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There have been three major phases in the break-up of Pangaea. The first phase began in the Early-Middle Jurassic (about 175 Ma), when Pangaea began to rift from the Tethys Ocean in the east to the Pacific in the west. The rifting that took place between North America and Africa produced multiple failed rifts. One rift resulted in a new ocean, the North Atlantic Ocean.

The Atlantic Ocean did not open uniformly; rifting began in the north-central Atlantic. The South Atlantic did not open until the Cretaceous when Laurasia started to rotate clockwise and moved northward with North America to the north, and Eurasia to the south. The clockwise motion of Laurasia led much later to the closing of the Tethys Ocean and the widening of the “Sinus Borealis”, which later became the Arctic Ocean. Meanwhile, on the other side of Africa and along the adjacent margins of east Africa, Antarctica and Madagascar, new rifts were forming that would lead to the formation of the southwestern Indian Ocean that would open up in the Cretaceous.

The second major phase in the break-up of Pangaea began in the Early Cretaceous (150–140 Ma), when the minor supercontinent of Gondwana separated into multiple continents (Africa, South America, India, Antarctica, and Australia). The subduction at Tethyan Trench probably caused Africa, India and Australia to move northward, causing the opening of a “South Indian Ocean”. In the Early Cretaceous, Atlantica, today’s South America and Africa, finally separated from eastern Gondwana (Antarctica, India and Australia). Then in the Middle Cretaceous, Gondwana fragmented to open up the South Atlantic Ocean as South America started to move westward away from Africa. The South Atlantic did not develop uniformly; rather, it rifted from south to north.

Also, at the same time, Madagascar and India began to separate from Antarctica and moved northward, opening up the Indian Ocean. Madagascar and India separated from each other 100–90 Ma in the Late Cretaceous. India continued to move northward toward Eurasia at 15 centimeters (6 in) a year (a plate tectonic record), closing the eastern Tethys Ocean, while Madagascar stopped and became locked to the African Plate. New Zealand, New Caledonia and the rest of Zealandia began to separate from Australia, moving eastward toward the Pacific and opening the Coral Sea and Tasman Sea.

The third major and final phase of the break-up of Pangaea occurred in the early Cenozoic (Paleocene to Oligocene). Laurasia split when North America/Greenland (also called Laurentia) broke free from Eurasia, opening the Norwegian Sea about 60–55 Ma. The Atlantic and Indian Oceans continued to expand, closing the Tethys Ocean.

Meanwhile, Australia split from Antarctica and moved quickly northward, just as India had done more than 40 million years before. Australia is currently on a collision course with eastern Asia. Both Australia and India are currently moving northeast at 5–6 centimeters (2–3 in) a year. Antarctica has been near or at the South Pole since the formation of Pangaea about 280 Ma. India started to collide with Asia beginning about 35 Ma, forming the Himalayan orogeny, and also finally closing the Tethys Seaway; this collision continues today. The African Plate started to change directions, from west to northwest toward Europe, and South America began to move in a northward direction, separating it from Antarctica and allowing complete oceanic circulation around Antarctica for the first time. This motion, together with decreasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, caused a rapid cooling of Antarctica and allowed glaciers to form. This glaciation eventually coalesced into the kilometers-thick ice sheets seen today. Other major events took place during the Cenozoic, including the opening of the Gulf of California, the uplift of the Alps, and the opening of the Sea of Japan. The break-up of Pangaea continues today in the Red Sea Rift and East African Rift.

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