Articles | Volume 8, issue 4
Solid Earth, 8, 817–825, 2017
Solid Earth, 8, 817–825, 2017

Research article 07 Aug 2017

Research article | 07 Aug 2017

Breaking supercontinents; no need to choose between passive or active

Martin Wolstencroft1,2 and J. Huw Davies2 Martin Wolstencroft and J. Huw Davies
  • 1JBA Risk Management, Skipton, BD23 3AE, England, UK
  • 2School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Cardiff University, CF10 3YE, Wales, UK

Abstract. Much debate has centred on whether continental break-up is predominantly caused by active upwelling in the mantle (e.g. plumes) or by long-range extensional stresses in the lithosphere. We propose the hypothesis that global supercontinent break-up events should always involve both. The fundamental principle involved is the conservation of mass within the spherical shell of the mantle, which requires a return flow for any major upwelling beneath a supercontinent. This shallow horizontal return flow away from the locus of upwelling produces extensional stress. We demonstrate this principle with numerical models, which simultaneously exhibit both upwellings and significant lateral flow in the upper mantle. For non-global break-up the impact of the finite geometry of the mantle will be less pronounced, weakening this process. This observation should motivate future studies of continental break-up to explicitly consider the global perspective, even when observations or models are of regional extent.

Short summary
A key aspect of plate tectonics is the periodic assembly and subsequent break-up of supercontinents. There is strong evidence that this has happened repeatedly over geological history, but exactly how a supercontinent breaks up is still debated. In this paper, we use computer modelling of Earth's interior to show that the force needed to break a supercontinent should always arise from a combination of global-scale passive pulling apart and active pushing apart forces driven by the mantle.