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Does continental drift affect the climate?

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They may move imperceptibly slowly, but shifting continents have been responsible for massive climate upheavals throughout Earth’s history.

Asked by: Tamara Simmons, Lincoln


Propelled by the circulating heat of the Earth’s interior, the vast rocky plates forming the crust move barely a few centimetres a year. Yet over time they have had a profound influence on the Earth’s climate.

Today’s continents were once part of a huge supercontinent known as Pangaea, which began to break apart around 175 million years ago. At the time, the planet was much warmer than today, but the fragmentation of Pangaea led to massive changes in land distribution and ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns, triggering radical climate change.

Collisions between plates have triggered further change. For example, around 35 million years ago the plate carrying modern-day India started pushing under the Asia plate to create the Himalayas, which affect global wind patterns and drive the monsoon season to this day.

Geological faults can clearly be seen on this rocky outcrop in Devon.

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Robert is a science writer and visiting professor of science at Aston University.


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