Tuesday, November 21, 2006

New Origin for the Appalachian Mountains

Acatlán Complex, southern Mexico: Record spanning the assembly and breakup of Pangea. 2006. R.D. Nance, et al. Geology 34:857–860.
Geologists have developed a new theory to explain how and when the Appalachian Mountain range was created. Their research redraws the map of the planet from 420 million years ago.
From the press release:

The scientists recently discovered a piece of the Appalachian Mountains in southern Mexico, a location geologists long had assumed was part of the North American Cordillera. The Cordillera is a continuous sequence of mountain ranges that includes the Rocky Mountains and stretches from Alaska to Mexico and into South America.


According to the conventional map of 420 million years ago, two main land masses were separated by the Rheic Ocean. In the south sat Gondwana, a supercontinent consisting of South America, Africa, India, Australia and Antarctica. To the north was Laurussia, made up of North America, Greenland, Europe and part of Asia. The old map showed the Acátlan Complex attached to Laurussia. The complex broke off Gondwana about 80 million years earlier, drifted toward North America along with the other land masses, closing an older ocean, known as the Iapetus Ocean, as it did so. The collision created the Appalachian Mountains.

The new map looks rather different. Based on the new evidence the Acatlán Complex collision with Laurussia actually occurred about 120 million years later. The rocks once existed on an ancient ocean floor, but this ocean has proven to be the Rheic, not Iapetus as previously thought.

The explanation, Nance and his fellow authors say, is that the Acatlán Complex was originally attached to Gondwana. Gondwana and the complex eventually slammed into North America, closing the Rheic Ocean in the process. This cataclysmic crunch of continental plates formed the goliath land mass known as Pangea, Nance said, and created the Appalachian Mountains.

“We believe we have found the missing piece of the Rheic suture where Gondwana and North America converged,” said Nance. “All the evidence point to that and, as far as we know, it is the best preserved piece of this puzzle in North America.”