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Know It All: When Did Pangaea Break Apart?

You probably know that the whole world used to be one continent and now it’s in seven pieces. But do you know anything else about the monstrous island we now refer to as ‘Pangaea’?

 

Everybody has that moment when they realize they don’t know about something that they should probably know about. Whether it’s history, language, science, or cultural phenomena, you’ve felt the stinging personal embarrassment of a moment wherein you realize there’s some common knowledge that isn’t so common. Don’t feel bad; nobody knows everything. Nobody, that is, except me and my sidekick, The Internet!

Somewhere in the world, a confused soul begs the question…

When Did Pangaea Break Apart?

In 4th grade or so, everyone learned that once upon a time, all the continents of Earth were part of a supercontinent called Pangaea (we can neither confirm nor deny whether Pangaea wore a cape).

But the details of this geological relic from an ancient past were never stressed in elementary school quite as much as our older, inquiring adult minds probably deserved – whenever the subject comes up now, we all wonder things like “Were there supercontinents before Pangaea? When did it form? When did it break apart? Did dinosaurs live on Pangaea? Did humans? What was that supersized ocean that surrounded Pangaea called?Let’s go to work.

There appears to have been several supercontinents before Pangaea – Rodinia existed over a billion years ago, broke up, and then Pannotia formed about 400 million years later. As Pannotia drifted apart, it formed slightly smaller supercontinents (Laurentia, Baltica, and Gondwana) that eventually slammed together to form Pangaea about 200 million years ago.

The most famous supercontinent had a good run, though — Pangaea didn’t really start to break up until the Early-Middle Jurassic Period (175 million years ago). The scraps of the once proud island of prehistoric civilization eventually settled into the seven continents we know today around 140 million years after that. Many of the tectonic plates are still technically moving (India and Australia are each sliding northeast at a rate of about 3 inches per year) but because humans only live about 80 years, the changes are rather imperceptible/irrelevant to everyone who isn’t a geologist, studying these sorts of things for a living.

Dinosaurs absolutely lived on Pangaea; in fact, scientists were able to confirm the existence of supercontinents in part because paleontologists found dinosaur fossils of similar/identical species of dinosaurs in locations that are now separated by oceans. For example: remains of the Lystrosaurus have been found in South Africa, India, and Australia (and as you may have deduced by now, dinosaurs were not jetsetting around the globe on yachts). The continents did actually start to break apart before dinosaurs went extinct but were still rather close together, which would explain why the extinction was so definitively widespread.

Sadly, humans never experienced an Earth wherein all the landmasses existed as one giant island (the first form of homo sapiens appeared to have evolved around 7 million years ago, eons after the continents settled into their current positions). It would’ve been cool, though; imagine how diverse we would be – it would be like the whole world was as close-knit as Europe; you could fly from Australia to New York City in like six hours and never worry about having a Cast Away sort of event.

Oh, and the superocean that surrounded Pangaea was called Panthalassa. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it?

Now you know.

About

Justin Brown is a writer and artist living in Virginia. He channels most of his mind's molten river of creativity into his blog Esteban Was Eaten!. For even more information about him, check out his website.

 
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  • Jerry Lyons

    Well Mr. Knowitall, now lets shake things up a bit. Continents drifting apart is a bit hard to imagine, due to the laws of attraction. Imagine the eaths crust as a scum line. Just as anything floating on a miniscus they will naturally attract and collide as they did to create the central island. Braking apart is a whole different ball of wax, or in this case, Earth. As a young man, I had theorized that maybe the earth had somehow expanded but no, Something HAD TO TEAR THE PANGEA APART! Now let’s take another look at the events that happened around that time. The Jurrasic era ended because the ice age began.What caused the ice age? We’ll get to that. If the scientists carefully compare the dinosaures from each continent, a close famlily tie amongst certain species will exhibit itself. In addtiton, when the continents broke up, the lowermost portions were pulled further East than the northern ones. Why?
    So what really happened?
    In all probability, during the Jurrasic era, Earth was assinated. An incredibly dense object struck Earth with enough velocity and at just the right spot, passing through the atmosphere, the earth’s crust, hundreds of miles of magma, and out the other side. A huge plume of magma, water, and crust followed, some of which began to orbit earth, the rest choking the atmosphere enough to cause the ice age. Being partially relieved of Earth’s gravity, the magma formed huge balls as it cooled. Eventually, those balls collided. Meanwhile the plumes of water and land caught up, the water filling the gaps between the balls and the dust settling everywhere. Oddly enough, that also explains why evidence of currents are seen on a dry moon. When a celestial body orbits close enough, it can actually draw some of the water to the surface. And the moon shrinking?

    Probably just settling.
    Jerry

  • rob

    Ahem… Jerry, Drifting continents are hard to imagine you say, yet a large object striking the Earth going straight through to desintigrate in outer orbit or keep on going on its merry way is easier you suggest?? I am sorry but that is beyond any probability within civilised thought. Ever seen an entry and exit hole of a bullet Jerry? Thought about what would happen to the magna inside the Earths core if there was two massive holes at either end? Stopped for a moment to consider the rammifications to the magnetic poles and how they relate to the iron core of our planet and in turn what that magnetic field does for evry living thing on the planet Jerry? I guess not. Fantastical creative mind though, Ill give you that.

  • earl

    laws of motion, gravity, and friction show that there is no concievable way an object can make penitration with enough force to fully pass through the earth. The object would have to be perfectly shaped like a bullet to even make a core penitration and still would have to fight gravity to come out the other side. to every action there is a equal and oppisite reaction, the object hit made deep penitration the impact force caused the earths crust to displace in the opposite direction which blocked the sun from giving the earth its warmth, light, and uv’s. hench the ice age with the idea that the pangean continent was still in the process of breaking up, gives the answer to the mass extintion. As for currents on the moon and the idea that its shrinking think of the moon as a sponge the earth emits water vapors like a sponge the moon catches these vapor absorbes them (bigger moon) then solar winds rays from the sun and the gravitational pull of the earth the water is emited back to the earth (moon shrinking). it happens on your kitchen sink its the same aspect the rules are no different just greater and contiuously happening. i cant guarintee it cause im not a scientist but it seems the moon has a great effect on the earth having water, without that sponge the water vapors would continue deep into space how would it come back. Back to the topic of pangea and the mass extiction that happened it seems with the earth in its violent continental divide combined with a collision of an astroid plant life would die first then the being who thrived from it,so on and forth

  • Raycheled

    Hmmm ,

  • Ultmitdisc

    Wait a moment, doesn’t everybody know the Earth is only 6000 years old???

    • You’re a stupid person.

       You must be stupid.

    • You’re a stupid person.

       go back to school stupid

  • Ella Selman

    umm, a human can live up to 120 years actually, we just can’t fit all the stuff we need to be that healthy. the world’s oldest man live to be almost 97 years old… and my grandmother is 83 thank you very much… who’s the know it all now?

  • Ella Selman

    wait no sorry, 116!!!

  • True story.

     It all depends if you got one to show or none to blow.

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