Throughout geologic history, Earth's continents have broken apart and come together to form supercontinents multiple times, in a somewhat regular period, known as the supercontinent cycle. The length of a cycle is estimated to be 450 million years, with the most recent supercontinent Pangaea forming about 300 mya.

What processes cause this cycle and length? That is, why hasn't continental drift stabilized to some equilibrium (one supercontinent, or separate continents), or why can we observe regular periods? Is the cycle due to change in the future, and why?


1 Answer 1


Please take into consideration that I am not a specialist of plate tectonics, just a paleontologist.

Although this cycle is often nicknamed the Wilson cycle (probably because of Wilson, 1966), the idea that supercontinent formed cyclically every 440Ma was advanced by Worsley et al. 1984 (see review on the subject by Nance & Murphy 2013).
The mechanism they hypothesize for the breakup of the supercontinent is the mantle heat flow accumulating below the supercontinent while the formation of the supercontinents are bound by the cooling effect on the density of the oceanic lithosphere (see also Nance et al. 1988): so basically, heat accumulate below the insulating supercontinent until it causes it to break up, thus creating rifts and a new oceanic lithosphere, which, with age, cool down and thus become more dense making it more prone to be subducted by the continents (if I understood correctly).
As to "why ca. 450 Ma?" this has probably to do with the cooling speed of the oceanic lithosphere, I would assume.
Another important point: although there are evidences for the existence of a supercontinent breaking-up at 300 Ma (Pangaea), at 750 Ma (Rodinia), at 1.6 Ga (Nuna or Columbia), etc., there are also evidences for an absence of supercontinent at 1.2 Ga (see Pisarevsky et al. 2014), hinting that this cycle is maybe not that regular.

Nance & Murphy, 2013. Origins of the Supercontinent Cycle. Geoscience Frontiers, 4(4): 439-448.
Nance, Worsley & Moody, 1988. The Supercontinent Cycle. Scientific American, 259: 72-79.
Pisarevsky, Wingate, Li, Wang, Tohver & Kirkland, 2014. Age and paleomagnetism of the 1210 Ma Gnowangerup–Fraser dyke swarm, Western Australia, and implications for late Mesoproterozoic paleogeography. Precambrian Research, 246: 1-15.
Wilson, 1966. Did the Atlantic close and then re-open?. Nature, 211: 676-681.
Worsley, Nance & Moody, 1984. Global Tectonics and Eustasy for the past 2 billion years. Marine Geology, 58: 373-400.

  • $\begingroup$ Any why should it be regular? :-) Also as the continents grow, wouldn't the cycle slowly get shorter? $\endgroup$
    – winwaed
    Aug 29, 2014 at 13:41
  • $\begingroup$ Well according to Hawkesworth & Kemp 2006, by 2 Ga, most of the continental crust was already formed, so the growth of the continents during the Proterozoic and the Phanerozoic maybe didn't affect it that much (but once again, i'm not expert enough to be able to really judge that). Plus you have certainly to account for erosion. I'm not sure the continents really grow, in the end. $\endgroup$
    – plannapus
    Aug 29, 2014 at 13:49
  • $\begingroup$ The way I understand it, the length of the "cycle" seem to be more controlled by the cooling speed of the oceanic lithosphere and the time it takes for the heat beneath the supercontinent to reach a critical level, so i'm not sure the volume of the continent itself is really a direct variable. Maybe one of the geophysicist around could help explaining that. $\endgroup$
    – plannapus
    Aug 29, 2014 at 14:02
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @plannapus Although I tend to agree with the Hawkesworth and Kemp, 2006 paper, bear in mind that the growth rate of the continental crust through time is a hotly debated subject. $\endgroup$
    – bon
    Nov 25, 2018 at 18:03

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