The theory of plate tectonics is one of the great scientific advances of our age, right up there with Darwin’s theory of evolution and Einstein’s theory of relativity.
The idea that Earth’s outer shell is broken up into giant puzzle pieces, or plates, all gliding atop a kind of conveyor belt of hot, weak rock — here rising up from the underlying mantle, there plunging back into it — explains much about the structure and behavior of our home planet: the mountains and ocean canyons, the earthquakes and volcanoes, the very composition of the air we breathe.
Yet success is no guarantee against a midlife crisis, and so it is that half a century after the basic mechanisms of plate tectonics were first elucidated, geologists are confronting surprising gaps in their understanding of a concept that is truly the bedrock of their profession.
They are sparring over when, exactly, the whole movable plate system began. Is it nearly as ancient as the planet itself — that is, roughly 4.5 billion years old — or a youthful one billion years, or somewhere in between?
They are asking what caused the shell to crack apart in the first place, and how the industrious recycling of Earth’s crust began.
They are comparing Earth with its sister planet, Venus. The two worlds are roughly the same size and built of similar rocky material, yet Earth has plate tectonics and Venus does not. Scientists want to know why.
“In the 1960s and 70s, when people came up with the notion of plate tectonics, they didn’t think about what it was like in the distant past,” said Jun Korenaga, a geophysicist at Yale University.
“People were so busy trying to prove plate tectonics by looking at the present situation, or were caught up applying the concept to problems in their own field. The origin issue is a much more recent debate.”
Researchers also are exploring the link between plate tectonics and the evolution of complex life. Fortuitously timed continental collisions and mountain smackdowns may well have supplied crucial nutrients at key moments of biological inventiveness, like the legendary Cambrian explosion of 500 million years ago, when the ancestors of modern life-forms appeared.