Earth’s history in 40 seconds: Video model shows how the planet developed over one billion years

YouTube video

SYDNEY, Australia — Think you don’t have time to sit through a billion-year history lesson about planet Earth? Think again! While many people may know that all the continents used to be one giant land mass, where they drifted off to after that is a little more fuzzy. Now, a breakthrough model from the University of Sydney is revealing the stunning transformation Earth has gone through — and it’s doing it in less than one minute!

Geoscientists have released a video detailing one billion years of movement by the planet’s tectonic plates. An international team designed the model to help scientists better understand planetary habitability and also find critical metal resources. They say this will contribute to creating low-carbon technology in the future.

The continents have traveled to some strange places

The study reveals Earth’s plates, and the land masses that sit on them, are in constant motion. While the naked eye can’t spot it, study authors compare moving continents to rafts with evolving species that intermingle when these giant masses collide. The model even reveals that chilly Antarctica once sat at the equator.

“Our team has created an entirely new model of Earth evolution over the last billion years,” study co-author and academic leader of the University of Sydney EarthByte geosciences group Professor Dietmar Müller says in a university release. “Our planet is unique in the way that it hosts life. But this is only possible because geological processes, like plate tectonics, provide a planetary life-support system.”

“For the first time a complete model of tectonics has been built, including all the boundaries,” adds Dr. Michael Tetley. “On a human timescale, things move in centimeters per year, but as we can see from the animation, the continents have been everywhere in time. A place like Antarctica that we see as a cold, icy inhospitable place today, actually was once quite a nice holiday destination at the equator.”

“Planet Earth is incredibly dynamic, with the surface composed of ‘plates’ that constantly jostle each other in a way unique among the known rocky planets. These plates move at the speed fingernails grow, but when a billion years is condensed into 40 seconds a mesmerizing dance is revealed,” explains Dr. Sabin Zahirovic from the University of Sydney. “Oceans open and close, continents disperse and periodically recombine to form immense supercontinents.”

How do you build a billion-year model of the Earth?

Dr. Andrew Merdith, the creator of the video, gathered data collected by researchers from every continent of the planet. Many of these Earth scientists had readings taken from some of the most inaccessible and remote regions in the world. Dr. Merdith and the team then spent four years incorporating all the data into one 40-second video of Earth’s tectonic history.

Study authors say the results will allow other scientists to understand how the Earth transfers heat and also loses heat through seafloor spreading and volcanic activity. The video may also reveal new insights into how the planet’s climate has changed over time.

“Simply put, this complete model will help explain how our home, Planet Earth, became habitable for complex creatures. Life on Earth would not exist without plate tectonics. With this new model, we are closer to understanding how this beautiful blue planet became our cradle,” Prof. Müller concludes.

The study appears in the journal Earth-Science Reviews.

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About the Author

Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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  1. It is remarkable that we know anything at all about the history of the Earth on timescales up to a thousand times longer than even that of the existence of a recognizable human species. It’s all down to sifting and collating of evidence, some of it very subtle, almost a repeated Ockham’s Razor process.

    It is important for another reason, that it goes to the heart of science. There are still some people who dispute the age of the Earth and how it developed. The earliest attempt that can be called scientific was that of Lord Kelvin, who estimated 98 million years based on static cooling. Despite the discovery of radioactivity and its heating effect, there was reluctance to accept a greater age. Only around a century ago did Alfred Wegener notice the similar shapes of the edges of some continents, and also explained mountain ranges as results of continental collisions, though he recognised difficulties in achieving a theory of continental drift.

    Significantly, Wegener’s ideas led to him being dismissed as an ‘amateur’ and subject to personal attacks, as well as more reasoned criticisms that are par for the course of any scientist. It took surveying of continental shelf edges, and discovery of sea-floor spreading and magnetic reversals to legitimise the theory, both dependent on technological advances, the latter linked to war.

    This is a lesson in how personal interests and politics, as well as circumstances and simple failure of imagination, can intrude into the acquisition of knowledge, even in a field that, unlike say nuclear physics (eg Oppenheimer) or agriculture, has little real impact on either.

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