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Paleogeographic & Plate Tectonics Reconstructions:

Critical Components linking the evolution of the solid, fluid and living Earths

Michael Gurnis , Shanan Peters and Matthew Huber

1. Caltech,; 2. Univ. of Wisconsin,; 3. Purdue Univ.,

October 17, 2011

I. Summary
Geography and geomorphology are not constant. Continents and oceans are continually
rearranging and evolving in response to plate motions and internal plate deformation, thereby
establishing dynamic boundary conditions that affect global ocean/atmosphere circulation, the
connectedness of biological communities, the spatial and temporal distribution of
biogeochemically important mass fluxes in and out of sedimentary reservoirs, and the
distribution of mass and heat in and out of the mantle. Thus, understanding the evolution of any
Earth system requires that the rearrangement of Earths surface be well studied and well
constrained. Any knowledge management system that aims to integrate geoscience data on a
large-scale must include paleogeography as a key component. Many of the grand challenge
problems involving the Earth system including paleoclimate change, biological responses to
environmental perturbations, the dynamics of plate tectonics and the deep interior, reversals of
the geomagnetic field, ocean chemistry and sea level change all rely on plate tectonic and/or
paleogeographic frameworks. Paleogeography is therefore an indispensable component of Earth
systems analysis. Here, we describe the critical science that is dependent on paleogeography, the
current state of cyberinfrastructure applied to the topic, and propose a path for the meaningful
integration of paleogeography into EarthCube.
II. Basic Principles
Plate tectonic reconstructions are a description of the continuous (or nearly continuous) evolution
of plate boundaries (subduction zones, mid-ocean ridges, transform faults) and plate interiors
covering the Earths surface as a function of time. Plate reconstructions developed for times
since the Late Mesozoic depend principally on the inversion of geophysical data (magnetic
lineations, fracture zone orientations, etc.) on the ocean floor. Such reconstructions can be
extended back in time, prior to the Mesozoic age of surviving sea floor magnetic lineations,
using paleomagnetically-derived apparent polar wander paths for continents. The end result of
plate reconstructions are sets of Euler poles for the absolute and relative motion of plates and
their margins, which are then used by software applications to rotate present-day coordinates into
their paleogeographic context and then visualize them in a reconstruction. Geological and
geophysical features and data may be embedded within the plates and rotated along with them,
enabling a researcher to trace the motions of geological and geophysical features through time. A
time-series of plate reconstructions can then be generated to animate the motions of plates,
producing kinematic and other time-derivative information and predictions.
Paleogeographic maps both rely on and inform plate tectonic reconstructions and generally
involve the interpretation of continental and submarine geomorphic surfaces. Such maps are
visualizations that represent paleoenvironment (such as marine or non-marine, shallow-water, deep
water, lucustrine, fluvial, ice-covered, arid, etc.) and elevation (near sea level, mountainous, etc). A
regional paleogeographic map can also be formulated entirely within the frame of reference of a
single continent or plate. When two plates are rotated back together, for example,

the available geological or paleontological data can then be used to either refute or refine the
paleogeographic reconstruction. As such, geological data of all types are ultimately of critical
importance to producing accurate and internally consistent paleogeographic reconstructions.

Fossil & Rock Record


Solid Earth Dynamic

Long-term Climate Change

Figure 1. Schematic showing how a paleo-reconstruction service is required in the analysis for all major
components of the Earth system operating on long-time scales. On top is an example of using the GPlates standalone application to fetch paleo-biology and rock-type data from the PaleoBiology and Macrostrat databases
respectively using web services. The data are parsed to tectonic plates and reconstructed to 77 Ma. Size of red
crosses is proportional to collection diversity. In the lower left is shown how the underlying plate tectonic
reconstruction can be assimilated into a 4-D dynamic earth model with a super plume in the deep mantle at 77
Ma. In the lower right, the annual surface temperature is shown for a General Circulation Model using nearly the
same reconstruction as a boundary condition in the Eocene1.

Not all plate motions are described by rigid plate tectonics. Such non-rigidity can be obvious, such
as the large expanses of lithosphere between Indian and Asia that is currently experiencing
deformation in response to continent-continent collision, or more subtle, such as the broadly

distributed deformation that is occurring within the Indian plate itself. Estimates for non-rigid
behaviour can amount to as much as 15% of the present surface area of the Earth. Incorporating
non-rigid plate deformation models into plate reconstructions is becoming increasing important
for topics in such varied subjects as: tectonic process interpretations, oceanic gateways and their
influence on ocean circulation, and direct and indirect effects on biological diversification.
Like most data that derive from historical records of change, plate tectonic reconstructions and
paleogeographic maps can be uncertain, with those uncertainties generally increasing in
magnitude the further one goes back in time. Especially problematic are the underlying frames of
reference (especially for paleolongitude) upon which relative plate motions are tied. It is
essential that a general consumer of a paleogeographic reconstruction, such as a geologist, a
paleobiologist, or a geodynamic or a paleoclimate modeller, have the ability to easily access and
evaluate alternative paleogeographic reconstructions and all associated estimates of uncertainty.
III. Science Enabled by Paleogeography and Plate Tectonics
Paleogeography establishes one of the most fundamental boundary conditions within which all
Earth systems must operate. There are, therefore, many specific science questions that depend upon
a rigorous paleogeographic context, ranging from the deformation of plate margins and plate
interiors, to global climate modelling and the opening and closure of ocean circulation pathways, to
the formation and destruction of sedimentary basins and continental denudation, to the determinants
of biological diversification and extinction. In short, virtually all historically-oriented science
questions in the Earth sciences depend upon a robust paleogeographic reconstruction. Some science
questions and needs are further detailed in the Appendix.
In addition to the paleogeographic position of the plates, sea level change is another very important
aspect of paleogeography that both integrates and influences many parts of the Earth system.
Something as simple as an online Sea Level Tool, which could provide quantitative estimates of
continental area flooded by shallow seas at any given point in geologic time, would accelerate
scientific progress in disciplines ranging from long-term climate change, ocean chemistry,
paleobiology, and geophysics. Such an online tool would also provide considerable value to public
and private mineral and energy resource exploration. An open source sea level framework that
could be simultaneously used by different disciplines would very likely lead to unexpected
discoveries and could form an essential component of EarthCube.

IV. Current State of Cyberinfrastructure in Paleogeography

Purpose-built interactive visualisation software for plate-tectonic reconstructions has existed
since the 1980s. The functionality of such software has generally included a number of key
features: the ability to display a reconstruction for a user-specified geological time; the ability to
calculate new reconstructions interactively, by dragging reconstructed plates to new locations
using the mouse; the ability to control the visual presentation of the reconstructed data (generally
a choice of colour scheme and map projection, as well as fine-grained control over the visibility
of different types of data); and the ability to interact with the data, to query or edit attributes, by
clicking the visible data with the mouse. These are stand-alone applications that run on an

investigators desktop, with the Plates software at the University of Texas being an example.
Until recently, most such software was proprietary and only available at cost.
Paleogeographic reconstructions have generally been formulated as detailed geological
interpretations drawn on the surface of oceans and continents at discrete times. The underlying
reconstructions themselves have been generated from the plate tectonic reconstructions.
Examples include the PaleoMap and maps by Ron Blakey . Because paleogeographic maps are
used for the assessment of hydrocarbon potential of sedimentary basins, most refined maps are
produced commercially for industry. Many maps are not open source and not widely available to
the scientific communities that are addressing fundamental questions in climate change, solid
earth dynamics and paleobiology. From a cyber perspective, perhaps one of the greatest
limitations is that the maps obtained from these sources are static, exist for an interval of time,
and cannot be quickly remade if the underlying plate tectonic reconstruction changes. This will
be unacceptable for EarthCube as the underlying reconstructions are uncertain and investigators
need to understand the sensitivity of their results to reconstruction uncertainty. Moreover,
EarthCube itself may well enable a level of data integration that will facilitate the generation and
testing of paleogeographic hypotheses, making the entire process of paleogeographic
reconstruction more community data-driven.
In an attempt to overcome many of the current limitations in plate tectonic software and the
resulting reconstructions (in regards to functionality, licensing and distribution), the international
open-source GPlates ( project was founded several years ago. GPlates, a
platform- independent desktop application, provides the capability to view and reconstruct a
variety of geodata in a plate tectonic framework, making use of a temporally-aware information
model, combined with flexible data importing, processing, visualisation and interaction. GPlates
organizes the deforming Earth into a hierarchical topological system with continuously evolving
plate polygons, fully deforming regions, and small rigid blocks. Because the plate tectonic
description of large rigid plates often fails, as in many oceanic gateways, this comprehensive
description is essential to accurately and realistically reconstruct data into the geological past.
Recently, we have demonstrated how GPlates can retrieve paleoenvironmental indicators from
the Macrostrat database using web services and make real time animated paleogeographic
reconstructions (see Fig. 1, top). Developed by an international collaborative research
partnership, GPlates has a significant international impact (>15,000 downloads), attracting users
from academia, government and industry.
Other database initiatives have incorporated paleogeographic functionality directly into their
infrastructure. For example, the Paleobiology Database ( uses stored
paleogeographic plate rotation procedures to provide paleogeographic context to fossil collection
data when their age and modern-day latitude/longitude coordinates are entered. However, these
paleogeographic rotations, which derive principally from PaleoMap, are essentially static and
are not well documented. Developing an infrastructure that can make use of the most current
information from the active paleogeographic community, possibly using a web service-based

architecture (Fig. 1), would provide a significant service to the paleobiological community, as
well as many others who require up-to-date and well documented paleogeographic context for
their data and model results/calibrations.
V. Palegeographic Features for EarthCube
Based on our joint consideration of user requirements to address the science themes (see
Appendix) as well as what paleogeographic and plate tectonic reconstructions can deliver in
principle, the following user requirements for an EarthCube-enabled paleogeographic
component have been identified:
The reconstruction engine must be accessible through the web as a web service
The web service must be able to access complete plate tectonic reconstructions
and/or paleogeographic maps
Alternative reconstructions must be accessible, interchangeable, and documented
The system must be democratic in that users who make their own alternatives can expose
them to the rest of the world.
Seamless integration of a complete set of geological, geochemical and geophysical
data from databases that are assembled by participating EarthCube communities
Paleogeographic maps must be free from any restrictions on their use
A full hierarchy of plates (rigid, micro, deforming) must be available for use in parsing
and manipulating associated data
Paleogeographic reconstructions must be exportable as fully reconstructed geometries
that can be used in other tools (such as sea level, geodynamic, and GCM models).
Paleogeographic maps need to be automatically generated on the fly based on data that
are exposed in relevant geological databases
The software to provide these capabilities will use either pre-computed basemaps or
computed paleogeographic and plate tectonic reconstructions. We envision a paleographic
workflow with four main steps: 1. Data Query: users submit spatially and temporally bounded
queries to databases using web services (WS); 2. Assignment to Tectonic Plates: returned data is
spatially partitioned and assigned to plates or deforming region; 3. Reconstruction: the entire
system of plates and features are reconstructed according to a self-consistent global rotation
model; 4. Map Making: the collection of rotated data can then be displayed on screen, or
exported, to create paleogeographic maps. The connections between these stages of the
framework need to be based on community standard formats.
EarthCube can accelerate progress by providing an online system of computing and
distributing a new generation of sea level maps for research in a variety of fields. Specifically,
regional and global sea level changes could be determined over long-geological times directly
from the space-time distribution of sediments in their plate-tectonic-reconstructed paleopositions.
By mining stratigraphic databases, merging such data with paleogeographic reconstructions and
using 4-D dynamic Earth models, an online system could return maps of sea level surfaces that
best fit the global distribution of sediments. The tool will return estimates of uncertainty in the
position of inferred shorelines, regional sea level (vertical motions), eustatic sea level, and
changes in the volume of the ocean basins. The resulting maps of sea level change will be far
more useful than standard sea level curves for the current generation of research. For example,

estimates of regional bedrock and sediment exposure over the globe will allow for more realistic
geochemical fluxes between continents and oceans to be constructed. By linking stratigraphic
observations to 4-D dynamic Earth models, the relative contributions of ocean basin volume,
ocean volume, and regional vertical crustal motions can all be estimated. The tool will allow
researchers and students in a variety of disciplines to better understand sea level change and link
sea level to other data sets and models/synthesis of sediment transport, long-term climate change,
ocean circulation and the dynamics of the crust, lithosphere and mantle.
Appendix. Details on Science Questions
Solid earth dynamics. Both plate tectonic reconstructions and paleogeographic maps are used as
fundamental constraints and as a tool for questions associated with the dynamics of plate
motions, mantle convection and reversals of the geomagnetic field. As geophysical observations
of the present-day earth (especially mantle seismic structure) have been refined and as
computational models of geodynamics processes become more realistic, the need for paleoreconstructions has accelerated. For example, why plate motions rapidly changed at ~50 Ma
requires refined reconstructions of most plate margins and their interiors. Deeper in the earth,
the large-scale structure of the mantle has been governed by the history of subduction over
several hundred million years and so 4-D models of the whole solid earth are dependent on plate
tectonic reconstructions. Finally, 4-D models of the mantle and lithosphere yield predictions for
surface vertical motions, such that models now make explicit predictions of relative sea level in
time and space. Regional interpretations of plate structure and kinematics, for example as
revealed by EarthScope for the United States, use global plate motions as far-field constraints
and regional reconstructions of deforming of plate margins and interiors must be embedded into
global reconstructions.
Climate change. On time scales longer than a million years alterations in paleotopography,
paleobathymetry, and continental configuration exert a control on climate from regional to
global scales primarily by impacting ocean currents, affecting planetary wave activity, and
organizing precipitation patterns. These processes are explored within general circulation model
simulations and accurate boundary conditions are necessary to firmly establishing physical
insights. Despite their importance no single reference frame, no single plate tectonic
reconstruction framework, no single set of topographic and bathymetric boundary condition
data sets are widely used in the community. Instead, a patchwork of these boundary condition
data sets have been cobbled together by modelling groups around the world, mostly based on
scholarship from the 1980s, and without any serious effort to compare or evaluate the relative
merits of these data sets. This precludes serious model-model intercomparisons and provides a
weak foundation to any model-data comparison. Here we are proposing a seamless and
transparent infrastructure for allowing the creation and manipulation of these important
boundary conditions within coherent framework.
Paleobiology. Paleobiology has entered a new era of quantitative analysis that is uniquely
enabled by the spatially explicit paleontological, geologic, and geochronologic data that are
stored and managed by the Paleobiology Database ( Many paleobiological
hypotheses critically depend on a robust paleogeographic context for fossil data, including, but
not limited to, determining the causes and consequences of mass extinctions, testing the
biological impacts of climate change, and measuring the quantitative impact of geographicallymediated biogeographic interchanges on ecology and evolution. For example, measuring
geographic range shifts in fossil taxa over time provides important insight into how the

biosphere responds to a wide range of environmental perturbations. Quantitative estimates of

extinction selectivity, linked explicitly to biogeographic parameters, such as latitudinal
distribution and geographic range size, also inform models of biological evolution.