Earth Like You Never Knew It Before
Country and political borders change all the time, but the actual physical layout of the planet is presumed to be constant, right? Well, the truth is a bit more complicated.
The surface of the Earth that we live and walk on — that green and brown stuff we see breaking up the vast blue patches in pictures of our globe taken from space — is in regular motion… it just moves so slowly that it rarely impacts anyone other than the scientists who study it.
The Ground Beneath Your Feet Is Always In Motion
The hard stuff up on the surface of the planet (the upper mantle and crust) is comprised of a relatively thin layer of moving parts called the lithosphere. Since the lithosphere isn’t a solid shell, its plates can shift around based on what happens around them.
For example, adjacent plates can slide alongside each other, causing earthquakes. Or volcanic eruptions along between tectonic plates can spew out magma, forcing them apart. This typically happens at the bottom of the ocean where the action isn’t particularly visible.
A Little Goes a Very Long Way Over Millions of Years
Basically, we’re on continental-sized boats, floating on an ocean of lava. While the exact speed at which the Earth’s plates move varies depending on the source, it’s usually only a handful of centimeters (or a couple of inches) each year.
When you multiply that by a few million years, however, the appearance of the planet can change substantially. So, what about this new ocean?
The Mother of All Continents
Ocean formation isn’t anything new, but to tell this story properly, we should look back to the beginning of things—enter the supercontinent of Pangea.
Basically, you wouldn’t recognize the Earth 300 million years ago. Back then, there weren’t the continents or oceans we all know today, but one colossal land mass called Pangea, partnered with an immense solitary ocean known as Panthalassa.
Around 200 million years ago, Pangea started to split up, and since the continents’ locations help define the oceans, new oceans were created.
You Couldn’t Pick Earth out of a Lineup Billions of Years Ago
This wasn’t even the first time this continental dance party has occurred. Over the approximately 3.5 billion years of the Earth’s existence, there have been a number of supercontinents that have formed and split apart as plates of the lithosphere shifted around.
Because you don’t have 3.5 billion years to read this article, we’ll start with Pangea, since it was the most recent supercontinent, and the formation that preceded the continents as we know them in their current state.
The Tectonic Plate Tug of War
The Earth’s current continents aren’t all on individual tectonic plates. They are simply the arrangement of tectonic plates at this time. If plates are convergent, they are rubbing against each other, or colliding with each other. Divergent plates pull away from each other.
In the case of our newly forming ocean, the plates are divergent — but this particular location is far from the only place in the world where the separation of plates is happening. It is however currently the only place that an ocean could be forming.
What Does Russia Have to Do With This?
The same process of land splitting is also happening in Russia. The division of Lake Baikal acts like a 25-million-year-old history book; a watery time capsule of sorts.
Located in southern Siberia between Irkutsk Oblast and the Buryat Republic, Lake Baikal offers incredible insights about the tectonic activities that have occurred in the past between the Eurasian and Amur plates.
There are several factors as to why this lake is so valuable to the scientific community.