What is Pangaea? - Theory & Definition

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  • 0:05 Origin of the Continents
  • 2:50 What Are Supercontinents?
  • 4:09 Continents in Pangaea
  • 5:22 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Peter Jaeger

Pete currently teaches middle school Science, college level introductory Science, and has a master's degree in Environmental Education.

The continents you know have existed for a long time, but not in their current locations. In fact, over 200 million years ago Pangaea broke apart by plate tectonic movement to form the continents we see today.

Origin of the Continents

Have the continents always been where they currently are? If the coastlines slowly erode, the continents must have been much bigger. How big were they? Why do some of the coastlines look like they could fit together? The answers to these questions are all found in something called Pangaea. Pangaea, its definition and its relevance to the current continents are the subject of this lesson.

As far back as the 1600s, people studying maps have noticed that the coastlines of the continents had some interesting similarities. In studying them, particularly the coastline of South America and Africa, it looked like the two continents could fit together, implying that they were joined at one time in the distant past. This was a revolutionary thought because the accepted theory of the continents was that they were stationary and constant. There was no evidence other than the similarities of the coastlines to support such a radical theory.

In 1911, a German meteorologist named Alfred Wegener began looking for additional evidence to support the idea that the continents might actually move around on the earth's surface. He discovered many scientific papers that described puzzling data that did not seem to fit the accepted model of stationary continents.

One observation was that geologists, scientists that study the earth, noticed that rocks of similar type and formation existed in Canada and in Scandinavia as well as other locations. Other geologists found fossils, or evidence and remains of once-living organisms, of the same plants and animals on widely separated continents, sometimes in locations where they never could have existed, such as tropical plant fossils in Antarctica.

Still other scientists noted that similar deposits left behind by glaciers also appeared on different continents like Africa and South America. In the current model of stationary earth surface, this data did not make much sense because there was no theory that adequately explained how continents separated by great distances and vast oceans could produce these similarities. So, in 1915, Wegener published a new book called The Origin of Continents and Oceans, where he proposed a radical new theory - that the continents were connected at one time in Earth's history and have drifted to their present location.

His theory, known as continental drift, also stated that the continents were still moving today. Even though his ideas were not initially accepted by most geologists, even with the support of his observations and explanations, his theory was eventually accepted when a mechanism for plate movement was explained in the 1950s and '60s.

What Are Supercontinents?

In Wegener's model, he proposed that the continents were all joined at one time in Earth's history, making a supercontinent. A supercontinent is a giant landmass made up of many or all continents. He proposed this because if you assume the continents are moving, then continents would be colliding and pulling apart.

In 1927, his proposed supercontinent was named Pangaea, which means 'whole earth', and scientists still believe that Pangaea was the most recent supercontinent in the earth's history, existing about 225 million years ago.

As more information was discovered about the earth, they realized that the continents are part of large pieces of the earth's crust known as tectonic plates. These tectonic plates are the pieces of the crust that move around on the earth, pushing together, pulling apart and sliding past each other - and those movements are known as plate tectonics.

Many scientists believe that there have been several supercontinents before Pangaea, and there probably will continue to be supercontinents in the far future. Some scientists consider the continents of Europe and Asia a supercontinent because they currently exist as one landmass and are separated only by the Ural Mountains, which were formed by the two landmasses colliding.

Continents in Pangaea

The continents were once joined in the supercontinent Pangaea

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