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Plate tectonics just a stage in Earth’s life cycle

Simulation shows crust to stop shifting in 5 billion years

7:00am, May 31, 2016
Earth tectonic diagram

TECTONIC TIMETABLE  Plate tectonics will grind to a halt in a few billion years, researchers predict. A computer simulation calculated how heat flows through a planet’s interior, including this snapshot during a period of active plate tectonics.

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Earth’s plate tectonics could be a passing phase. After simulating rock and heat flow throughout a planet’s lifetime, researchers have proposed that plate tectonics is just one stage of a planet’s life cycle.

In the simulation, the Earth’s interior was too hot and runny at first to push around the giant chunks of crust, researchers report in the June Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors. After the interior cooled for around 400 million years, tectonic plates began shifting and sinking, though the process was stop-and-go for about 2 billion years. The simulation suggests that Earth now is nearly halfway through its tectonic life cycle, says study coauthor Craig O’Neill, a planetary scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. In around 5 billion years, plate tectonics will grind to a halt as the planet chills.

The long delay before full-blown plate tectonics hints that the process could one day begin on currently stagnant planets, says Julian Lowman, a geodynamicist at the University of Toronto who was not involved in the research. “There is a possibility that plate tectonics could start up on Venus if conditions were right,” he says.

Plate tectonics regulates a planet’s climate by adding and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This climate control helps maintain Earth’s habitability. Plate movement is driven by heat flow through the planet’s interior. Simulating that heat flow requires complex calculations. Previous simulations were simplified and typically considered only snapshots of Earth’s history and missed how plate tectonics evolves over time.

O’Neill and colleagues simulated Earth’s full tectonic life span, starting with the planet’s formation around 4.5 billion years ago and looking ahead to around 10 billion years in the future. Even using a supercomputer and simulating only a two-dimensional cross section of the planet, the calculations took weeks.

The new timeline suggests that Earth’s plate tectonics is just a midpoint in the planet’s evolution between two stagnant states. Planets with different starting temperatures than Earth’s follow different trajectories, the team found. Colder planets may exhibit plate tectonics throughout their history while hotter planets could go for billions of years without plate tectonics.

Just because a planet currently lacks plate tectonics doesn’t make it uninhabitable, O’Neill says. Life potentially appeared on Earth as early as around 4.1 billion years ago (SN Online: 10/19/2015), a time when the new simulation suggests that Earth lacked full-blown plate tectonics. “Stagnant planets, depending on when they are in their history, can be equally likely of supporting habitable conditions” as planets with plate tectonics, O’Neill says.

COOLING OFF The young Earth was too hot for plate tectonics, new simulations suggest. For a few hundred million years, the planet’s surface was a stagnant lid that contained an interior that was too hot and runny to power plate tectonics. Eventually the planet cooled enough for plate tectonics to begin.C. O’Neill et al/Phys. Earth Plan. Int. 2016


C. O’Neill et al. A window for plate tectonics in terrestrial planet evolution? Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors. Vol. 255, June 2016, p. 80. doi: 10.1016/j.pepi.2016.04.002.

Further Reading

T. Sumner. How alien can a planet be and still support life?Science News. Vol. 189, April 30, 2016, p. 36.

T. Sumner. Exoplanets need right stuff to be habitable. Science News. Vol. 189, January 23, 2016, p. 8.

T. Sumner. 4.1-billion-year-old crystal may hold earliest signs of life. Science News Online, October 19, 2015.

T. Sumner. The magnetic mystery at the center of the Earth. Science News. Vol. 188, September 19, 2015, p. 18.

T. Sumner Super-Earths are not a good place for plate tectonics. Science News Online, June 26, 2015.

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