Mapping the Earth from the surface to the core

Steve LeVine writes: This was the defining tension underlying the half-century-long study of the supercontinents: That, unlike in other fields that deal in the very old, the scientists had no time machine. Astronomers, by looking through telescopes at galaxies billions of light years away, are transported back to the early universe. Paleontologists, by stumbling on ancient fossils, can look directly at remnants of prehistoric life. But no instrument or evidence had ever similarly teleported their paleogeologist comrades back to the age of supercontinents.

Instead, paleogeologists painstakingly pieced together their theories using disparate fragments of clues, mainly from the magnetic signatures in old rocks. At first, to give their field a face, they translated these clues into cut-out shapes on paper or in Adobe Illustrator, and strung them together into mosaic-like animations still found today on Google.

But while pretty good as far as they went, most such depictions were faulty in important ways. Among the unavoidable imperfections was their typical reliance on a “flat Earth,” two-dimensional illustrations that distorted the appearance and movement of the continents. In addition, they provided plate movements, but ignored the inextricable system that penetrates thousands of miles into the bowels of the Earth, linked all the way to the core. [Continue reading…]

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