Science -- Your Future, Scotland's Future
SCI-FUN Roadshow Exhibits -- Pangaea: Solving the Mystery
SCI-FUN Roadshow Exhibits -- Pangaea: Solving the Mystery
In this exhibit you learn about how our continents have moved across the Earth over the past 200 million years.

We are all very familiar with the Earth as it looks today, but it hasn’t always looked like that. 200 million years ago, the continents were all joined together in one big super-continent called Pangaea. (It wasn’t called Pangaea then: there were no people then so it didn’t really have a name modern scientists chose the name.)

Pangaea isn’t the only super-continent that has ever existed. Over the Earth’s history different super-continents have formed and broken up to be followed by another super-continent forming and breaking up. Pangaea was the most recent super-continent. Before Pangaea there was Pannotia (600 million years ago), and before that Rodinia (one billion years ago), and before that Nuna (1.5 billion years ago).

In between the formation of super-continents, smaller continents occur. At the moment we have North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Antarctica, Australia and India (India is now joined onto Eurasia and is often called a “sub-continent”). These all formed when Pangaea broke apart, then drifted into their current locations. We can see the effects of moving continents at the Himalayan mountain range, where Mount Everest is. The Himalayas formed when India collided with Eurasia, forcing the ground up into the spectacular mountains we can see today.

Scientists predict that the next super-continent could form 250 million years in the future. The Americas are creeping west, narrowing the Pacific Ocean and widening the Atlantic Ocean. This could continue, leading the Americas to eventually collide with Asia, or this could reverse, and the Americas could move back towards Europe and Africa, reforming something similar to Pangaea.

Of course by then, the Earth will be a very different place. Most of the animals and plants around today will be extinct – including us. Humans will never know what happens to the Earth: we can only guess.

Pangaea: solving the mysteries

If you click on the description board image above, you can read about some of the odd things that had been discovered about the arrangement of the continents, before it was realised that they had actually moved over the course of hundreds of millions of years.

The images below show you (using the pieces in our exhibit) the arrangement of the continents today, as well as the way in which the continents were grouped as Pangaea, about 240 million years ago.

SCI-FUN Exhibits -- Pangaea: Solving the Mystery: Today
1) Above: the Earth's continents today: patterns of glaciation, mountain building and species location are separated and confusing... (Click above for a larger image.)
SCI-FUN Exhibits -- Pangaea: Solving the Mystery: 240m years ago
2) Above: the continents as they were arranged aroung 240 million years ago, clustered around the South pole. Now the patterns of the glaciers, mountains and species make more sense. (Click above for a larger image.)

Not only were the continents joined together, but they were all grouped over the South Pole (marked on the images), which explains why the glaciers formed the way they did, and why traces of their effects were found on each of the modern-day contintents.

1 The continents were all joined together in one big super-_________ called Pangaea.
2 Other than Pangaea, name one other super-continent.
3 Which two continents collided to produce the Himalayas?
4 When might the next super-continent form?
5 Which direction are North and South America currently moving in?
6 The dinosaurs appeared on Earth after Pangaea. What kind of animals do you think might evolve before the next super-continent occurs?

1 Take a hard-boiled egg (about 5 min in boiling water on the hob then allow to cool) and crack the shell. Now slide the pieces of shell around the surface of the egg. These shell pieces are like the continents moving about the Earth. When you push two together, they raise up, forming a mountain range. When you pull two apart, you make a gap, exposing the “mantle” beneath.
2 Continents are said to move at the speed that your fingernails grow. Cut your fingernails then measure them with a ruler every day for a week to find out how fast they grow (of course this won’t work if you cut, break or bite them in that time). At that speed, how far would a continent move in a year, in a century or in a million years?