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The supercontinent cycle

Abstract

Supercontinents signify self-organization in plate tectonics. Over the past ~2 billion years, three major supercontinents have been identified, with increasing age: Pangaea, Rodinia and Columbia. In a prototypal form, a cyclic pattern of continental assembly and breakup likely extends back to ~3 billion years ago, albeit on the smaller scale of Archaean supercratons, which, unlike global supercontinents, were tectonically segregated. In this Review, we discuss how the emergence of supercontinents provides a minimum age for the onset of the modern global plate tectonic network, whereas Archaean supercratons might reflect an earlier geodynamic and nascent tectonic regime. The assembly and breakup of Pangaea attests that the supercontinent cycle is intimately linked with whole-mantle convection. The supercontinent cycle is, consequently, interpreted as both an effect and a cause of mantle convection, emphasizing the importance of both top-down and bottom-up geodynamics, and the coupling between them. However, the nature of this coupling and how it has evolved remains controversial, resulting in contrasting models of supercontinent formation, which can be tested by quantitative geodynamic modelling and geochemical proxies. Specifically, which oceans close to create a supercontinent, and how such predictions are linked to mantle convection, are directions for future research.

Key points

  • The supercontinent cycle is an outcome of plate tectonics as a self-organizing system, where a supercontinent is both an effect and a cause of mantle convection, thus creating a feedback loop.

  • According to palaeogeography, three supercontinent cycles of assembly and breakup have occurred over the past 2 billion years (Gyr).

  • Before 2 Gyr ago, the occurrence of an older supercontinent is uncertain, and possibly only smaller and separated landmasses existed.

  • Geochemical proxies indicate secular change, suggesting tectonic evolution from non-cyclic to cyclic changes occurring ca. 2 Gyr ago, with the appearance of supercontinents.

  • For a better understanding of supercontinent dynamics, it is necessary to connect mantle convection and plate tectonics into one theory.

  • Both top-down (lithospheric) and bottom-up (mantle) tectonics control supercontinent dynamics, and it is critical to understand the coupling between them.

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Fig. 1: Supercontinents through time.
Fig. 2: Supercontinent Pangaea and mantle structure.
Fig. 3: Numerical modelling of long-wavelength mantle convection.
Fig. 4: Supercontinent time series.

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Acknowledgements

Support for this work came from the National Natural Science Foundation of China (grants 41888101 and 41890833 to R.N.M. and 41976066 to N.Z.), the Key Research Program of the Institute of Geology and Geophysics, Chinese Academy of Sciences (grant IGGCAS-201905 to R.N.M.), the Academy of Finland (grant 288277 to J.S.), the Centre of Excellence project 223272 through the Research Council of Norway and the innovation pool of the Helmholtz Association through the ‘Advanced Earth System Modelling Capacity (ESM)’ activity (B.S.), and the Australian Research Council (grant FL150100133 to Z.-X.L.). This is a contribution to International Geoscience Programme (IGCP) 648.

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Contributions

R.N.M. conceived the idea. N.Z. and B.S. conducted numerical modelling. J.S., Y.L. and Z.-X.L. made palaeogeographic reconstructions. C.J.S. conducted geochemical analyses. J.B.M. coordinated the presentation of the various sections. All authors contributed to the manuscript preparation, interpretation, discussion and writing, led by R.N.M.

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Correspondence to Ross N. Mitchell or Nan Zhang.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks T. Kusky, K. Condie and A. Merdith for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary information

Glossary

Large igneous provinces

Extremely large (>105 km2 areal extent, >105 km3 volume) magmatic events of intrusives (sills, dykes) and extrusives (lava flows, tephras) often attributed to mantle plumes.

Mantle plumes

Buoyant hot mantle material that rises from the core–mantle boundary, owing to basal heating of the mantle by the core.

Large low shear-wave velocity provinces

Two low-seismic velocity structures in the lower mantle covering one fifth of the core-mantle boundary and up to several hundred km tall.

True polar wander

Rotation of solid Earth (mantle and crust) about the liquid outer core to align Earth’s maximum moment of inertia with the spin axis; also known as planetary reorientation.

Degree 1 mantle flow

One hemisphere of mantle upwelling and one hemisphere of mantle downwelling.

Degree 2 mantle flow

Two antipodal mantle upwellings bisected by a meridional girdle of mantle downwelling as the most likely degree 2 configuration for Earth’s mantle.

Orthoversion

Model of supercontinent formation by closure of orthogonal seas (Arctic and Caribbean seas and either the Indian Ocean or the Scotia Sea) ~90° away from the centre of the previous supercontinent.

Subduction girdle

Circum-supercontinent subduction coupled with degree 2 mantle downwelling, for example, the present-day ‘Ring of Fire’ of circum-Pacific subduction zones.

Megacontinent

Geodynamic precursor to supercontinent formation that is large (~70% the size of its supercontinent) and early (assembly ~200 Myr before supercontinent amalgamation).

Apparent polar wander

Palaeomagnetically measured motion of a continent relative to Earth’s time-averaged magnetic pole, and results from a combination of both plate motion and true polar wander.

Palaeomagnetism

Study of rocks containing magnetic minerals that preserve the orientation of the magnetic field and constrain the position of the continent with respect to the North Pole at that age.

Geocentric axial dipole

Earth’s magnetic field is dominated by a dipole at the surface that aligns with the spin axis when averaged over 1,000–10,000 years.

Geologic piercing points

Geologic correlations used to test palaeogeographic reconstructions, including orogenic sutures, conjugate rift margins, and magmatic intrusions and dyke swarms.

Magmatic barcodes

Record of short-lived magmatic events on a continent or a craton that can be compared with those of different fragments to test ancient palaeogeographic reconstructions.

Supercratons

Assembly of Archaean cratons, where the landmasses were likely in small and segregated clusters, which form an alternative hypothesis to an Archaean supercontinent.

Introversion

Model of supercontinent formation by closure of the internal (Atlantic-like) ocean.

Extroversion

Model of supercontinent formation by closure of the external (Pacific-like) ocean.

Continental freeboard

Mean height of the continental crust relative to mean sea level; also referred to as continental emergence when positive in sign.

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Mitchell, R.N., Zhang, N., Salminen, J. et al. The supercontinent cycle. Nat Rev Earth Environ 2, 358–374 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-021-00160-0

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