The evolving mosaic of tectonic plates across the surface of the Earth sets boundary conditions for the evolution of biotic and abiotic processes and helps shape the dynamics of its interior. Reconstructing plate tectonics back through time allows scientists from a range of disciplines (such as palaeobiology, palaeoclimate, geodynamics and seismology) to investigate Earth evolution through these spatiotemporal dimensions. However, the variety and complexity of plate reconstructions can lead to some of their limitations being overlooked. In this Technical Review, we discuss the domain-specific knowledge underpinning modern quantitative plate reconstructions and convey a set of principles on how to use (but not abuse) the software or results. Open-source plate tectonic reconstruction software, like GPlates, has led to a major shift in working practices, handing non-specialists the tools to develop and integrate reconstructions based on their own datasets and expertise. However, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ and users need to understand what data and underlying assumptions go into making different, sometimes competing reconstruction models. It is therefore essential to consider the many ways reconstructions simplify reality when interpreting them to avoid circular reasoning. Although many aspects of deep-time reconstructions remain unresolved, future work on intercomparisons between models and uncertainty quantification is an essential pathway towards next-generation plate reconstructions.
Plate tectonic reconstructions have evolved from simple, rigid reconstructions to ones that incorporate the time-dependent evolution of plates and their boundaries, deformation and/or the history of subduction from seismic tomography.
Reconstructions can be powerfully predictive for a wide range of disciplines beyond tectonics, including palaeobiology, palaeoclimate, geodynamics and seismology.
With the advent of community-driven, open-source software and tools, plate models have become accessible and practicable to the wider geosciences community.
With this accessibility comes a responsibility for specialists and non-specialists alike to understand how these plate models are built, their weaknesses and pitfalls and how they can be used effectively to ensure correct inferences are made.
When reconstructing the tectonic plates of the Earth, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’. Different data types and techniques are more applicable for different time periods, resolutions and purposes, for example, palaeomagnetics for pre-Pangea time periods.
Important areas of ongoing research include the quantification of uncertainty, incorporation of machine learning techniques and linking reconstructions to physics-based deep Earth models and surface (and/or biogeochemical) models.
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GPlates is open-source software and can be downloaded at https://www.gplates.org/. All data and plate models shown in the figures are publicly available and can be found in the publications quoted in the text. Python workflows to create the figures can be found at https://zenodo.org/record/7634068.
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M.S., S.E.W. and A.S.C. acknowledge the support of the Australian Research Council (M.S., DP200100966 and FT130101564; S.E.W., DP200100966, DP180102280 and FT210100557; A.S.C., FT120100340 and LP200301457). S.E.W. acknowledges support from the National Natural Science Foundation of China grant 41972237. M.D. was supported by the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence funding scheme, project 223272 (CEED). K.S. was supported by the European Research Council under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, grant 639003 DEEP TIME. The authors also share their gratitude to the early pioneers of plate tectonics and those who championed the development of open-access plate tectonic models and tools as well as to their respective research groups for their contributions to plate model and workflow development. GPlates is supported by the AuScope National Collaborative Research Infrastructure System programme.
The authors declare no competing interests.
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- Alkalic magmatism
Magmas that are distinguished by a high alkali metal oxide composition relative to silica, reflecting low degrees of partial melting and commonly found in continental rifts.
- Continuously closing plate topologies
A method of creating a network of plate boundaries that combine to define a tectonic plate whose shape and size change through time.
- Diffuse deformation
Areas where internal plate deformation is distributed over wide lateral areas rather than narrowly localized at a rigid plate boundary.
- Earth System Models
(ESMs). Global models that integrate processes occurring in the biosphere, hydrosphere and lithosphere.
- Fracture zones
Linear feature on the present-day sea floor which traces the direction of sea-floor spreading at palaeo-mid-ocean ridges.
- Geocentric axial dipole
(GAD). On timescales of 105–106 years, the magnetic field of the Earth can be approximated by a magnetic dipole that is centred at the centre of the Earth and aligned parallel to the planetary spin axis.
- Geomagnetic polarity timescale
Geological timescale linking the sequence of reversals of the geomagnetic field to geochronology and stratigraphy.
Volcanism (commonly intraplate) with distinct geochemical signatures, thought to be caused by a mantle plume, but with a much lower eruptive rate than a LIP.
Ultramafic igneous rocks that are the main host rocks for diamonds and whose eruption sites have been linked to the edges of the large low shear velocity provinces.
- Large igneous provinces
(LIPs). A large volume of igneous rock emplaced over a geologically short period, commonly ascribed to the first arrival of a mantle plume (the plume ‘head’) to the surface of the Earth.
- Large low shear velocity provinces
(LLSVPs). Lowermost mantle structures of uncertain physical nature, defined by the robust observation that shear waves (and also P waves) propagate markedly slower than in the ambient mantle.
- Low-temperature thermochronology
Application of radiometric dating to determine the time at which a mineral cooled below a ‘closure temperature’ (which is method-specific, but generally in the range ~70–400 °C), below which the radiogenic daughter products are retained.
- Magnetic anomaly identifications
A spatiotemporal representation of a marine magnetic anomaly interpreted on the basis of a synthetic crustal magnetic model and the geomagnetic polarity timescale.
- Mantle plumes
An upwelling of buoyant, hot mantle rock from the mantle, hypothesized to be the causative mechanism of large igneous provinces and time-progressive volcanic hotspot tracks.
- Oceanic gateways
Narrow, shallow, diffuse connections between neighbouring oceans, which facilitate the large-scale exchange of water, heat, salinity and nutrients between ocean basins.
- Orogenic belt
Zone of collision along convergent plate margins, resulting in the formation of a mountain range.
- Passive margin
A non-active plate margin composed of stretched continental crust that was once the site of continental extension, which ultimately gave way to sea-floor spreading.
- Plume generation zones
(PGZs). Marginal areas of the large low shear velocity provinces in the lowermost mantle, associated with strong lateral gradients in seismic wave velocities, proposed to be nucleation sites of mantle plumes.
- Radiometric dating
A method to estimate the numerical age of igneous and metamorphic rocks, by measuring the decay products of radioactive isotopes in the constituent minerals of rocks.
- Sea-floor-spreading isochrons
Lines of equal age drawn on the sea floor depicting the sea-floor-spreading record and theoretically representing palaeo-mid-ocean ridge locations.
A topographically isolated submarine feature that rises from the sea floor, typically formed by volcanic activity.
- Seismic tomography
A geophysical technique that renders 2D or 3D images of the interior structure of the Earth by analysing recordings of seismic waves that traversed the interior.
- Small circles
A circle formed on the surface of a sphere by the intersection of a plane that does not pass through the centre of the sphere.
- Stage rotations
Rotations about a Euler pole that describe the motion of a plate between two specific times.
The aggregation of most continental crust into a single landmass.
- Syn-rift sedimentary sequences
Sedimentary rocks deposited during continental rifting that are characterized by coarse-grained, poorly sorted terrestrial deposits.
- Tectonic plates
A rigid body of crust and uppermost mantle, delimited against other plates by tectonically active boundaries such as subduction zones, mid-ocean ridges and transform faults.
- True polar wander
(TPW). A rotation of the entire solid Earth in response to mass re-distributions that perturb the planetary moment of inertia, acting to restore the principal moment of inertia to the planetary spin axis.
- Volcanic arcs
Linear, trench-parallel belt of volcanoes that develops about 80–100 km above a subducting slab and represents a key marker of convergent plate margins.
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Seton, M., Williams, S.E., Domeier, M. et al. Deconstructing plate tectonic reconstructions. Nat Rev Earth Environ 4, 185–204 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s43017-022-00384-8