From Pangaea to Present: the Story of Continental Formations

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The seven continents that we have today were once all connected. A handful of theories of how this occurred have been advanced. The most recognizable theory was put forward by German geologist Alfred Wegener in the early 20th Century. Wegener theorized that the world's land was all one large supercontinent 200 million years ago. He named this supercontinent Pangaea, which is Greek for All-earth.

Pangaea existed for many, many years, during which time the animals on the planet could roam from the North Pole to the South Pole without taking their whole lives to do it. This is why we see dinosaur fossils in the middle of North American deserts that match those found in other parts of the world now very far away.

After a time, Pangaea broke into two smaller yet very large continents, Laurasia (the northern one) and Gondwanaland (the southern one). Laurasia looked sort of like a combination of the continents now found north of the Equator: North America, Europe, and the northern part of Asia. Gondwanaland looked suspiciously like the continents found south of the equator: South America, Africa, Oceania, Antarctica, and southern Asia.

Another good bit of time later, the two large landmasses broke apart into the seven continents that we have today. This completed what Wegener called Continental Drift.

This giant breakup occurred in stages over many years. Some highlights:

  • North America and South America became connected but broke away from Europe and Africa.
  • Greenland broke away from both North American and Europe.
  • A large body of water formed in between Europe and Africa and remains to this day: the Mediterranean Sea.
  • Africa remained connected to Asia but just barely, via the Middle East.
  • Australia, New Zealand, India, Ceylon, and Madagascar broke away from Antarctica and made their own way northward, with varying degrees of drift. India moved the most, eventually slamming into the southern part of Asia and forming the Himalaya Mountains.
  • Various ice ages and other small continental drifts created the many islands of Indonesia and the islands that dot the Pacific Ocean.

The continents continue to drift today, although their movements are very much slower than before.

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David White