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Chapter 5

Chapter 5

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26

FUNDAMENTALS OF PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY

CHAPTER

#

ORIGIN

OF

CONTINENTS

AND

OCEANS

A

lfred Wegener, in 1912, proposed that all land masses of the world had formed from one super–continent, called Pangaea (Fig. 5.1). The super -continent,

Pangaea had evolved some 280 million years ago, at the end of the Carboniferous Period and by mid-Jurassic, 150 million years ago, Pangaea had split into a northern continent called Laurasia, and a southern continent called Gondwanaland. About 65 million years ago, i.e. at the end of Cretaceous, Gondwanaland further broke up to give rise to several other continents such as South America, Africa, Australia, and Antarctica (Fig. 5.2). India broke apart and followed an independent route moving towards northeast. EVIDENCE OF MOVEMENT OF CONTINENTS There are evidences that suggest the existence of Pangaea. The ancient mountain belt, 470 to 350 million years old, were created by a continuous belt of geological activity. These mountains are now separated by the Atlantic Ocean. Some fossils also tell us that the continents were once joined. For example, fossils of the plant Glossopteris and the animals Mesosurus and Lystrosaurus have all been found on all continents of Gondwanaland that are now widely separated. Geological Matching Significant observation is the occurrence of gold deposits within river alluvium in the Ghana coast (Africa) and the absolute absence of source rocks in that region. However, across 5,000 km wide ocean, there are gold-bearing veins in Belen Sau in Brazil (South America) but no gold deposits within alluvium in the adjacent coastal belt. Placing Africa and South America together, the solution emerges with stunning effectiveness. The gold bearing sediments were transported down the slope in

Fig.5.1 : Wegener’s Map of Continental Drift — Fitting of the Continents Bordering the Atlantic Ocean

ORIGIN OF CONTINENTS AND OCEANS

27

60°N 30°N

0° 60°N 30°S 30°N
60° S

30°S

60°S

60°N

30°N

30°S

60°S

Fig.5.2 : Formation of Present Day Continents from Pangaea — Five Stages of the Break-Up Arrows indicate the direction of the movement of the lithospheric plates.

Brazil and deposited in the belt which is today the Ghana coast. Palaeoclimatic Unity Thick glacial deposits of Permo-Carboniferous age are exposed at Uruguay and Brazil in

South America, Africa, south India, south Australia and Tasmania. The uniformity in the nature of sediment indicates that these continents/countries were together in the geological past and experienced similar climatic conditions. Today, these countries are

28

FUNDAMENTALS OF PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY

situated in various types of climatic zones, from temperate to tropical and are widely separated from each other by large oceans. Similarly, corals thrive in warm waters between the latitudes 300N and 300S. However, remnants of some corals found on the continents away from the region strengthen the view that these continents were nearer to the equator in the geological past. The continents have moved northwards and are experiencing cold and frigid climatic conditions today. Polar Wandering One of the strongest line of evidence that the continents were formerly united in Pangaea came from palaeomagnetism. The magneti-cally susceptible minerals such as magnetite, haematite, ilmenite, pyrrhotite in lava/magma and unconsolidated sediments have the tendency to align themselves parallel to the magnetic field prevailing at that time. This property is retained in the rocks as permanent magnetism. There has been periodic change in the position of magnetic pole that is recorded in rocks by way of permanent magnetism. Unraveling the signatures of such changes in the geologically old rocks by scientific methods provides the changing position of poles in geological time scale. This is known as polar wandering. The polar wandering clearly demonstrates that the continents have frequently moved and changed directions of their motion from time to time. SEA FLOOR SPREADING The present distribution of the continents has taken place in the last 65 million years. The drift of continents still continues. The ridges down the middle of ocean floors have been emitting lava actively (Fig. 5.3). These midoceanic ridges, are cracks on the floor of ocean where molten rocks push up to form new crust. The crust spreads away from the ridge and the ocean basin widens. This phenomena is known as Sea Floor Spreading. The Atlantic Ocean is getting wider by several centimetres a year, the Pacific Ocean is getting smaller, and the Red Sea is part of a crack in the crust that

Fig.5.3 : Stages in Continental Rupture and the Opening-Up of a New Ocean Basin The vertical scale is exaggerated to emphasise surface features. A. The crust is uplifted and stretched apart causing it to break into blocks that become tilted on faults; B. A narrow ocean is formed between the faults; and C. The ocean basin widens.

will widen to produce a new ocean millions of years in future. The widening South Atlantic Ocean has separated Africa and South America. PLATE THEORY According to the global plate tectonic theory, the lithosphere is broken into a number of moderately rigid plates (Fig.5.4). The plates move continuously and have relative direction

ORIGIN OF CONTINENTS AND OCEANS

Fig.5.4 : The Mid-Oceanic Ridge System and Related Fracture Zones
29

30

FUNDAMENTALS OF PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY

of motion. Based on the relative motion of plates, three kinds of plate boundaries or marginal zones are recognised — (i) zones or margins of divergence or spreading; (ii) zones or margins of convergence; and (iii) fracture zones or transform faults. Zones of divergence are boundaries along which plates separate and in this process of separation molten material upwells. This is commonly observed along linear ocean ridges where new lithosphere is created in the form of new ocean floors. Active volcanism and shallow focus earthquakes mark such boundaries. Zones of convergence are boundaries along which the edge of one plate overrides the other. The overridden plate slips down into the mantle and is absorbed. This process is known as subduction. Besides volcanism and shallow to deep focus earthquakes, these boundaries also produce deep trenches/ basins and folded mountain chains. There is neither creation nor destruction along the transfor m fault (Fig. 5.5). The lithospheric plates slide past each other. Causes of Plate Movement Arthur Holmes, in 1928, proposed that subcrustal convection currents invoke the mechanism of thermal convection that acts as driving force for the movement of plates. Hot current rise, then cool as they reach the surface. At the same time, cooler currents sink down. This convectional movement moves the crustal plates. Owing to current movements, the rigid plates of the lithosphere, which ‘float’ on more mobile asthenopshere, are in constant motion. There are no direct evidences to prove the existence of such mechanism below the crust. However, small centres of past volcanic activity and often located far from any active plate boundary suggest the effect of convection currents on the lithosphere. These centres of volcanic activity are called the hot spot. W. Jason Morgan proposed the hypothesis of hot spot in 1971. According to him, the source of magma in the mantle remains fixed in position while the lithospheric plate above it moves steadily. In this way,

volcanoes are formed over a hot spot but then move away from the magma source and become extinct. These extinct volcanoes form a chain that is record of the plate motion. Plate Boundaries Plate boundaries are the most significant structural features of the earth. To understand plate tectonics, it is necessary to learn the geography of plate boundaries. Plate boundaries are not dif ficult to identify; they are marked by major topographic features. As given in Fig. 5.5 the outer rigid layer of the earth — the lithosphere — is divided into a mosaic of seven major plates and a number of smaller sub-plates. The major plates are outlined by young mountain systems, oceanic ridges and trenches. These include: • Pacific Plate; • Eurasian Plate; • Indo-Australian Plate; • African Plate; • North American Plate; • South American Plate; • Antarctic Plate. The largest among them is the Pacific Plate which is composed of oceanic crust almost entirely and covers about 20 per cent of the earth’s surface. The other plates have both continental and oceanic crust. No plate consists of only continental crust. Plates range in thickness from about 70 km beneath oceanic areas to 150 km beneath continents. Plates are not permanent features. They change in size and shape and the ones which do not contain continental crust can become victims of subduction. A plate can split or weld with another adjoining plate. Each tectonic plate is rigid and moves as a single unit. Nearly all major tectonic activity occurs along the plate boundaries and that is why geologists and geographers focus their attention on the plate boundaries. Indian Plate Indian Ocean floor presents striking topography, consisting of a number of elevated

ORIGIN OF CONTINENTS AND OCEANS

31

N North

IndoAustralian Plate

S

E

W

North

South American Plate

IndoAustralian Plate

E
Plate boundaries Transform fault Divergent boundary

W
Convergent boundary

Fig.5.5 : Lithospheric Plates of the World Note the movement of the Indian plate marked by arrows with respect to other plates.

32

FUNDAMENTALS OF PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY

ridges and plateaus. Two of the ocean ridges, namely the Ninety-east ridge and the Mascarene Plateau, Chagos-Maldweep-Lakshadweep island ridge are said to be volcanic tracts of two hot spots. The northward extension of Ninetyeast ridge ended in the trench which consumed the sea floor to the north of the Indian continental mass. The Chagos-Lakshadweep ridge linked the ancient Carlsberg ridge with southeast Indian ridge during Eocene period (50 million years ago). The mid Indian Ocean ridge has been spreading faster, estimated at a speed of about 14-20 cm/year. Consequent to the Carlsberg-southeast Indian Ocean Ridge, the collision between Indian Plate and Eurasia Plate took place north of the Indian Plate giving rise to the Himalaya. The suture between Indian and Eurasian Plates in the Himalaya region has

been along the Indus and Brahmaputra rivers.

Geological Facts • Australia has nearly turned completely round from its original position and is now moving northward. In 50 million years time it will be touching the landmass of Eurasia. About every 40,000-500,000 years, the earth’s magnetic poles reverse. It has taken about 200 million years to separate South America from Africa and create the Atlantic Ocean, and about 40 million years for Australia and the Antarctic to move apart to their present position.

• •

EXERCISES

Review Questions 1. Answer the following questions: (i) What is a Pangaea? (ii) Who first propounded the theory of continental drift? (iii) What is meant by sea floor spreading? (iv) How do lithospheric plates behave along the transform fault? (v) What acts as the driving force for the movement of plates? (vi) Name the major plates of the earth. (vii) Which plate is composed of mainly oceanic crust? (viii) How did the Himalaya rise? 2. Give one term for the following: (i) Name of the southern continent, which broke from Pangaea. (ii) Centres of volcanic activity. (iii) Periodical change in the position of magnetic pole. (iv) The process in which one plate overrides the other and the overriden plate slips down into the mantle and is absorbed. 3. Discuss the evidences that support the continental drift. 4. Explain the plate tectonic theory and its mechanism. 5. Describe the main features of the Indian plate. Finding Out Collect more information about the continental drift especially the movement of the Indian plate.

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