Magazine article Science News

Plate Tectonics Could Grind to a Halt: Shifting Crust Just 1 Stage in Earth's Life Cycle, Study Suggests

Magazine article Science News

Plate Tectonics Could Grind to a Halt: Shifting Crust Just 1 Stage in Earth's Life Cycle, Study Suggests

Article excerpt

Earth's plate tectonics could be a passing phase. After simulating rock and heat flow throughout a planet's lifetime, scientists 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 giant chunks of crust, researchers report in the June Physics of the Earth and Planetary Interiors. After the interior cooled for about 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 is nearly halfway through its tectonic life cycle, says study coauthor Craig O'Neill, a planetary scientist at Macquarie University in Sydney. In about 5 billion years, plate tectonics will grind to a halt as the planet's interior chills.

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

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, simplified simulations typically considered only snapshots of Earth's history. …

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