Take a journey back in time with this interactive map of the Earth’s ancient plates
The most detailed map of what the Earth used to look like has been revealed, after scientists mapped 94 ancient tectonic plates hiding under the planet’s surface.
The Earth is made up of a series of layers. The very core of the planet is molten iron, and above this core is a rocky shell called the mantle, which separates the core from the Earth’s crust. The mantle is always moving because hot material near the Earth’s core rises as colder mantle rock sinks.
The outer shell of our planet, the crust, is divided into several plates. Made of lighter rock, but much more hard and rigid, these plates glide over the mantle underneath, and the movement of these plates is described by plate tectonics.
But ancient tectonic plates slide beneath the crust, into the mantle, at places called subduction zones. This is where one plate slides over another, pushing it down. While we know this happens, nobody knew exactly where all the old plates were, until now.
Douwe van der Meer, Douwe van Hinsbergen, and Wim Spakman from Utrecht University, in the Netherlands, catalogued 94 pieces of ancient tectonic plates, called “slabs”. Each slab is described in a new resource they have named “Atlas of the Underworld”, which the team has spent an incredibly long time working on.
“All in all, this was 17 years of work spanning my entire career, and Douwe’s long-term hobby,” van Hinsbergen told Ars Technica. The team hopes the resource will help geologists understand the way the mantle works. “We’re comparing it with the first world atlas—that got many more applications than the makers ever imagined.”
It works as an interactive map with each of the slabs’ positions in the globe shown. When you click on one, it takes you to another page that describes the exact location, age and depth of the slab. For example, the ancient plate closest to the UK is called Rockall, it lies on the core-mantle boundary and was first found in 2010.
The Altas is still expanding. “We have found two more [slabs] in the eastern Mediterranean region. This will be published in the next year and will be added to the Atlas,” said van Hinsbergen. “In the deep mantle below Antarctica, there may be a few extra slabs—our models seem to suggest so and it makes geological sense, but the current tomography models have insufficient resolution to make a convincing case.”