Why does the Earth have continents?

For those who had been to reach in our photo voltaic system with out having seen it earlier than, you’d be in awe of the variability. Fuel big planets with rings, moons starting from tiny to very large, icy comets that rush from the perimeters, rocky planets all with various quantities of atmospheres. It nearly looks as if there aren’t two planets/moons equally educated, however one actually stands out as an oddball.

It’s the Earth. Our planet has liquid water (bizarre!) It has life (even stranger!) It has effervescent plate tectonics (weirdness continues!) It even has gigantic plenty of rock that appear like nothing The opposite within the photo voltaic system (completely bizarre!) These plenty are the continents, fabricated from rocks like granite, sandstone, gneiss, slate, andesite, rhyolite and extra.

The opposite planets are nearly completely fabricated from basalt or one thing near it, however Earth. No, the earth hides most of its basalt floor beneath deep oceans, as an alternative letting its weird flag fly with continental rocks displaying off to all passers-by.

All these distinctive traits are linked. Tectonic plates can exist on Earth as a result of we’ve liquid water on the floor. Life might be the product of considerable water and volcanism. The composition of Earth’s continents stands out as the product of life’s interactions with rock. It’s the complete evolution over time of minerals, rocks and organisms that makes the Earth what it’s.

What are the continents anyway?

A view of a part of the Canadian Defend, a part of the oldest continental crust on Earth, close to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Credit score: awmcphee/Wikimedia Commons.

There are nonetheless many unknowns in regards to the formation of our continents. We’re fairly certain that no different planet has the silica-rich landmasses that Earth has. Mars might need a few of what geologists name “advanced” rocks (in different phrases, extra silica than basalt). Venus might need some too. The moon has anorthosite highlands that are sort of like continents besides they shaped from lighter minerals floating in an ocean of primordial magma…that and people highlands are principally the identical factor.

No planet has the complicated combination of volcanic rocks, sediments, metamorphic rocks and cooled magma which can be Earth’s continents. The present idea, based mostly on the ages of tiny zircon crystals present in Australia, is that our continents might have begun to kind greater than 4 billion years in the past. Nevertheless, whether or not all of them shaped rapidly near their present dimension or have slowly elevated over time is an open query.

What makes continents so particular?

Properly, they’re much less dense and far thicker than the opposite taste of plate on Earth, the oceanic plates. Our ocean basins exist primarily as a result of the underlying crust is made up of denser, thinner basalt plates, which suggests they sit decrease on the Earth’s ductile mantle (word: the Earth’s mantle shouldn’t be fabricated from molten magma). Continents, then again, sit excessive because of their decrease density and thicker profile, very similar to a volleyball sits larger in a swimming pool than a tennis ball (an idea we let’s name isostasis).

This distinction does extra than simply create the completely different shapes of the Earth’s floor. The continents are so buoyant that they can’t be pushed again into the Earth’s mantle just like the denser continental crust. Thus are born components equivalent to mountain belts shaped by continental collision and subduction zones (and their volcanoes) the place oceanic crust dips beneath continental crust.

The continents additionally change. With plate tectonics comes the “Supercontinent Cycle” (also referred to as the Wilson bike) the place continents collide to kind huge supercontinents like Pangea, then pull aside over a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands of years. At present, the one factor we’ve close to a supercontinent is the amalgamation of Europe, Asia and India.

The core of the continents

The oldest components of our continents are referred to as cratons (And if these rocks are uncovered on the floor, they’re referred to as shields.) They symbolize the core of every main continent, normally a lot smaller than the continent as an entire. These areas haven’t seen many lively tectonic processes equivalent to collisions or fissures for a whole bunch of hundreds of thousands to billions of years.

In North America, the the craton expands from northern Canada and Greenland (the place the oldest rocks date again 3-4 billion years) south to Texas, however solely components are uncovered on the floor. Most continents are extra than simply cratons, so we all know that not all continents shaped without delay in Earth’s early historical past. You may try a world craton map beneath to get an thought of ​​the traditional cores of the continents.

Map of the geological provinces of the world. The areas in orange are the oldest cratons/shields. Credit score: USGS.

One of many greatest questions is perhaps What made the entire continent start …and what retains it going. This did not appear to occur on the opposite rocky planets in our photo voltaic system. Which means there are particular elements that are most likely intrinsic to the Earth – our liquid water and our molten/strong core – which helped the continents to develop as totally as they did. Nevertheless, as they are saying, that is not all.

Subsequent week, I will speak about new analysis that implies the preliminary occasions that precipitated continents to kind might have originated far out in house. On the similar time, the processes that proceed to make our continents such compositional oddballs within the photo voltaic system might be linked to life itself. Issues get even weirder in the case of Earth’s continents.