.E. assembled input data and developed statistical methods, and T.M.K. executed calculations and generated reconstructions and animations. All authors contributed to discussions and the writing of the manuscript.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Ross N. Mitchell.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Figure 1 and legend, Supplementary Tables 1-6 and Supplementary References.

Videos

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Movie 1

    This movie corresponds to the orthoversion model, wherein the minimum moment of inertia (Imin) shifts 90° between supercontinents.

  2. 2.

    Supplementary Movie 2

    This movie corresponds to the alternative hypothesis of a fixed Imin through Phanerozoic time.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10800

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