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May 23 / Dave Schumaker

Why do continents split up?

A new paper in the latest issue of Geology answers the question of why continents split where they do and perhaps why ocean basins form where they do. The papers shows that continents sometimes break along a preexisting line of weakness that is usually formed during prior collisions between continents.

These collisions sometimes leave pieces of land behind, attached to the other continent. It is between this “new” land and the old continent that ocean basins begin to form from.

The scientists used geochemical “fingerprinting” to show that the small pieces of land, which today are found in the Appalachians, were originally created in an ocean. The radioactive element Samarium, which breaks down into various types of the element Neodymium, was used to determine the age of the rock (about one billion years). The amount of each element was typical of rock created in the ocean, away from larger continental masses.

This paper might also have some interesting implications on the study of a growing rift in the Afar Desert of Africa’s rift valley.

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