Winter is coming: Supercontinent to form around the North Pole in 100 million years
New geological model predicts that tectonic forces will eventually cause Earth's continents to gather over the Arctic Ocean.
Tue, Aug 07, 2012 at 11:56 PM
The Starks, characters in the HBO series "Game of Thrones," are fond of quoting the ominous phrase, "winter is coming." But now a new geological model constructed by Yale researchers could have real life scientists uttering the same phrase.
Researchers calculate that tectonic forces are moving the Earth's continents in such a way that a supercontinent could form around the North Pole in about 100 million years, according to Discover Magazine. In other words, should any humans or human-like organisms survive to see the day, they could be in for a chilling cold spell.
This future wintery supercontinent wouldn't be the first time Earth's continents have fused as a single landmass. About 300 million years ago, the supercontinent Pangea formed around where Africa is today. It slowly began to split apart during the age of dinosaurs until the continents eventually drifted into their current positions. Before Pangea formed, scientists predict there were at least two other times when the continents merged: the supercontinent Rodinia about 1 billion years before Pangea, and the supercontinent Nuna about 700 million years before Rodinia.
Geologists have taken to calling the next supercontinent "Amasia," because it will become conjoined when North America and Asia collide.
Predicting the positions of the continents isn't an exact science since it is impossible to know exactly what future geological forces will be at play, but the Yale researchers have noticed a pattern. The team found that each time a supercontinent has formed in the past, it has formed a quarter of the way around the globe from where the previous supercontinent had been located. From this, they were able to place the position of the next supercontinent over the Arctic Ocean.
The data was made possible thanks to new advancements in the recording of magnetic traces that are found in ancient rock samples. Because rocks carry a magnetic signature, scientists can tell where on the planet they formed. Previously, this method was hampered because it could not effectively determine longitude, because Earth’s magnetic field varies little with longitude. But Yale researcher Ross Mitchell got around this problem by adjusting his measurements against the polar wander — the gradual change in the position of the poles depending on shifts in the Earth's internal mass.
Although these geological changes occur slowly over millions of years, the findings have some relevance to our understanding of the planet today. For instance, paleontologists are already using the data to better understand the dispersal of plants and animals across the globe. Oil companies also hope to glean important clues about where to find oil, since it tends to pool up where continents drift apart.