Science 3 min read

Plate Tectonics Started 3.3 Billion Years Ago

Thanks to the leftovers of an ancient seawater drop, scientists discovered that the process of plate tectonics started some 3.3 billion years ago.

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Image courtesy of Shutterstuck

Earth’s outer shell isn’t a single block.

The crust is made of several massive plates that keep bumping into each other until they slip. This process plays a significant role in earthquakes, volcanoes, ocean maintenance, and it also affects the atmosphere.

To date, there are six major continental plates named after the continents they carry. Aside from that, there are also dozens of other smaller plates gliding all over Earth’s mantle, regularly meeting.

It’s a known fact that plate tectonics have been reshaping the face of our planet for billions of years.

But, for how long exactly? When did this process start?

Now, a new study had shed some light about when the tectonic plates started jostling around.

Earth Developed Plate Tectonics far Earlier Than we Thought

Earth is the only planet in the solar system to have plate tectonics, which tells a lot about the critical importance of this process for life.

But our home planet wasn’t born this way. It was once a ball of molten rock and its outer layer took a very long time to cool, allowing the crust to solidify.

Recent evidence collected from magma rocks called komatiites suggests that Earth’s unique system of cycling matter have begun during the planet’s first billion years of existence.

That’s about 3.3 billion years ago.

Now, researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand, who took part in the said study, confirmed the finding made possible by the evidence hidden in a drop of ancient water.

Previously, it was thought that plate tectonics started about 2.7 billion years ago. But geoscientists, led by the South African researchers, showed it actually started 600 million years earlier.

The team came to their conclusion using the microscopic remains of a drop of seawater that traveled to Earth’s deep mantle through plate tectonics.

“Plate tectonics constantly recycles the planet’s matter, and without it, the planet would look like Mars,” says Professor Allan Wilson from the Wits School of Geosciences.

“Our research shows that plate tectonics started 3.3 billion years ago now coincides with the period that life started on Earth. It tells us where the planet came from and how it evolved.”

Without plate tectonics or the process that’s constantly recycling matter, Earth would look like Mars — barren and lifeless.

These new findings suggesting plate tectonics began 3.3 billion years ago coincides with the earliest evidence about when life started on Earth and how the latter evolved to be the planet we know.

Read More: What “Komatiites” Tell us About Earth’s History

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Zayan Guedim

Trilingual poet, investigative journalist, and novelist. Zed loves tackling the big existential questions and all-things quantum.

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