Continental drift on a geological timescale

Continental drift on a geological timescale

The Earth's continents have been in constant motion during the history of the planet.



history of the Earth, positions of the continents, continental drift, Panthalassa, Pangea, Laurasia, Gondwana, geologic epoch, Kambrium, Silurian, Devonian period, Carboniferous, Perm, volcanic activity, evolution, continent, Earth, lithosphere, magma, physical geography, geography

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  • Pangea

4.6 billion years ago
The crust solidified as the Earth was cooling down and covered the entire surface. A primary atmosphere was formed from gases escaping from the solidified matter (hydrogen and noble gases). Later these light gases evaporated into interplanetary space.
The planet was temporarily left without an atmosphere; its surface was hit by a multitude of meteorites that created impact craters. The crust melted in the vicinity of impacts which triggered volcanic activity.

3.6 billion years ago
Gases escaping during volcanic activity form the secondary atmosphere of the Earth (water vapor, carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, nitrogen, chlorine, ammonia, methane). Internal forces start to work. The atmosphere temperature's decreased, causing the condensation of water vapor content and the formation of the first oceans. Ascending magma flows under the mantle broke the Earth's crust into several pieces, bringing plate tectonic processes into motion.

3 billion years ago
The first orogeny era.

2.3 bilion years ago
Second orogeny era, formation of massifs.

Cambrian period
Gondwana was situated in the Southern Hemisphere. The northern continent divided into three parts (Baltica, Laurentia and Siberia).

Silurian period
Main period of Caledonian orogeny; Baltica and Laurentia formed a joint continent.

Devonian period
Formation of the pedosphere.

Carboniferous period
The Variscan orogeny took place in two phases: Baltica and Laurentia joined Siberia to form Laurasia, while the collision of Laurasia and Gondwana created the supercontinent Pangea, surrounded by the vast global ocean, Panthalassa.

Jurassic period
The fragmentation of Pangea; the Atlantic Ocean opened and the Alpide and circum-Pacific belts started to form.

Tertiary period
The main period of Pacific orogeny and Eurasian orogeny.

Quaternary period
Pleistocene: main period of glaciation; the most important surface-shaping forces were the destructive and constructive activities of ice sheets and glaciers.

The most important surface-shaping force was the human.

Definitions of terms:

Primary atmosphere: The first atmosphere surrounding the Earth, created from the gases that escaped from the solidifying crust (hydrogen and helium).

Primary ocean: A vast, contiguous body of water in the prehistoric times, created during the cooling of the primary atmosphere. Its water was collected from the heavy rain that fell back from the high humidity atmosphere.

Primary continent: A contiguous supercontinent formed in the Permian period (Pangea), surrounded by a primary ocean (Panthalassa).

Continent: A large, contiguous area of land surrounded by oceans and seas that has an ancient core (massif).

Oceanic basin: A part of the oceanic crust; an undersea geomorphological feature, a vast sedimentary basin. It is created during tectonic movements, by seafloor spreading; its basaltic material is becoming younger towards the oceanic ridges.

  • Archean
  • Paleozoic era, Cambrian period
  • Paleozoic era, Ordovician period
  • Paleozoic era, Carboniferous period
  • Paleozoic era, Permian period


The Earth’s estimated age is 4.6 billion years; this is when its solid crust formed. Magma flows broke up the Earth’s crust into pieces, thus forcing the migration of tectonic plates. Throughout the Earth’s history, the outlines and positions of the continents changed with the migrating tectonic plates.

Stages of the Earth’s history are distinguished with names, similarly to the history of mankind. In order to be able to differentiate the Earth’s periods from that of mankind, the Precambrian, Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cainozoic eras were created. Eras can be further divided into periods, periods into epochs and epochs into ages.

The boundaries of each stage indicate major geological or paleontological events; for example, the end of the Paleozoic era is linked to the fragmentation of Pangea and the Permian-Triassic extinction event, or the great dying.

At the end of the Mesozoic era, 75% of all species became extinct, including dinosaurs.

Each era is characterized by the large-scale appearance of new species and major orogenies. The Caledonian and Variscan mountain belts formed in the Paleozoic era, which was dominated by calcareous animals and arthropods.

The Mesozoic era was the time of dinosaurs and the formation of the Pacific and Eurasian mountain belts, which reached its peak in the Tertiary period of the Cainozoic era. Mammals spread on Earth during the Tertiary period. The Quaternary period of the Cainozoic era is characterized by ice ages. At the end of the last ice age, the flora and fauna we know today were formed.

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