ALBERTA

Atlantic Ocean May Yield to Supercontinent: Report

12/02/2014 01:05 EST | Updated 12/03/2014 06:59 EST
World Perspectives via Getty Images

Here comes the new supercontinent.

There goes the neighbourhood.

That neighbourhood being the Atlantic Ocean -- a 106,400,000-square-kilometre sprawl comprising nearly a third of the planet's surface.

An ascendant supercontinent, apparently, will do that, according to researchers at the University of Alberta.

The study, recently published in Geology, describes the earth-shattering process called subduction -- essentially, how tectonic plates collide, causing one plate to sink beneath another.

Their findings go a long way toward explaining the mysterious disappearance of the Iapetus Ocean somewhere between 600 million and 400 million years ago.

The ancient ocean once lapped up against North America's core, along with what is now the foundations for South America, Africa and Europe. As that core is pulled apart -- a process called rifting that you can thrill to here -- Iapetus was formed.

A supercontinent, dubbed Pangea, was formed in its wake. Pangea came together around 270 million years ago. Only to break apart some 70 million years later.

The question is, where did Iapetus go?

"Most geologists have assumed that the ancient Iapetus Ocean stopped getting wider and started to shrink when subduction somehow spontaneously started up along its margins," notes one of the study authors John Waldron from the University of Alberta.

"Looking at the history of the oceans formed since Pangea, we think that just doesn't happen. It's much more likely that a small plate, like the modern Caribbean, came into the Iapetus from the east, bringing with it many small continental fragments. This helps to explain many odd features of the Appalachian and Caledonide mountain belts that are otherwise very difficult to understand."

A similar process may be taking place in the Atlantic. When a region is in the throes of subduction, the ocean floor rapidly dwindles. Tell-tale signs include earthquakes and volcanoes.

Certainly, the fact that our planet is getting hotter and weirder is a less-than comforting notion.

For oceans in subduction zones, the study authors point out, it's not simply a matter of scooching over for a fresh landmass. If a subduction zone emerged around the Caribbean plate, it would keep devouring the ocean floor, drawing continents together for a rather violent marriage -- and a new supercontinent.

Don't worry, researchers point out, the process will likely take 100 million years. Or, at least, worry less.

In the meantime, go ahead and enjoy another subduction video:

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