It appears that North America and Asia are on a collision course to link up as a single, unified supercontinent in the next hundred million years, according to new research from Yale geologists — but not in quite the same way other scientists have predicted. The findings are published in the journal Nature. Here's a quick look at the dominant landmass of the distant future, "Amasia."
What are supercontinents?
They're extraordinarily large landmasses that scientists hypothesize existed hundreds of millions of years ago. Experts can pinpoint at least three supercontinents in Earth's history, says Alan Boyle at MSNBC: "Pangaea, which goes back 300 million years; Rodinia, which dates to roughly 1 billion years ago; and Nuna, which existed about 1.8 billion years ago."
How are they created?
The seven continents we know today are moving (and always have been), thanks to slow-shifting tectonic plates underneath the planet's surface. "The land masses of the earth are constantly moving as the earth's tectonic activity occurs," says Neil Bowdler at BBC News. The plates creep underneath the planet's surface and are responsible for creating areas like "the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where Iceland has formed, and areas such as that off the coast of Japan, where one plate rides over another."
What is new about this theory on Amasia?
Geologists first predicted the formation of Amasia in the 1990s. Looking at the geology of mountain ranges, they figured the next supercontinent would come together with either the Pacific closing up, or the Atlantic (which would put a supercontinent right where Pangaea was). But the Yale researchers examined the magnetism of rocks to figure out how they had moved around the globe over time, and concluded that a supercontinent forms at a 90-degree angle from the one that preceded it. So while the older theories put Amasia along the equator, the Yale model suggests that Asia and the Americas will intersect over the Arctic, at a 90-degree angle to where Pangaea was. In theory, "someone could walk from the U.S. to China and say, 'Hi, neighbor.'"
And what of the remaining continents?
Eventually, Europe, Africa, and Australia are all predicted to join the giant landmass, with only Antarctica left out. As for humans? Says Yale geologist Ross Mitchell: "I would be quite surprised if humans lasted long enough to see the next supercontinent come to fruition. The truth is that none of the present scientific community will be around 100 million years from now to test these models."