Courtesy Mark RyanIt's Earth Science Week and this year's celebration centers around maps and mapping and their importance in geology and other earth sciences. Then on Saturday, October 19th from 1-4pm, the Science Museum of Minnesota is celebrating National Fossil Day with some special fossil-related exhibits throughout the museum. This year's theme is Paleozoic life, which is exactly the types of fossils commonly found in the southern half of Minnesota. Unfortunately, the official National Fossil Day website is closed due to the US government shutdown that continues, but that shouldn't stop anyone from celebrating fossils. Join us Saturday for some fossil fun.
Courtesy Navicore via Wikipedia Creative CommonsRecently, geologist Vicki Hansen, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, proposed a hypothesis that plate tectonics were triggered by ancient bolides crashing into Earth.
Plate tectonics arose from Alfred Wegener’s observations that some continents appear to fit together like puzzle pieces and at one time probably made up a single land-mass he named Pangaea that broke up and drifted apart. It was a theory dismissed by most geologists at the time, and Wegener himself was unsure how the process took place (he proposed magnetism or centrifugal force). It wasn’t until the 1960s, more than 30 years after Wegener’s death, that the theory gained wide acceptance. Today, scientists point to convective heat in the Earth’s mantle as the driving force that causes continental drift and sea-floor spreading. As new material is being added along mid-oceanic ridges, older crust is being pushed into other plates in a process called subduction, where one crust sinks beneath another and is remelted back into the mantle. It’s along these boundary zones where the plates collide that most of the world’s earthquakes and volcanoes occur, and where mountain ranges rise up. But what started the process? Why would Pangaea suddenly break up into pieces and begin drifting apart?
Hansen theorized that early in Earth’s history - perhaps as much as 2.5 billion years ago - impacts from large extra-terrestrial objects could have been the catalyst for two prime elements of plate tectonics: the spreading out of new crust, and particularly subduction. Since numerous impact craters can be found on Mars and on the Moon, it’s a good bet that Earth suffered a similar steady barrage of meteor impacts in its formative years. According to Hansen, the Earth’s crust at the time was more uniform in thickness, except in certain zones where mantle heat rising up from below would have caused it to thin.
A meteor or asteroid (one large enough to create a 600 mile-in-diameter crater) slamming into one of those weakened zones could have caused magma to erupt to the surface as flood basalts that would spread out and eventually push against the sides of the crater where they would begin subducting back down into the mantle. Such impacts could have happened several times around the world, enough to put the process of plate tectonics into motion.
Professor Hansen’s theory was first published in Geology magazine, but the study has reached the popular press. I came across it in the most recent issue of Science Illustrated, an interesting and jammed-packed-with-science publication new to me that I found at Barnes & Noble.