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Scientists Unravel One Of The Keys To Life On Earth — And It's Right Beneath Your Feet

Leslie Baehr
blue globe.gif

David Bercovici

An idealized version of the earliest plate tectonics. The blue areas are the rigid plates. The red, yellow, and green areas are the boundaries.

Scientists are constantly on a mission to untangle how Earth alone among the planets was able to evolve complex life.

We know that Earth's past internal movements of the tectonic plates under our feet make our planet one-of-a-kind — they trapped carbon dioxide which helped make our planet habitable.

A new study, published in the April 6 issue of the journal Nature, may have figured out the mystery of how these plates formed — and why only Earth has them.

Why plate tectonics is important



These are the Earth's major tectonic plates. The arrows show which way the boundaries are moving.

Plates cover the entire Earth, and their boundaries play an important role in geologic happenings. The movement of these plates atop a thick, fluid "mantle" is known as plate tectonics and is the source of earthquakes and volcanoes. Plates crash together to make mountains, such as the Himalayas. They leave trenches where one slips beneath the other. They make giant rift valleys and ridges when going their separate ways.

The process is actually very important to life on Earth. Several billion years ago, the surface of our Earth began forming into puzzle pieces called plates. This process trapped our atmospheric carbon dioxide into rocks and stabilized our climate, making Earth habitable.

A Mylonite mystery

How this developed has been an enigma for centuries. But one feature present at all plate boundaries was the clue needed to crack the case: a rock called mylonite.

Mylonite has puzzled scientists since at least the late 1800s.  "Their presence is a bit of a mystery," study researcher David Bercovici, of Yale University, told Business Insider. "There are well-known observations of mylonite at all different kinds of plate boundaries and there's been a long debate about what causes them."


Wikimedia Commons/ Woudloper

Mylonite from the Southern Alps

Mylonite is a highly deformed rock, which means it has small grain sizes. Small grain-size equals a weaker rock. Since these rocks occur around all plate boundaries, their deformation and subsequent weakness piqued Bercovici's interest.

"It was a big motivation for developing this theory in the first place," said Bercovici who worked with Yankick Ricard of the Université de Lyon on the study.

How rocks define Earth's plates

Pressure on Hawaiian Track

David Bercovici

Using a set of laws to describe how grains evolve and "many many pages of physics," Bercovici and Ricard were able to calculate how the birth of plate tectonics may have come about. Bercovici began with the idea that, back when Earth was just a ball of hot goo, certain parts of the surface would become cooler than others and sink. These areas were called downwellings. "You can see this happen in a cup of coffee or soup," he said.

Downwellings cause deformation of the sinking material as it bends downward. In the globe to the right, the blue is a sinking area on the Earth's surface, the beginnings of a plate boundary.

"The idea of our model is that if I deform a rock, I'll actually make the grains smaller." Smaller grains equal weaker rock and a weaker rock means it will more easily succumb to future deformations.


David Bercovici

This creates a feedback loop where Earth's slowly cooling crust accumulates weak zones. "And you accumulate enough of these weak zones and you'll eventually get plate boundaries," he said.

In the globe to the right, the sinking from the red globe above has created a convergent boundary — in blue — where plates move together. This pulls on the rest of the Earth's surface, eventually forming a divergent boundary — in red — where plates move away from each other. Once a piece of Earth's surface is enclosed by boundaries, it becomes a moving plate.

On Venus, damaged areas of the crust were never able accumulate into boundaries because it was too hot. The weak zones healed relatively quickly and the planet was never able to develop plate tectonics.

Venus' plates never trapped CO2, never cooled, and the impact on the planet's atmosphere makes it uninhabitable.

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