Imagine a world where you can drive from South America across Europe and Asia and into Africa. In a few hundred million years, that road trip may be possible. Researchers Wednesday released a predictive map of how continents will move that showed how Asia will collide with North and South America and form the newest supercontinent dubbed Amasia.
The journal Nature published the study.
Geographers use the term supercontinent to refer to a landmass that consists of most, if not all, of the continents. Earth goes through a 300-500 million year supercontinent cycle, in which a supercontinent forms, breaks apart, and forms again.
A supercontinent rifts apart, and the continents skirt around to the opposite side of the globe, re-creating the next supercontinent, 180 degrees on the opposite side of the globe from the previous one, Ross Mitchell, geologist at Yale University and the author of the study, told NPR.
Previous supercontinents incorporated some of the modern continents, and only three supercontinents consisted of all seven continents. By looking at continental drift, researchers projected what Amasia might look like.
This kind of analysis gives us a way to arrange continents in both latitude and longitude, providing a better understanding in patterns of biological dispersal and the dynamics of Earth's deep interior, Taylor Kilian, student and co-author of the study, said according to PhysOrg.
The distribution of certain fossils, such as those of the lizard Lystrosaurus, yields the best evidence for previous supercontinents, according to Science Daily. Lystrosaurus fossils were found in South Africa, India, China and Australia, a disbursement that would have been unlikely, if not impossible, without the existence of a supercontinent. In addition, fossils of the reptile Mesosaurus found on the coasts of both Brazil and Africa provide further evidence for continental drift.
One of the earliest known supercontinents is Columbia, also known as Nuna. Formed 1.5 billion to 1.8 billion years ago, Columbia is estimated to have been 12,900 kilometers (8,015 miles) from north to south, and 4,800 km (2,982 miles) across at its widest, according to Space Daily. The United States is approximately 3,366 km (2,091 miles) across. Scientists estimate that the east coast of India was attached to western North America, Brazil was attached to eastern North America, and southern Australia was attached to western Canada.
After the breakup of Columbia, the next major supercontinent was Rodinia, which existed between 750 million and 1.1 billion years ago. The supercontinent was most likely centered around the equator, according to the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. The configuration most likely had western North America next to Australia and Antarctica, and eastern North America near western South America.
Once Rodinia broke apart, the next supercontinent that formed is the well-known Pangea, which existed 300 million years ago. Pangea looks much like the current continent configuration squeezed together, Mitchell told NPR. Rewind the tape and bring all the continents back into their jigsaw arrangement, you have this vast landmass of all the Earth's continental blocks together, he said.
Australia would have been attached to Antarctica and India. Eastern South America and western Africa both would be connected to southeastern North America, and northern North America would connect to Eurasia.
Pangea broke up into what the planet looks like today, and the continents are moving towards becoming the next supercontinent in a few hundred million years. Continents on these plates typically move, I would say, at the rate your fingernails grow, Mitchell told NPR.
Though Amasia is just a theory right now, the results are very impressive, Brendan Murphy, a geologist at St. Francis Xavier University in Canada told Science Magazine. He added that even if the new model is wrong, we'll learn a lot by testing it.