The Evolution of Continents

Watch simulations of spectacular geologic collisions.

Mount Everest (center) and the Himalayas in 2013
Mount Everest (center) and the Himalayas in 2013

Photo by Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images

The Earth’s continents drift at a speed of a few centimeters per year. Things get complicated when two landmasses collide, causing the crust to roll up, stretch, bend, and tear. The collisions add new land to existing continents and, most dramatically, create mountain ranges.

A new Nature paper, by Louis Moresi, Peter Betts, Meghan Miller, and Ross Cayley, explains in depth the chain of events following impact between continental fragments at subduction zones. Their models plug in geological data from Eastern Australia to recreate the collisions and their aftermaths. The simulations show the collisions causing the subduction zones to “stutter and recover,” as continents pick up new fragments of crust and throw them into a huge arc thousands of kilometers from where they once were.

The simulations could have a number of practical applications, such as in the search for buried mineral systems.