Supercontinent break-up: Causes and consequences

Wednesday, 17 December 2014
Zheng-xiang Li, Curtin University, ARC Centre of Excellence for Core to Crust Fluid Systems (CCFS) and The Institute for Geoscience Research (TIGeR), Department of Applied Geology, Perth, WA, Australia
Supercontinent break-up has most commonly been linked to plume or superplume events, and/or supercontinent thermal insulation, but precise mechanisms are yet to be worked out. Even less know is if and what roles other factors may play. Key factors likely include gravitational force due to the continental superswell driven by both the lower-mantle superplume and continental thermal insulation, mental convention driven by the superplume and individual plumes atop the superplume, assisted by thermal/magmatic weakening of the supercontinent interior (both plume heat and thermal insulation heat). In addition, circum-supercontinent slab downwelling may not only drive the formation of the antipodal superplumes (thus the break-up of the supercontinent), the likely roll-back of the subduction system would also create extension within the supercontinent, facilitating supercontinent break-up.

Consequences of supercontinent break-up include long-term sea-level rise, climatic changes due to changes in ocean circulation pattern and carbon cycle, and biodiversification. It has long been demonstrated that the existence of the supercontinent Pangea corresponds to a long-term sea-level drop, whereas the break-up of the supercontinent corresponds to a long-term sea-level rise (170 m higher than it is today). A recent analysis of Neoproterozoic sedimentary facies illustrates that the time of Neoproterozoic supercontinent Rodinia corresponds to a low in the percentage of deep marine facies occurrence, whereas the time of Rodinia break-up corresponds to a significantly higher percentage of deep marine facies occurrence. The long-tern sea-level drop during supercontinent times were likely caused by both plume/superplume dynamic topography and an older mean age of the oceanic crust, whereas long-tern sea-level rise during supercontinent break-up (720–580 Ma for Rodinia and Late Jurassic–Cretaceous for Pangea) likely corresponds to an younger mean age of the oceanic crust, massive plume-induced magmatism in the oceans, and perhaps the effect of continents drifting away from a weakening sub-supercontinent superplume.