The climatic system can be divided into five main components: the atmosphere, the hydrosphere, the lithosphere, the cryosphere and the biosphere.

All these physical systems operate at different time and spatial scales. The lithosphere, that makes the uppermost, rigid layer of the earth, is formed by a few dozens of tectonic plates that move laterally while resting on the Earth's fluid mantle (plate tectonics). The collision between lithospheric plates builds mountains, and their separation forms ocean basins where sediment is accumulated, on timescales of tens to hundreds of millions of years. Hence, it is considered that its effect on climate change is not on the same timescale as the other components of the system and is not given as much attention.

Despite its low effect on the historical time-scales, undoubtedly, it poses a load on the system. Note that I am not interested on events that can in fact interact with the timescales of other climatic components. For example when land masses ocupied positions near the poles and the effect of the resulting increase in glaciation can be on the same time scale as other non-lithospheric physical phenomena. Nor am I interested in singular volcanic eruptions or activity of that sort.

I am interested in how the processes such as continental drift, mountain growth, and erosion, affect climate evolution.


3 Answers 3


This is a huge and interesting topic. Certainly there are many ways the climate is affected by the lithosphere (and also what is going on in the asthenosphere). The lithosphere is naturally also affected by the climate. I find it difficult to distinguish the 'components' as matter and energy can flow from biosphere to lithosphere and from hydrosphere to atmosphere etc. Somehow it might be appealing to think about lithosphere as a slow 'component' but keep in mind that the atmospheric circulation have been much more stable than the locations of the continents. Deserts have been in the same latitudes, even as continents have been moving.

A few areas of influence to consider:

  • Location of landmasses affects ocean currents and climate e.g. closing of Isthmus of Panama.
  • Supercontinents certainly had a very different climate than what we experience today.
  • Uplifts and orogenies can have local, regional and global effects.
  • Carbonates in the lithosphere plays an important role the carbon cycle. See e.g. this.
  • Rate of vulcanism also follows tectonic conditions.

It's not easily answered, but I think, given the criteria you've laid out, the effects are generally pretty small.

I am not interested on events that can in fact interact with the timescales of other climatic components. For example when land masses ocupied positions near the poles and the effect of the resulting increase in glaciation can be on the same time scale as other non-lithospheric physical phenomena. Nor am I interested in singular volcanic eruptions or activity of that sort. I am interested in how the processes such as continental drift, mountain forming, erosion, affects climate change.

Can I assume that you want to ignore events like the closing of the Isthmus of Panama which may have had a significant climate effect?

It's hard to say with any precision or absolute certainty but I don't think the climate cares much if mountains are growing or shrinking, it cares where the mountains are and how high they are, but the actual movement of plates and continents in and of itself shouldn't have a big effect on climate.

I say that is a few reasons. 1) we've had two significant tectonic events recently, one just off Japan, where Japan moved 3 feet closer to California and there was the huge, devastating tsunami, and that happened at a time when we've been monitoring climate change very closely and I've not seen a single article that suggested that the Japanese earthquake played a key role in 2011's weather, much less long term. Same with the large earthquake off Indonesia and Thailand a few years before, but the 1991 volcanic eruption (Pinatubo) did have a measured climate effect. Here's an article that suggests the same:


The atmosphere and oceans get energy every minute of every day from the inside of the earth, but even during the largest upheavals, there's no clear change in climate for the single year, much less long term. Volcanoes which release a lot of heat into the atmosphere have a cooling effect, not a warming effect, because of particulates and sulfates that block sunlight following the Volcano - so I have a hard time seeing that heat or movement from the earth directly effects climate.

It's worth noting that particular events can impact climate - like the Isthmus of Panama, mentioned in the other answer, or this one, below. which was far more sudden than the formation of the Isthmus of Panama, though the effect was also smaller and perhaps temporary.


and while the Isthmus of Panama is often credited for the beginning of the ice age cycle, it's worth noting that the Himalayas are quite young. I couldn't find an exact date, but they began growing about 10 million years ago and may have had a significant effect on climate over the last 5 million years as well. So, specific events, like the drifting of Antarctica over the south pole (30 million years ago), the crashing of India into Asia (10 million years ago) and the separation of the Atlantic and Pacific by the land bridge in Panama (3 million years ago), each may have had significant climate effects, but the general movement of continental plates and gradual rising of mountains in and of itself, I don't see why that would affect climate much.

The fastest and most significant recent changes to the shape and altitude of land isn't the growth or erosion of mountains at all, but it's glaciers. Half of North America being covered in 1.5 miles of ice likely had a significant effect on climate, not just because of albedo but also, that much change in altitude over so much land effects weather patterns and probobly global climate too. (see article below).


Finally, my skepticism that gradual changes in plate movement and mountain growth or erosion effects climate is because there's no good evidence that it does, at least not short term. Changes over millions of years - yes. But on a smaller scale, I don't see it. Certainly changes can take much less than millions of years if there's a specific bottleneck that's either formed or undone, like the Isthmus of Panama, or, the black sea deluge / expansion (possibly the flood of Noah and Gilgamesh), which was likely due to the breaking of a natural dam, though I'm not sure if that one truly affected global climate. An earthquake will make a few very big waves but it won't change ocean currents, unless it creates a blockade or opens up a major spillway of some kind.

Changes in climate over the last 2.5 million years have been linked to orbital cycles, changes in CO2, the occasional very big volcano (more temporary), and, to a smaller extent, oceanic cycles and solar minimums, and there's some geological evidence of the occasional, fairly quick climate change without clear cause, but as far as I know, there's no good evidence that changes in tectonic forces drive climate over the short term. Over millions of years - yes, over the shorter term, probobly not.

Mega our outburst floods might have some effect on climate, but those are pretty significant events, easily comparable to a very large volcano and no outburst floods have happened in the last 7,000 years or so. It's also worth pointing out that while there's no likeliness that one will happen soon, we could see an outburst flood at some point in the next century or millennia, as a result of man made climate change.


I also thought this was interesting, though it's not clear what effect it had on climate: http://phys.org/news179598629.html

And, granted, my answer is speculative, but I'm not sure there is an exact answer to this that isn't somewhat speculative. Hope that wasn't too long and confusing. :-)


The timing of events in the lithosphere is not necesarily as large as tens to hundreds of millions of years (10s-100s My), and much shorter time scales also apply.

Few examples, from short to long time scales:

Several thousands of years (ky) is all that took to reflood the whole Mediterranean Sea, after tectonic opening of the Gibraltar stretch (I bet you know this one... XD García-Castellanos et al, Nature 2009), ceasing a 100's-ky long period in which the Mediterranean was desiccated, also due to tectonics. One can think that these are just two events in one place, but considering that we get to know about it because is recent(!) [~5 Mya], and occured in an area where research efforts are way larger than in most other areas of the globe, it's easy to see that there are surely many other similar events in time and space.

Other example could be that of the tectonic uplift forces (mountain growth), which drive river drainage reorganization (drainage divide migration), and hence changing in enviroments and biocommunities in 10s ky scales (Willett et al, Science 2015). Floral evolution change climate at meso- to regional scales.

The motion of the tectonic plates is slow (mm/yr) but changes in their motions happen relatively fast (10s ky), and this affects the dynamics of ocean and atmospheric circulation, hence climate. Opening/closing specific regions forces ocean water circulation changes, or albedo contrasts, both in turn changing the atmospheric dynamics.

Another example could be the changes in atmospheric dynamics due to the growth of the Andes (Hoorn et al, Science 2010), or the changes in the Asian Monsoon dynamics (large intensification in My time-scales) due to growth of the Tibet (Clift et al, GeoSocSpPubl 2010) [which didn't happened at ~10Ma, as said in one of the answers]. The growth of a mountain might be slow, but not so the time-frame in which the orogen passes the threshold of relevantly affecting atmospheric circulation.

If we go to larger time scales, subduction processes, one tectonic plate going under another, leads to the formation of volcanic chains, and hence increases in gas emissions, with well known climatic effects. An example would be the initiation of subduction in the W coast of S America, which created the volcanic chain in the Andes... Just think about all those new volcanos starting to go off around the same time periods.

Lately, there are proposals that subducting oceanic (lithospheric) slabs, when passing down deeper than the 660km-depth boundary (not always the case), change the scale at which mantle convective circulation occurs, which in turn creates oceanic mid-ocean ridges, and eventually, new oceans. This is very much under debate, but I wanted to conclude with a very large time-scale event affecting climate...

These are just few examples, which I find more representative and easy to visualise, but there are plenty more, such as glaciar-related ones mentioned in another answer. Now think about all these effects happening coevally in different parts of the globe, and you'll easily understand the (huge!) influence of the lithosphere component on climate at all time scales.

In any case, I think the right mind-set is that, although the processes are slow when comparing to climatic dynamics, they reach thresholds (in "short" periods of time) that completely change the Earth System, including climate.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thanks for offering an answer. It will be more useful to others, I think, with some references or at least links. Specific examples and pictures help too. Bullet lists can help you avoid a 'wall of text'. Lastly, there's no need for the introductory preamble — you can just get straight to answering the question as directly as you can. Cheers! $\endgroup$
    – Matt Hall
    Nov 8, 2015 at 17:09
  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for the good advises - first time here. I thought about the links, but didn't want to put that much time. Will do eventually. $\endgroup$
    – Ge0Da
    Nov 8, 2015 at 17:15

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