450 million years ago, the capital of the United States was a frozen landmass. Fast forward a few million years, and the area that is now Juneau, Alaska was still connected to the lower 48 states 240 million years ago. These interesting facts may make you wish you could travel back in time and experience the unimaginable evolution of these areas for yourself. If that’s the case, you’re in luck: an interactive tool allows users to zoom in on a specific location and see how it evolved between the Cryogenian Period and the present.
The science and other stuff to know
The interactive map is called Ancient Earth, and it allows users to see how our planet changed over the past 750 million years. This visualization diminishes the political boundaries of our globe with the expanse of time, guiding the human experience through eons of geographical formations and plate movements.
This rendition of Earth, curated by Ian Webster, draws on data from the PALEOMAP Project and the Paleo Database, assembled by more than 400 scientists around the world, to track the evolution of the planet’s land and sea.
Users can search and track a specific address, city, or generalized region over the course of 750 million years by toggling with the left and right arrow keys between 26 timescale options. The interactive map can even jump to different significant periods of interest on Earth’s time scale, such as the extinction of the dinosaurs, the first land animals, and even the Pangea supercontinent. Found in the bottom left corner, the creator added details about the general happenings during each, including the changing atmosphere, mass extinction events, and developments of life.
Earth, 750 million years ago, is an unrecognizable shape; then, seas flowed, mountains shifted, and, eventually, land transformed into the seven continents known today. Visualizations are approximate, yet impressive with the precision of the plate tectonic models.
First coined as Continental Drift by Alfred Wegener, the evidence for the plate tectonic theory lies in identical fossils found across oceans, the puzzling shape of the continental plates, and geologically similar mountain ranges pulled apart, to name a few. Though originally mocked by the scientific community, plate tectonics is now believed to be the driving force behind billions of years of life and its evolution on our planet.
Life is still bursting at the seams of marine trenches where it finds warm areas of relief within the cold ocean deep. Scientists found that evolution and extinction events ebbed and flowed with the levels of trace elements like copper, zinc, selenium, and cobalt in the ancient oceans. Nutrient-rich seas, new dry landforms, and an ideal atmosphere is the trifecta of the evolution of advanced animals.
Plate tectonics regulate the atmosphere’s most important ingredient: oxygen. The movement ignited the spark behind the Cambian explosion, which fed off the new higher oxygen levels. Figuring out this connection could tell scientists if a moveable crust is a prerequisite of life. This could revolutionize the search for extraterrestrial lifeforms on other planets.
Humans experience plate tectonics through earthquakes and volcanoes. This interactive map is a step in the right direction to visualize the Earth’s evolution over unimaginable time scales. Questions still stand about how the plates themselves formed billions of years ago to start this process of continental drift. Hopefully, scientists can soon crack the code of Earth’s moveable crust.