• The plate tectonic theory says that Earth’s surface is made up of slabs of rock that are slowly shifting right under our feet.
  • Because of this constant movement, today’s Earth looks a lot different from what it did millions of years ago.
  • In 1912, German scientist Alfred Wegener proposed that Earth’s continents once formed a single, giant landmass, called Pangaea.
  • Over millions of years, Pangaea slowly broke apart, eventually forming the continents as they are today.
  • The video below shows how this happened over one billion years.

1 billion years of tectonic plate movement in 40 seconds

According to plate tectonic theory, the Earth’s surface is made up of slabs of rock that are slowly shifting right under our feet.

Because of this constant movement, today’s Earth looks a lot different from what it did millions of years ago. Today’s animation looks at the Earth’s tectonic plate movement from 1 ga (geological time for 1 billion years ago) to the present-day, via EarthByte on YouTube.

Editor’s note: The video starts at time 1,000 ma (1,000 million years ago), and ticks down at the rate of about 25 million years every second.

The emergence of plate tectonic theory

Plate tectonics is a relatively new theory—in fact, according to National Geographic, it hadn’t become popular until the 1960s. However, the concept of continental movement was brewing long before it became widely accepted.

In 1912, German scientist Alfred Wegener proposed a theory he called continental drift. According to Wegener’s theory, Earth’s continents once formed a single, giant landmass, which he called Pangaea.

Over millions of years, Pangaea slowly broke apart, eventually forming the continents as they are today. Wegener believed this continental drift explained why the borders of South America and Africa looked like matching puzzle pieces. He also pointed to similar rock formations and fossils on these two continents as proof to back his theory.

Initially, the scientific community wasn’t on board with the theory of continental drift. But as more data emerged over the years, including research on seafloor spreading, the theory started to gain traction.

The supercontinent cycle

Nowadays, it’s believed that Pangea was just one of several supercontinents to mass together (and break apart) over the course of geological history.

The exact number of supercontinents is largely debated, but according to the Encylopedia of Geology, here are five (including Pangea) that are widely recognized:

Kenorland: 2.7-2.5 billion years ago

Nuna/Columbia: 1.6-1.4 billion years ago

Rodinia: 950–800 million years ago

Pannotia: 620-580 million years ago

Pangea: 325-175 million years ago

According to the theory, this cycle of breaking apart and coming together happens because of subduction, which occurs when tectonic plates converge with one another.

The supercontinent cycle also ties into ocean formation. The below example of the Wilson Cycle specifically keys in on how the Atlantic Ocean, and its predecessor, the Iapetus Ocean, were formed as supercontinents drifted apart:

a chart showing the different supercontinents and when they were formed
Pangea was just one of several supercontinents to mass together (and break apart) over the course of geological history.
Image: Visual Capitalist

The importance of plate tectonics

Plate tectonics has been a game-changer for geologists. The theory has helped to explain tons of unanswered geological questions, assisting scientists in understanding how volcanoes, mountains, and ocean ridges are formed.

Saving the planet

What is the World Economic Forum doing around the issue of deep-sea mining?

Minerals critical to the clean energy transition have been found in the deep ocean floor. These include cobalt, lithium, copper, nickel, manganese and zinc that are used in batteries for electric vehicle and portable electronics, electronic appliances, energy generation and many other aspects of our daily lives.

Deep-sea mining could offer lower financial cost and a lighter carbon footprint than conventional terrestrial sources of these minerals; it also has the potential to significantly harm one of the last natural wildernesses on our plant. In this relatively young sector, scientific knowledge is still being built on the potential impact of the industry, and the effectiveness of the proposed management methods. As the date for decisions on permitting deep-sea mining contracts gets closer, a fierce debate is emerging on if and how mining should take place. The need for a platform to host a balanced exchange on the issue has become evident.

The World Economic Forum’s Platform for Shaping the Future of Global Public Goods has the Deep-Sea Mining Dialogue, an impartial platform that allows different stakeholders to share their knowledge and perspective on the topic and participate in an evidence-based discourse. The Dialogue invites companies in the metal value chain, manufacturers that use metals, environmental groups, institutes and scientists across different disciplines to come together in a constructive, collaborative and open exchange.

The Dialogue helps inform downstream businesses that use metals in their products about the implications of this potential new source of minerals. The World Economic Forum will be gathering available data and analysis and highlighting critical gaps of existing knowledge to establish a fact-base. Through establishing a framework on responsible metal sourcing, the Dialogue reframes the heated debate on deep-sea mining as a collaborative exploration for a shared vision for the future. The aim is to reach an informed and consensual agreement on the most responsible path forward.

It’s also valuable for the oil and gas industry since it explains how sedimentary basins were created, allowing geologists and engineers to target and locate vast oil reserves.

Since the theory of plate tectonics is relatively new, there’s still a lot to be discovered in this field of research. However, in March 2021, a report was published in Earth-Science Reviews that, for the first time, visualized a continuous plate model that shows how Earth’s plates have shifted over the last billion years.

The video above visualizes this particular report and accurately depicts the Earth’s tectonic plates’ movement or the observed shift in Earth’s tectonic plates over the years.