How Does the Supercontinent Cycle Work?
If you had a time capsule and traveled back in time 200 million years ago, you’d experience Earth as the supercontinent of Pangaea. It was made up of one continent and one ocean.
From coast to coast, the supercontinent of Pangaea was surrounded by the superocean Panthalassa. Gradually, continental drift teared the supercontinent apart into our current placement of continents.
Today, we pick up the pieces and look at the clues of Pangaea. For example, notice the striking similarities of continental boundaries aligning in a world map.
One day, our continents will connect to form another supercontinent in the future “Pangea Ultima”. But it takes time. For example, this won’t happen for another 250 million years in the future.
What supercontinents existed before Pangea?
As part of the supercontinent cycle, this list contains all the former supercontinents in Earth’s history (and future ones).
|Supercontinent||Time (Billions of Years Ago)||Landmass Description|
|Vaalbara||3.6-2.8||Western Australia and South Africa|
|Ur||3.0-2.8||Madagascar, Australia and India|
|Kenorland||2.7-2.1||Laurentia (North America & Greenland), Baltica (Scandinavia & Baltic), Western Australia and Kalaharia|
|Columbia||1.8-1.35||Laurentia, Australia, North China, Siberia, Baltica, India, Amazonia and Congo-Sao Francisco|
|Rodinia||1.07-0.75||Laurentia, Amazonia, West Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Arabian Numidian Shield, Siberia, North/South China, Kalahari, Baltica and Congo-Sao Francisco|
|Pannotia||0.62-0.55||Laurentia, Amazonia, West Africa, Australia, Antarctica, Siberia, Saharan Metacraton, Kalahari, Baltica and Congo-Sao Francisco|
|Pangaea||0.335-0.173||Most landmass that existed during Pangaea persist today but in different locations. Exceptions are Iceland, Panama, Costa Rica and other landmasses that formed after Pangaea.|
|Pangaea Ultima||0.25 (future)||Possible future supercontinent (consistent with the supercontinent cycle) which will assemble 250 million years in the future|
Was Vaalbara the first supercontinent?
Vaalbara is the theorized first supercontinent. There’s still a heated debate whether Vaalbara was the first supercontinent to emerge 3 billion years ago. The name Vaalbara comes from two cratons that were believed to be combined about 3.1 billion of years ago.
First, the Kaapvaal craton exists now in South African. Next, the Pilbara craton is now situated in West Australia. Hence, the theorized supercontinent Vaalbara incorporates both cratons as part of its name.
Scientists looked for resemblances and found geochronological and paleomagnetic similarities in both cratons. About 2.5 billion years ago, they drifted apart making it possible they were once connected.
Was Pangaea the last supercontinent?
About 200 million years ago, all continents were connected as one giant supercontinent Pangaea (sometimes spelled “Pangea”).
Over time, continents tore apart into the seven continents and 5 oceans we are all familiar with today from a world map. Like a giant jigsaw puzzle, the continental puzzle pieces fit nearly perfectly.
Most landmass that existed during Pangaea persist today. But they are situated in different locations due to continental drift. New land can be easily created as it can be taken away.
For example, Iceland, Panama, Costa Rica formed after Pangaea. The oldest surface rocks in Iceland are only 14-16 million years old. But it’s believed that tectonic activity starting building Iceland about 24 million years ago.
What will be the next supercontinent?
If you could fast-forward 250 million years in the future, Pangea Ultima is projected as the next supercontinent. Other names given to the next supercontinent include Pangaea Proxima, Neopangaea, and Pangaea II.
If you incorporate the velocities and trajectories of current plate movement, then you can model how continents will evolve. The landmass itself would extend 13,000 miles with one superocean covering two-thirds of Earth.
In the case of Pangea Ultima, it’s an odd-shaped continent because it’s circular with a hole in the middle. Similar to Pangea, North America would collide with the south part of Africa.
South America, Antarctica and Australia would wrap around to connect with the south of Asia to create a ring of continents. Finally, the hole in the center of Pangea Ultima is remnants of the Indian Ocean.